Last Year, 52,842 Virginia students and their families could have elected to change schools due to low test scores. If a school misses Adequate Yearly Progress test benchmarks for two consecutive years in the same subject, students are eligible to switch schools within their division. The schools send notices to parents advising them of the option. The problem is some of the districts are not giving parents enough time to make an informed decision. Chesapeake did not have any schools that scored low enough.
MeAsia Worrell would have pulled her three children from Tidewater Park Elementary and enrolled them elsewhere this fall if school leaders had sent earlier notice that she had the right under federal law.
“I would have chosen St. Helena if I could have, if I had enough time, but it was just entirely too late,” she said of the Aug. 15 notice from the school division, which gave parents no more than 10 days to decide.
Statewide, the number of students eligible to switch schools in their division because of their schools’ repeated failure to meet federal benchmarks shot up 80 percent from 2006-07 to 2009-10, according to the state Department of Education’s most recent data. That means 52,842 Virginia students and their families could have elected to change schools last school year.
The surge is tied to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which gives parents the choice of where their students attend if a school misses Adequate Yearly Progress test benchmarks for two consecutive years in the same subject.
The benchmarks have risen in recent years, boosting the number of schools that have to offer choice. Choice is required only for Title I schools, which receive federal money for low-income students.
This year, Norfolk’s Lindenwood Elementary topped all other schools in South Hampton Roads in the proportion of students who used their right to switch schools. Forty-six of Lindenwood’s 318 students, or 14.5 percent, attended another school in the division. Last year, nearly one in five Lindenwood students – 19 percent – opted to go elsewhere.
Tidewater Park had the second-highest number of students deciding to attend school elsewhere in the Norfolk division and in South Hampton Roads, with 10 percent of its 395 students opting for school choice this year.
In total, four schools in Norfolk, three in Suffolk, three in Virginia Beach and two in Portsmouth had to offer school choice and send notices to students’ homes this year. No Chesapeake schools tested poorly enough to require it. This was the first year any Beach school has had to offer choice.
The Beach school with the highest choice transfer rate was Birdneck Elementary at 6.6 percent. Suffolk’s highest rate was 3.7 percent at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary. Brighton Elementary was highest in Portsmouth at 4 percent, down from 9.1 percent the previous year.
For divisions, being forced to offer school choice can draw embarrassing public attention as schools fall below standards.
“There is certainly an image issue, which shouldn’t be discounted,” state Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. Principals, he said, don’t want to lose enrollment.
“That’s the accountability piece – does this school want to lose the numbers of students who could transfer? How does it look? If those numbers drop, it doesn’t look good. Something has to be done with that school to make it a better choice.”
Parents say they base their decision on whether to change schools on many factors: school location, children’s performances, familiarity with the home school and potential improvement in the neighborhood school.
“I’d rather her stay here, somewhere where she’s comfortable, than go somewhere she’s not comfortable,” Kevin Jones said about his fourth-grader recently while picking her up at Norfolk’s Tidewater Park. His daughter is doing well in her studies and has good teachers, he added.
Schools that failed AYP at least two consecutive years, such as Lindenwood, offer extra student learning services such as tutoring. Ezelia Boone said she moved her son to Lindenwood to take advantage of those features, which she didn’t find at Willard Model Elementary, her neighborhood school.
“He came over here, and they took the time to give him tutors and the one-on-one support he needed,” Boone said. “I looked at my son’s SOL scores, and I’m leaving him right where he is – his SOL scores shot through the roof this year.”
Perhaps the biggest criticism from parents is that they aren’t told earlier that they qualify for school choice.
The letters Norfolk sent to eligible families were dated Aug. 15. Public information meetings about school choice were held Aug. 24 – one day before the deadline for parents to tell the division whether they wanted to accept the option.
Worrell, who works at night and attends college during the day, said she??d already paid for Tidewater Park uniforms when the letter arrived – there was no time to return them or find replacements in another school’s colors.
Lindenwood parent Marla Mandley said, “When I got my letter in the mail, it was too late to fill out an application” to transfer.
“I mean, I’d look into the schools, the choices they gave us, and see what their testing scores were.”
Mandley said her daughter is on the waiting list to attend Ghent School, which offers kindergarten through eighth grade.
Portsmouth parents had only a week’s notice – the shortest time to respond among local divisions. Letters went out Aug. 25, and responses were required by Sept. 1.
Suffolk sent letters dated Aug. 16 and posted information on its website that week. The division gave parents an Aug. 30 deadline.
Virginia Beach sent letters Aug. 16 and set an acceptance deadline of Aug. 30.
The No Child Left Behind law doesn’t dictate to divisions how much time they must give parents who are eligible for choice, but the U.S. Department of Education says school systems must send notice no later than 14 days before the start of the school year, and preferably earlier.
Norfolk is among local divisions that say they can’t send notifications until the state releases the latest Adequate Yearly Performance statistics that show which schools qualify for choice. This year, those statistics were released Aug. 11.
Both the federal guidebook and the state, however, say schools can and should give parents earlier notice.
Virginia’s Department of Education gives divisions access to preliminary statistics throughout the summer, and those make clear which schools must offer choice, Pyle said.
“Well before we officially release AYP, they should have sufficient information to provide a timely notice to the parent who has that right,” Pyle said. Some Virginia divisions that start school in mid-August send choice notifications at the end of July, he said, before the latest AYP statistics are officially released.
Federal guidelines are similar. Divisions “should offer public school choice to students in such schools as early as possible, preferably in the spring or early summer,” says the U.S. Education Department’s Public School Choice Non-Regulatory Guidance handbook.
Virginia Beach took that route.
“We realized parents might need some extra time to make this decision, so we held meetings in the spring for the parents of Birdneck, College Park and Luxford to communicate the possibility of school choice,” division spokeswoman Kathleen O’Hara said.
In Norfolk, spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather said the state’s early AYP data haven’t always proved accurate and the division doesn’t want to mistakenly tell parents they have a choice option.
“Families make decisions based on that, important decisions like child care,” she said. Nonetheless, the division will probably host a spring meeting for parents about choice next year, she said.
In letters offering parents school choice, each local division explained AYP’s provisions and said that failing AYP did not mean a student’s school was failing. The letters typically cite ongoing progress at the schools identified for choice.
Norfolk’s letter says: “Before you decide to use the Public School Choice option, please consider the many additional programs and services available in the school your child currently attends…. These same services may not be available if you choose to transfer your child to another school.”
Lindenwood Principal Danjile Henderson said she tried to explain to parents at her school’s choice information meeting how the school was doing better.
“I want them to make an informed decision, not a snap one just based on test scores,” she said, “because there’s a lot that goes into a school that the black and white numbers don’t always show.”
Steven G. Vegh, (757) 446-2417, firstname.lastname@example.org