city families accept transfers to better schools
U.S. law requires option, but many parents wary
by Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun, July 10, 2003
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Last summer, Tara L. Jackson was worried about her son going off
to sixth grade at West Baltimore Middle School, a school
considered failing by state standards.
So when she was offered the opportunity - under the federal No
Child Left Behind law - to transfer Tavon to a better school,
she didn't hesitate. Today, she is glad he moved to Patapsco
"He had a pretty good experience. The teachers there were
excellent. I think he got a lot out of it," Jackson said.
Hers was one of 84 families that decided to move their children
to better schools last year, a tiny percentage of the 30,000
families that were sent letters inviting them to take part in a
new program to help children attending failing schools.
That so few parents are taking advantage of the option to
transfer their children or to get extra tutoring is puzzling
many educators in the city and across the state and nation,
where participation rates are similarly low. In part, parents
are concerned about sending young children to distant schools.
This summer, the school system will again mail notices to more
than 27,000 families offering them the chance to transfer their
children or to apply for tutoring services.
If large numbers of parents opt for the transfers, the school
system acknowledges, it will be unable to handle all requests.
In Baltimore, about a third of the schoolchildren qualify for
transfers, but the district has only 301 available placements in
17 city elementary and middle schools.
Baltimore's dilemma is similar to that facing many urban school
districts, which find they have dozens of failing schools and
thousands of students who qualify for transfers, but not enough
places in higher-performing schools.
Transfers were relatively few across the state last year,
according to preliminary data from the Maryland Department of
Education. Although 110 Maryland schools were designated as
failing, fewer than 400 students transferred.
The city had a lower transfer rate than other districts where
fewer students qualified. In Baltimore County, with three
failing schools, about 80 students transferred.
In Prince George's County, 117 students transferred.
Although few city parents have elected to have their children
transferred, state officials say the city schools must do a
better job of opening up more slots in higher-performing schools
and making it easier for parents to navigate the process.
"We have insisted that they re-look at the capacity," said Sarah
Hall, Title One director at the state Department of Education.
How hard the federal government will push school districts on
the issue is unclear because this is only the second year the
option has been offered.
Kathy Christie, vice president of the nonprofit Education
Commission of the States Clearinghouse, said that "the burden
falls to the districts to make other options available" if
places in existing schools are insufficient.
She said school systems might have to consider creating charter
schools. The federal law also says that school districts can
make arrangements with surrounding districts, where there might
be more higher-performing schools, to accept children. So, for
instance, the city could ask Baltimore County to take some of
the transfers, although local and state educators acknowledge
that is unlikely.
"Districts are struggling with what to do," Christie said.
Deborah M. Banks, Title One coordinator for the city schools,
said Baltimore has increased the number of spaces - to 301 this
year from 194 a year ago - by slightly lowering the criteria for
a school designated as a high-performing school.
She also points out that although more than 300 families
requested transfers last year for 194 places, many of them
turned down the opportunity when it was offered.
Just before school started, the system was calling parents to
try to fill seats available at high-performing schools,
spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said.
Hall and Banks said parents have many reasons for not wanting
transfers. Some are worried about their children traveling
across a city to an unfamiliar neighborhood or concerned that
their children might not be accepted in the new schools.
Some parents are also concerned that they won't be able to
actively participate in their child's education if the school is
a long way from home.
Danielle Nicholson, who has three children in city schools,
understands those issues well. When she got the letter inviting
her to apply last year, she quickly had her two young children
transferred to James Mosher Elementary and Bentalou Elementary.
"My thought is, 'OK, you have an opportunity to make it a little
better for your child, why wouldn't you take advantage of
that?'" Nicholson said.
She said she is happy with both new schools, particularly
Bentalou, where her daughter started first grade last year. "Ms.
[Mary] Winterling is an awesome principal. She knows every one
of her students. ... [Students] are there and learning. It is
such a good atmosphere," she said.
But when it came to her third child, a middle-schooler, she
wasn't comfortable with a transfer far from her West Baltimore
home. She was offered a spot for him at Cherry Hill Elementary
and Middle School.
Under the federal law, an elementary school child who transfers
must be transported by a school bus. But as a middle-schooler,
her son would have had to take public transportation across town
to Cherry Hill, returning home after dark some days.
"I am not familiar with the area or comfortable with it," she
said. So she opted to keep him at West Baltimore Middle, closer
A more popular option has been the tutoring programs, an
alternative that 1,400 parents requested for their children and
743 parents took advantage of last school year. That might
increase this year with 15 private tutoring companies now
approved by the state to offer services to children statewide.
The school system will hold public meetings beginning at 3 p.m.
to 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Montebello Center at Morgan State
University, 2100 Argonne Drive.
Parents can learn about tutoring available from contractors that
will be on hand, according to Banks. A similar meeting for
parents will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the
Athletic Department Gymnasium at Baltimore City Community
College, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave.
For parents interested in transferring their children, two
meetings will be held July 23 at school system headquarters, 200
E. North Ave., and July 24 at Edmondson Westside Skills Center,
4501 Edmondson Ave.
Both meetings are scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
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