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Few Bay Area Parents Seize Chance to Transfer Schools

"Washington had this view that parents were trapped in untenable situations, just champing at the bit to get out," said Toni Oklan-Arko, director of state and federal programs for West Contra Costa schools. "But that isn't true, according to the data that we have right now. It shows that parents support their local schools."


Bay Area school districts told tens of thousands of parents recently that their children have a legal right to transfer immediately from their low- achieving school to a better one.

Surprisingly, very few accepted.

Most parents apparently chose to keep their children in underperforming schools because the schools are close to home.

The right to transfer is a cornerstone of the 2-year-old federal Education Act dubbed "No Child Left Behind," meant to offer a leg up to children stuck in low-scoring schools.

"When (parents) know their children's schools are failing, and they have the power to do something about it, they can control their family's own destiny," U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige has said of the law.

Yet, of 51,716 letters sent to parents in six Bay Area districts where there were state-designated "schools in need of improvement," just 1,018 students -- fewer than 2 percent -- asked to exercise their legal right to attend a higher-achieving school, according to figures provided by district administrators in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Vallejo, West Contra Costa and Ravenswood districts.

In Oakland, about 20,000 letters went out to families in 32 schools, yet just 39 students asked to transfer, said Ken Epstein, the district's spokesman.

The San Francisco school district sent 10,626 letters to families in 30 elementary and middle schools, said Myong Leigh, the district's planning chief.

Just 171 students transferred out, he said.

And not one family from the Ravenswood Elementary District in East Palo Alto asked to switch schools, though 2,202 letters were sent to parents at three schools, said Maria de la Vega, an assistant superintendent.


CHOICE OF LOCAL SCHOOLS
"Washington had this view that parents were trapped in untenable situations, just champing at the bit to get out," said Toni Oklan-Arko, director of state and federal programs for West Contra Costa schools. "But that isn't true, according to the data that we have right now. It shows that parents support their local schools."

Under the law, students are eligible to transfer if they attend a designated "school in need of improvement" -- any public school receiving federal Title I money for poor children where a significant number of students scored poorly on the state exam two years in a row. In addition, each ethnic group with a significant number of students in the school must show progress on the exam. Such schools have five years to exit the improvement program or be taken over by the state. California has 1,083 improvement schools.


BUSING MUST BE PROVIDED
The law, which took effect last year, requires districts to choose a school not in need of improvement for eligible students. Districts must provide busing and may not deny admission if the new school has no room.

Dan Langan, a spokesman for Secretary Paige, said Bay Area parents who snubbed the rescue plan still exercised choice. "The choice was to stay put," he said. "But at least they had the choice."

Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from Martinez who was one of four members of Congress to co-sponsor the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, said the low response rate may also be because some districts "tried to be ambiguous about parents' right to transfer because it does present a number of problems and inconveniences to the district."

Yet he and several education officials said they believe most parents prefer whatever school is closest to home.


HAPPY WITH SCHOOL
Six-year-old Colin Auld of San Francisco attends Bryant Elementary, which became an improvement school this year after too many Latino students scored poorly on the English language arts section of the state test.

"School's fun!" said Colin, whose independence of mind was evidenced by his preference for liverwurst and mayonnaise sandwiches at lunchtime. The kindergartner mentioned the quality of the school library and computer lab as two reasons Bryant is right for him -- as well as the fact that "we don't have too much rules."

His mother, Patti Martin, said she has no interest in having her son rescued from Bryant. "We live a block away. Besides, I don't like test scores. I'm happy that they seem to teach what the students need to learn."

Martin's satisfaction with her child's underperforming school was echoed elsewhere in the Bay Area.

"I won't trade schools," said Lizbeth Csee of Vallejo, who sends her daughters, Alexa, 5, and Angela, 8, to Cooper Elementary, which entered "improvement" status this year because too few black children scored well in math on the state test.

"Cooper teachers are doing an excellent job," Csee said. "Kids are improving in their writing and reading, and they're at grade level."


'IT'S A JOKE'
But if the Bay Area's low response rate is one indication that the law is not having its intended effect, the experience of some parents who are desperate to escape from underperforming schools may be another.

"I think it's a joke," said one West Contra Costa parent, speaking about the law. She wound up faking an address so her child could leave Kennedy High, an improvement school, and attend El Cerrito High.

"I'm mad because I did it the way I was supposed to," said the parent, who asked that her name not be used. "I went through the process in response to the letter, and I was denied."

West Contra Costa officials shrugged and said they had no choice but to deny requests. Of the six districts examined by The Chronicle, West Contra Costa fielded the most transfer requests and was the only district to deny any.

One likely explanation is that, unlike San Francisco high schools, West Contra Costa high schools get Title I money, making older students eligible for the transfers.

Six percent of eligible students, 781, requested them, but just 470 were granted, said Oklan-Arko.

"Secretary Paige says lack of capacity is no excuse for denying a transfer, " she said. "Well, which kids will we put out on the street to make room? It's too much what they're asking us to do."

— Nanette Asimov
Few parents seize chance to transfer schools
San Francisco Chronicle
sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/10/09/MN198701.DTL


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