September 11, 2008

Law Creates Choices for Parents This Yearhuff Lane Microvillage

By David Harrison [email protected] 777-3523

It's that time of year again.

The time when schools that have not met federal standards for two straight years have to offer parents a chance to pull their children out and to place them in another school that has fared better on state tests.

The school choice provision was one of the most hotly debated parts of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, with critics charging that it was a ploy to drain struggling schools of students.

As it happened, the school choice provision has not proved very popular among parents.

Last year, Roanoke had to offer school choice to students at five schools: Lucy Addison Middle, Lincoln Terrace Elementary, Garden City Elementary, Forest Park Elementary and Hurt Park Elementary. That's a combined student population of roughly 1,482. But only 79 students, roughly 5 percent, chose to move.

While that may look like a remarkably low figure, it's actually higher than the national rate. Only 2.2 percent of eligible students nationwide took advantage of school choice in 2006-07, the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Education.

Why are so few students switching schools? Perhaps they aren't aware of the option. Perhaps there aren't any schools nearby that can receive those students, which can be the case in rural districts. Or perhaps they simply don't think their home school is that bad.

Angelle Simmons, the mother of a fourth-grade boy, said she was looking more favorably at Hurt Park Elementary School last week. For the past three years she has taken advantage of the school choice option and sent her son to Virginia Heights Elementary School. Now she's thinking of keeping him at his home school, Hurt Park. That's because class sizes are likely to be much smaller at Hurt Park, the city's smallest school.

"That way he can get more attention," she said.

Schools that improve to the point where they meet the federal standards for two straight years no longer have to offer choice. But if a school fails to meet the federal standards for a third consecutive year, the school choice provision remains in effect and schools must also offer special tutoring to help those students who remain in the struggling school. Those services are only slightly more popular than school choice. Last year 240 students from Roanoke's five schools targeted for improvement under No Child Left Behind signed up for the free tutoring service. That's only 16.2 percent. Again, the city's rate was higher than the national average of 14.5 percent.

Some school districts have questioned why they would have to offer students the option to transfer before they offer tutoring programs. In response, federal and state education officials are piloting a change in No Child Left Behind regulations in eight Virginia school districts that would offer tutoring first then the option to switch schools.

In Roanoke, students from Round Hill Primary, Huff Lane MicroVillage, Hurt Park Elementary and Lucy Addison Middle are eligible for school choice this year, based on the recently released test data. School officials mailed letters to parents at those schools and sent automated phone messages.

Roanoke parents have until Friday to decide whether they want to pull their children from their home schools. Between one dozen and two dozen parents showed up at meetings at each of the four schools that will offer choice this year. We'll have to wait until next week to learn how many parents took advantage of their options, but based on the turnout at the meetings, it looks as though the number is going to be low again this year.

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