D.C. Students Find Few Options For Transfers

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Even in a city that boasts a booming charter school network and a new private-school-voucher program, District of Columbia parents had few choices when it came to transferring their children to better-performing schools for the new academic year.

Roughly 33,000 children—more than half the 64,000-student school district’s enrollment—were eligible to leave the 68 Washington schools that failed to make student-achievement targets required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But by the time the Aug. 21 deadline passed, only 106 students had applied for transfers.

Despite the paucity of alternatives and the complexity of the transfer process, DC ParentSmart, a federally financed parent-information and resource center, attempted to wade through school data to help parents find the right fit for their children.

The effort, which is underwritten by a 30- month, $1.5 million federal grant to help parents understand their rights under the education law, is administered by the Public Charter Schools Center for Student Support Services. The Washington-based nonprofit organization helps charter schools here integrate child- and youth-development and mental-health services and supports teacher training.

"It’s touchy," said Christina Bradley, the coordinator of DC ParentSmart’s call center, which was set up as a resource for parents in July. "We’re not telling parents that this school is ‘bad.’ We’re breaking the process down into steps for parents."

Lack of Space

Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools receiving Title I money that fail to reach state goals for adequate yearly progress for two years must allow students to transfer to schools that have made that mark.

Kristen Williams, right, and Rasha Qumsiyeh answer phones at the office of DC ParentSmart, a federally funded effort to help families learn about options for better schools under the No Child Left Behind law.
Kristen Williams, right, and Rasha Qumsiyeh answer phones at the office of DC ParentSmart, a federally funded effort to help families learn about options for better schools under the No Child Left Behind law.
—Photo by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The problem here in the nation’s capital, as has been the case in many city districts nationwide, was a lack of seats in schools that had made their achievement goals. Every District of Columbia high school without entrance requirements failed to make the grade. One middle school hit the mark, but its classroom seats were full.

In all, 900 seats were open for transfers, but only at elementary schools. At that education level, schools that failed to make adequate progress were each matched with two others that did reach the mark.

Parents weren’t notified about the opportunity to transfer under the federal law until August, after the results of spring testing revealed how schools had performed. Navigating the options—or lack of options—during the two-week application period for transfers from low-performing schools last month proved frustrating, even for DC ParentSmart employees.

"We didn’t want to mislead parents with too much hope," said Eve E. Brooks, the executive director of the Center for Student Support Services.

For the most part, parents weren’t allowed to enroll their children in schools outside their attendance zones. Applications were due in February for the district’s "out of boundary" transfer program. (About 1,800 out-of-boundary transfers were approved out of 6,000 applications.)

In addition, the deadlines to apply for Washington’s new federally financed voucher program and existing private scholarship programs also had passed. Up to 1,250 students could use vouchers to attend private schools this fall.

That left charter schools, which also started their application process earlier in the year, as one of the few alternatives for parents. The city will have 38 charter schools, enrolling about 18,000 students, this year. But the few charter schools that met the federal achievement goals had waiting lists. Classroom seats were scarce even in those charter schools that failed to meet the academic benchmarks.

Although the number of families that applied for transfers this summer was low, Ms. Bradley of DC ParentSmart said she thought many parents were enrolling their children in charter schools. Enrollment in charter schools is projected to climb by about 4,000 students this year.

"There’s almost no point in telling people that they have that right [to transfer]," Ms. Bradley said. "Because they don’t—unless they go to charter schools."

Ralph H. Neal, the District of Columbia’s assistant superintendent for student and school support services, said he doesn’t believe that the lack of transfer options will boost charter schools’ enrollment. The school system loses about 1,000 students annually to charter schools, he said, but by year’s end, 500 of those students return.

The school district sent detailed information to the homes of the 33,000 students attending low-performing schools. But Mr. Neal acknowledged that parents who were most likely to request transfers—those with children in secondary schools—had no options. Parents of elementary-age children are more reluctant to change schools, he added.

Some parents’ frustration with the transfer-application process could be linked to the mixed messages from organizations seeking to help them, Mr. Neal said. Nationwide, many of the groups receiving federal money to help parents with aspects of the No Child Left Behind law are proponents of school choice.

"It’s unclear what the motives are of these groups," he said. "I’m sure their intentions are good, but their execution might be flawed."

Although the Center for Student Support Services has strong ties to charter schools, Ms. Brooks said DC ParentSmart is not an adversary of the school district.

Tabitha Meadors, the director of DC ParentSmart, was quick to caution: "The purpose of the call center is not to try to push charters down parents’ throats."

Ringing Phones

In a fourth-floor office above a souvenir store here in August, three college-age women sat elbow to elbow in front of computer screens, waiting to field parents’ questions in the DC ParentSmart office.

It wasn’t long before the telephones began to ring. One parent needed help getting an individualized education plan for her teenager. A mother wanted mathematics tutoring for her child who attends a charter school.

"We try to give them another phone number, at the very least," Molly Soloway said in between answering calls. Often, the center supplies more than telephone numbers: Ms. Soloway calculated a student’s commute time to a charter school for one parent.

Parents were alerted to the center’s services by a direct-call campaign, print and radio advertisements, fliers, and community meetings and visits. The center reports having received some 900 calls.

The call center’s office walls are papered with lists showing the academic status of every charter school and regular public school in Washington, along with any vacant seats. A large map highlights school locations. Staff members, who answer calls in English and Spanish, refer to test scores to examine a school’s academic performance against a student’s particular needs.

"No, no, no," Brittany Shelton, a center worker, told one caller. "Charter schools are open to all students."

Later in the call, Ms. Shelton delivered the bottom line: "Those are the only schools that have openings for the grade levels you need."

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 6

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as D.C. Students Find Few Options For Transfers
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