August 4, 2008

Few Students Bolt for Schools That Test Better

By Sam Galski, Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.

Aug. 4--Few Hazleton Area students have taken advantage of a federal law that allows them to transfer out of schools that consistently do not meet proficiency benchmarks established for state reading and math tests, district officials said.

Hazleton Area administrators aren't expecting the trend to change.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires Title I schools with an Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) status of School Improvement or lower to offer the "public school choice" option.

Under that scenario, students from non-AYP performing schools have the option to transfer to a school that made AYP, or meets performance targets on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests.

The catch, according to the state Department of Education's Web site, is that a school must be eligible for federal Title I funding (awarded to schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students) and have an AYP designation of School Improvement I, School Improvement II, Corrective Action I or Corrective Action II.

Although PSSA performance gains at Heights-Terrace Elementary/Middle School helped it advance from School Improvement II status in 2007 to "Making Progress" this year, the school must achieve making progress for a second consecutive year before it is considered back on track to meeting AYP.

Because of that, students at Heights-Terrace will be the lone Hazleton Area school eligible for the "school choice" option in 2008.

Test scores at Hazleton Area High School would make that school eligible, but the option is not available because the district does not have a second high school that would accommodate transfers.

This year will be the third that the option is open to Heights-Terrace students, according to Cathy Fanelli-Andrews, a Hazleton Area administrator who works with Title I funding.

However, Fanelli-Andrews, Superintendent Frank Victor, Heights-Terrace Principal Francis X. Antonelli and Elementary/Middle School Director Don Bayzick all have said that very few students have taken advantage of school choice over the past few years.

Victor said that most decline a transfer because students want to remain at the school throughout the entire transition from kindergarten through eighth grade.

"The kids want to stay with their friends," Victor said. "That's the biggest reason. They don't take advantage (of the option). Basically when you look at it, you have 1,000 kids and 1 percent (transferring). That shows 99 percent of the kids are happy with the school."

Between 1,050 and 1,100 students were enrolled at Heights-Terrace in recent years and only 13 students opted to move to an AYP-performing school in 2006 and 11 others in 2007.

Friday was this year's deadline to qualify, and 22 students will transfer out of Heights-Terrace, officials said.

Those who do transfer have yet to cite academic performance as the reason, Antonelli said.

"I can't think of one of the 22 opting for school choice who indicated it was for academics," Antonelli said.

Those who opt for school choice must transfer to an AYP-performing school. A mailer sent to the families of roughly 1,100 Heights-Terrace students gives them the choice of attending the West Hazleton Elementary/Middle or Freeland Elementary/Middle schools.

Bayzick said that most of the parents whom he worked with cited convenience as a factor when deciding to move their children to a different school.

On most occasions, Bayzick said that parents either said that a student either wanted to attend a different school because a relative is enrolled or because the alternative school is closer to their home.

Antonelli and Victor laid out the same scenario.

The superintendent likened school choice to a debate that surfaced among school directors in recent years over whether the district should offer algebra I earlier in the curriculum.

Arguments were made on both sides and officials eventually decided to offer Algebra I in place of pre-algebra at three schools.

The thought was that the few students eligible for the more advanced course would travel to those schools to take the course.

However, only one student opted for the program, he said.

"Students don't want to leave their schools," Victor said. "You can offer school choice to every school in the school district and you probably won't get more than 1 percent opting to leave."

Although it's not a factor in Hazleton, Victor said that school choice has created issues at school districts with multiple high schools. In some cases, high school athletes would use the school choice option to transfer to a school where they'd have a better opportunity play on a sports team, he said.

"It's not because the school is not performing, it's if they've had a problem with the football coach," Victor said. "None took (advantage of) it for academic reasons and that was the whole purpose."

Officials at Heights-Terrace have sent mailers each year that fulfilled the state's notification criteria and informed parents that school choice was available.

The latest mailer includes an introductory letter (written in both Spanish and English) that explains the school's 2008 scores, programs implemented to remedy those scores and a form that must be completed if a student wishes to transfer.

According to the state, the school that offers school choice must provide and pay for transportation costs and the district will remain responsible for those expenses until the school achieves AYP for two consecutive years.

District officials also refuted remarks published in a local editorial that referred to the school choice option as the district's best-kept secret.

Roughly 1,100 notification letters were mailed to parents each year the option was available, they said.

Fanelli-Andrews said Hazleton Area's scenario of having few students opt for school choice is not unique.

In 2007-08, state education officials reported that 44,000 students were eligible for school choice, she said. Of them, 377 opted for a transfer, she added.

Bayzick said that officials don't expect school choice to result in a massive transfer that would create overcrowding issues at a school.

If that were to happen, Victor said that scores reported by the students who would transfer from the non-AYP school could potentially create challenges for the school they move to, Victor said.

"The scores would transfer to the school they're going to and that school would have a problem maintaining (AYP status)," Victor added.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education's Web site states that federal law bars students from using a "lack of capacity" argument to eliminate the school choice option.

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