Federal law now permits pupils from underperforming schools to switch to other schools in their district.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
The parents of nearly 6,500 children enrolled in underachieving public schools in the Mahoning Valley may have the option to send their children elsewhere when the new school year starts.
Sixteen schools in five school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties appear on the Ohio Department of Education's latest school improvement list.
They are: Cleveland, Sheridan, Taft and Williamson elementary schools, Hillman Middle School and the Choffin Alternative School, all in Youngstown; Alden, Horace Mann, Jefferson, Laird Avenue and Roosevelt elementary schools, East and Western Reserve middle schools, all in Warren; Lincoln Elementary School in Niles; East Elementary School in East Liverpool; and Garfield Elementary School in Wellsville.
Statewide, 212 schools are on the school improvement list, which is based on pupils' performance on the state's fourth- and sixth-grade proficiency tests. Cleveland and Columbus have the most schools on the list with 30 each, followed by Cincinnati with 26.
Under the new No Child Left Behind federal education law, parents with children in those underperforming schools can choose to send their children to higher-performing schools within the same school district this coming school year.
School districts must pay to bus pupils to the higher-performing schools, the law says.
The requirement has administrators in several school districts scrambling to meet the mandates as the new academic year looms only three weeks away.
"Certainly there will be some parents who make the request to transfer, but I have no idea how many," said Betty English, Warren schools superintendent. "This is all so foreign right now."
Patti Grey, spokeswoman for the state education department, said education leaders across the nation are grappling with implementing the new federal rules by the start of the school year.
"To say there isn't going to continue to be some confusion would probably be misleading," she said.
President Bush signed the omnibus education act in January that aims to hold schools accountable and provide options for parents whose children are in low-performing schools.
Trimming the list
In early July, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that 780 Ohio schools would be considered underperforming. On July 19, the state education department released a list identifying 415 schools. Ten days later, the list was trimmed to 212 schools after the state admitted to miscalculating proficiency test scores.
Schools have until Aug. 19 to verify the lists. "We do anticipate that there will be more schools removed from this list," Grey said.
In Warren, for instance, English said she is objecting to East and Western Reserve middle schools' inclusion on the list as well as Alden Elementary, which she said had among the highest proficiency test scores in the school district two years ago.
"I'm really wondering why the state publicized results that could then be contested," English said. "They seem to have been a bit premature in again establishing labels for schools."
"I've seen too many things botched up lately," Niles Superintendent Patrick Guliano said about the ever-changing school improvement list.
"I want to make sure before we do anything that the information from the state is accurate."
Once the list is final, school districts will notify parents of the school choice option. Grey said the state does not know how many parents will ask for transfers.
"There are many families that will choose to stay in their neighborhood school and will work to help the school improve," Grey said. "But we don't have any estimate on that."
Lori Miller, president of the parent-teacher organization at Taft Elementary in Youngstown, said she was disappointed to hear the school is on the improvement list.
But she said she doesn't think many parents will choose to go elsewhere.
"At our school, parents feel comfortable," she said.
Anthony DiRenzo, executive director of school improvement for the Youngstown city schools, said he likely won't know how many parents will request transfers until a couple days before school starts on Aug. 27.
He said transfers will be granted only if there's room in the higher-performing schools.
"You just can't at this stage add classes, because then what it does is it completely changes your personnel around, and that's extremely difficult to do," he said. "Also, most of our buildings are at capacity now."
Guliano said he doesn't expect a high number of Niles parents to request transfers. "I think people are really content with their schools," he added.
English said Warren's busing schedule was developed nearly two months ago. An influx of last-minute transfers could require overhauling the schedule.
"We certainly try to be proactive every year with our transportation program, and now here comes something along that says, 'Never mind about all of your planning, we're going to shoot holes in it,'" she said. "That's upsetting."
In addition to the school choice option, schools on the list are required to develop a two-year school improvement plan, set aside funding for teacher training and provide extra tutoring for pupils in the underachieving schools.
DiRenzo said all Youngstown schools have improvement plans in place.
"We're ahead of the game, but again, if you don't make changes to your plan and you stick to the same old same old, then you're going to get the same old results," he said. "And we can't do that."