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Most R.I. Parents Choose To Ignore School Choice

Most R.I. parents choose to ignore school choice
In Warwick, for example, 375 parents were invited to attend a meeting on school choice this week. Only six families showed up.

The much-touted Bush administration's school choice plan is not working in Rhode Island. Only a handful of parents have opted to send their children to a different school and the school's academic performance had little or nothing to do with their decisions.

Meanwhile, school officials say that the formula for calculating whether a school must offer choice is so demanding that even schools that have hit all their targets can wind up on the "needs improvement list" because they haven't made progress for two consecutive years.

"If you don't meet one of these 21 targets then Boom!, you're a failing high school, or Boom!, you're a failing elementary school," said Pawtucket Schools Supt. Hans W. Dellith. "But there is no such thing as perfection. It doesn't exist in the real world."

Last month, the Rhode Island Department of Education announced that 27 public schools would have to offer parents additional tutoring services or the opportunity to transfer their children to another school, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the law, any school that fails to improve on standardized English and math tests for two consecutive years must offer choice. Schools that fail to show progress for three years must offer after-school tutoring.

The consequences only apply to schools that use federal Title I monies, which are supposed to help children living in poverty.

(Two schools, Martin Middle School, in East Providence, and Thompson Middle School, in Newport, have since come off the list because they don't qualify as Title I schools).

The choice provision, the cornerstone of President Bush's sweeping education reform agenda, was supposed to pressure low-performing schools to improve because, otherwise, children would leave for better schools.

The law was designed to make sure that all children -- wealthy and poor, black and white -- reach the same high standards. Instead, school leaders say, NCLB penalizes high-poverty schools because it is so difficult for them to raise the test scores of all students every year.

"It's tragic," said Providence Schools Supt. Melody A. Johnson. "The law says no matter how well you do, if you don't hit all 21 targets, you're no good. You must give people hope. This does the opposite. It continues to beat you up until you're perfect."

Under the law, schools are measured based on their performance in 21 categories. Not only must schools show improvement as a whole, each of the following subgroups must show gains: Asian, black, Hispanic, Native American, white, economically disadvantaged, English-language learners and students with disabilities.

If even one group fails to improve, the entire school is deemed in need of improvement.

Providence has 14 schools that must offer choice or extra tutoring this year. But Johnson said that label does not paint a true picture of what's going on in the city's schools.

Take the Carnevale School. It hit 20 of its 21 targets this year, yet it is still labeled as a low-performing, non-improving school.

Even more burdensome is the requirement that Providence must offer after-school tutoring for all six middle schools. Under the law, the school can't provide the service. Parents chose from a state-approved list of providers, which includes for-profit companies such as Sylvan Learning Systems and The Princeton Review.

The law requires schools to set aside up to 20 percent of their Title I money -- in Providence's case, $4 million -- to pay for these extra services. Johnson said this is money that could be better spent by the schools.

"This penalizes the children," she said. "It takes money away from the school system and gives it to some for-profit entities that aren't invested in the kids.

"I don't mind being held accountable," she said. "I just don't want to be penalized along the way."

No Child Left Behind was supposed to give parents, particularly poor parents, a chance to get their children into better schools.

In Rhode Island, though, where parents feel a deep connection to their neighborhood schools, this hasn't been the case.

Warwick is a perfect example. When 375 parents were invited to attend a meeting on school choice this week, only six families turned out. School leaders explained that even though Oakland Beach Elementary reached all of its targets, the school was listed as in need of improvement because it had failed to meet those goals for two consecutive years.

At the end of the meeting, parents were told they had five days to request a transfer. By Friday afternoon, only two parents had signed up for the John Wickes School.

"It says to me that not everyone is caught up in the test score mania -- that there are other aspects of school life that are more important," said Warwick Schools Supt. Robert J. Shapiro.

Still, Shapiro said he thinks that the ranking system established by the federal government is ludicrous: "This act is preventing lots and lots of good schools from getting out of the hole. It's unfair."

In Central Falls, 11 parents asked to transfer their children from the Ella Risk School at the end of this school year. Each family chose the Veterans Memorial School, Schools Supt. Maureen Chevrette said, not because it was a better place but because it was closer to home.

"When you look at the reasons why parents want transfers, it's because of child-care issues or because they live closer to one school than another," she said. "It's very seldom because they like this school more than that one."

In districts such as Central Falls, where families move around a lot, the goal is to keep the child in one school.

In some cases, offering parents a choice is impossible because there is no other high school or middle school in the district. So far, the law does not require schools to offer choice outside the district.

In Woonsocket, two elementary schools, Social Street and Kevin Coleman, must offer choice or extra tutoring. But only four families have taken advantage of the law.

At the Social Street School, two siblings left because their babysitter lives near the Harris School; two other students transferred because they attended kindergarten at the Pothier School and want to stay there.

"It's all about the superficial stuff," said Social Street principal Richard Pickett. "We have two brand-new schools. Parents like that."

Social Street hit all of its targets this year and Pickett said he thinks it's a shame that his school is labeled as non-improving.

"This law was written by bureaucrats who know very little about how schools function," Pickett said. "We know how to fix schools and it's not by labeling."

Pickett said he has no issue with the law's emphasis on testing students and demanding that all children reach the same high standards:

"But don't take our resources away," he said. "The kids from East Greenwich go home to their computers, two professional parents, and they get help with their homework.

"The kids in high-poverty schools go home and there's no one there to help them," he said. "Our kids just need more time and more experiences and we have to do that for them."

— Linda Borg
Most R.I. Parents Choose To Ignore School Choice



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