- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

As many as 10,000 students at 15 District schools can apply to go to better-performing schools this fall, but officials say they so far have found room for only about 1,400.

School officials yesterday announced they were sending out letters to parents at four elementary schools, four middle schools and seven high schools that have failed to improve scores for the past several years.

The choice program is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in January. Superintendent Paul Vance described it as a "sterling opportunity" that would give added impetus to his own transformation plan for low-performing schools.

"The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act parallels the systemwide process we have embarked upon at D.C. Public Schools. As we implement our plan, this will provide an added incentive to complete what we started," he said.

Fifteen elementary schools, eight middle schools and four high schools have been identified as receiving schools for the transferring students. But school officials do not yet have concrete information on how many seats are available at each of these schools.

At some of the receiving schools, space has been an issue in the past. For instance, Oyster Elementary in Northwest, which has a popular bilingual program, has been identified as a receiving school. But each year, dozens of parents camp outside the school for days to get their children enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Officials said they would be able to gauge the demand for transfers only after receiving applications. "We don't know what the demand will be," said Deputy Director for Facilities Sarah Woodhead. She added that in other school districts only a small percentage of students eligible have applied for transfers.

Prince George's and Montgomery counties each identified 6,000 eligible students. While 700 applied to move in Prince George's, 102 applied in Montgomery. But in Prince George's County, two of the five receiving schools identified are over capacity and two others are more than 90 percent full.

Mrs. Woodhead said the District had identified a target of 2,000 seats for transferring students, and initial data showed they had 1,400 spaces. "We are also looking at some creative uses of space," she said.

Of students seeking a transfer, those from low-income families will be given priority. If there are more applicants than seats available, a lottery will be used to determine who gets in, officials said. The act requires students to be bused to receiving schools. The District will provide buses for elementary students from their neighborhood schools, while middle and high school students will receive public transportation tokens.

The 68,455-student school system has been the slowest in the area to come up with the choice program. City school officials yesterday also added three more schools to a number they had given Secretary of Education Rod Paige who announced last month that more than 8,000 schools and 3.5 million children around the country were eligible for transfers under the federal act. Maryland has 118 of those schools and Virginia has 34.

Mr. Vance said the delay stemmed from their intention to do things right the first time round. He said "several premier school systems" had rushed with their plans only to be told later that they had not provided students with enough choices.

Iris Toyer, president of Parents United for D.C. Schools, said the delay by the school system in announcing the plan would put a tremendous strain both on sending and receiving schools.

"At this late date I am not certain receiving schools have this as part of their plans," she said.

"This is a hardship not only for sending schools, but receiving schools they are going to have to plan for new teachers at this late date. It puts quite a strain," said Mrs. Toyer, who has a child at Stanton Elementary in Southeast, which is identified as a low-performing school.

Letters will be mailed out to parents by Monday and they will have a chance to apply for a transfer Aug. 12 to 16 and on Aug. 19. Information sessions for parents will be held at local schools.

The federal act is not drawing applause all around. Board member William Lockridge, District 4, said all students should have equal opportunities in the school system, rather than a handful.

"The federal government is forcing us to comply with this law. Although I support the superintendent because his hands are tied like superintendents around the country, I am by no means in support of busing our children in an effort to achieve equality in education," he said.

Principals at sending schools said while the additional resources they will receive under the federal law are welcome, their progress would be interrupted by the transfers.

"We have had an incline every year for the last few years in our test scores. This [the transfers] will break our momentum," said Principal Robert Gill Sr. of Johnson Junior High in Southeast.

While officials will not say how much money will be designated to the choice program, the school system will receive $149.8 million in federal funding this year $19 million more than last year.

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