Politics & Government

Students transfer out of failing schools

Though school is in full swing, students at some of the Triangle's best schools shouldn't get used to their classes just yet.

Hundreds of students from lower-performing elementary schools are still transferring to better schools for the 2008-09 school year, and this could cause many elementary students to change classes and teachers again in the next few weeks.

The transfer process is required every year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, so that students don't get stuck at historically poor, low-performing schools.

But the last-minute nature of the transfers, dictated by preliminary test scores released in July, is causing principals to scramble to spread out crowded students, establish new classes and hire teachers. Some parents are complaining.

"I don't necessarily think it's fair for students in their own school districts to have to be moved around for students coming from other schools," said Susan Pittman, a parent of two students at Durham's Little River Elementary School, to which 146 students from other schools have transferred this year, putting the school 45 students over its capacity.

Principals and district officials are trying to keep the transition smooth. But when school performance continues to drop, districts don't have much wiggle room under the law.

"We don't really have a choice," said Stacey Wilson-Norman, who oversees elementary schools in Durham. "It's just part of the legislation."

The schools that must offer transfers are known as Title I schools -- or those that receive money from the federal government because at least 35 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized lunches. Because federal money is used at these schools for extra support -- as much as $8.5 million annually in Durham alone -- the government has specific goals for the schools, including ensuring that students of various ethnic groups are making progress.

Though the federal government looks at the same standardized tests that the state uses to evaluate schools, standards differ. The divisions between the systems have caused confusion and skepticism about what constitutes progress. Schools can perform well by the state's definition and still fail to meet the federal goals.

But as it stands, the 2001 No Child Left Behind law dictates that if a Title I school falls short of federal goals two or more years, it must allow pupils to transfer to schools with better scores.

Record number

A record 14 elementary schools in Wake County had to offer transfers this year. So far, 338 students have requested transfers, a fraction of those eligible.

The district expects the number to grow, as families have until Friday to decide whether they want to change.

In Johnston County, four elementary schools had to offer the transfers, and about 175 students, or 7 percent of those eligible, took the option.

Molly Powell, parent of two students at Cooper Elementary School in Clayton, chose to stay at her school. She and other families who stay at schools that don't make adequate yearly progress must be offered free tutoring, under federal law.

Powell said she's confident her children, in the second and fifth grades, are receiving excellent educations.

"My husband and I opened the (transfer) letters, looked and saw what it was about, and put it in the shredder," Powell said.

In Durham, 14 Title I elementary schools are facing federal sanctions, including having to offer transfers.

When considering schools with top scores and the room to accommodate students, there were only two choices to send transfers to -- Little River and Mangum elementary schools, Wilson-Norman said. Both are in northern Durham county, out of the way for many residents. But both are desirable schools, having earned "high growth" marks last year in end-of-grade math tests.

But having only two schools to accommodate the 183 transfers has resulted in crowding. Mangum received just 37 transfers and hasn't had to add any teachers -- but it is now about 130 students above capacity.

Little River is seeing the most crowding. Principal Thomas Seckler said the school is hiring three new teachers, and new classes will be formed for kindergarten, first and third grades in the next week.

This would mean Carson Holland, 5, could change kindergarten classes. His mother, Anna Holland, said it was a task just getting nerve-racked Carson into the car Monday morning so he could meet his current class at Little River.

Changing classes again would be trying, she said.

"These classes will be broken up after they've already started, and that's not good for the kids," Anna Holland said. "You get them in, and settle them. Then you disrupt it again, and we have to explain to a child why he's no longer in his friend's class."

With a history of high test scores, Little River has received an influx of Title I transfers in the past, Seckler said.

Parents have been supportive during inevitable changes.

"They understand the reasons for the growth," Seckler said Monday. "After the first couple of weeks, everything settles out."