- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The District has yet to notify parents of children in 12 low-performing schools that federal law gives them the option of transferring the students, even though classes start in a month.

D.C. public school officials say they are still fine-tuning the program and acknowledge that they are running out of time.

"But we are very close. We are finalizing our plan now and will send out letters to eligible parents next week," said Steve G. Seleznow, chief of staff for the city's public schools.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige has identified 12 schools in the District that are eligible for the program, but Mr. Seleznow said more than 12 schools and several thousand students could be eligible.

Mr. Seleznow said it would be "very tough" to notify parents, receive applications and allocate students to receiving schools within a month, but that officials would complete the task.

In neighboring school districts such as Montgomery County and Prince George's County, hundreds of students have applied for transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in January.

Thousands of students in those counties were considered eligible to move. In Montgomery County, public meetings have been held to explain the process to parents, and Iris T. Metts, chief executive officer of Prince George's County schools, will meet with parents of eligible students by next week to explain the school choice program, officials said.

Mr. Seleznow said the District had several problems that the surrounding school districts did not. For instance, the federal act requires school districts to provide transportation to students who choose to transfer. That is easier for suburban districts that have plenty of buses and drivers than it is for the District, where buses serve only special education students, he said.

"We really had to study closely how to handle the transportation issue," Mr. Seleznow said, adding that officials still were working out a final plan and identifying receiving schools to ensure that high-quality options were offered to students.

School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz agreed that the school system needed to make sure good choices were available. "We cannot manufacture schools that do not exist. All of our high schools except Banneker, Walls, Ellington and Wilson are generally lousy, so where do we send the children?"

Mrs. Cafritz said the board was overseeing the issue and that the system would comply with the act by the start of the academic year. "We needed to make sure every aspect was considered before we finalized the list of schools," she said.

Mr. Paige on July 1 identified more than 8,000 low-performing schools around the country, offering 3.5 million students the option of moving to schools that have achieved satisfactory scores on standardized tests. Of the underperforming schools, 34 are in Virginia none in Northern Virginia and 118 are in Maryland. Schools named have failed to meet state academic standards for two consecutive years. Priority will be given to low-income students.

In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, parents were notified about the option at the beginning of this month through letters. "We have been working on this for months. We knew by March which schools would be on the list," said Caroline Howard, director of the Title 1 program for Prince George's schools.

The deadline for application in both school districts has passed, although Montgomery County will continue to process any late applications, a spokeswoman said.

Iris Toyer, president of Parents United for D.C. Schools, said she had not heard anything about the choice program in the District. "A month is not enough time to notify parents and make all the changes," she said. However, she added, she was not surprised at the delay because Superintendent Paul Vance was undertaking a massive central office transformation.

"There are too many balls in the air, and some are going to get dropped," she said.

Because schools receive money based on a weighted formula, she said, any last-minute transfers could disrupt budgets.

The federal act gave school systems additional money for the 2002-03 year to improve performance and implement various programs, including the choice option. The District, with 68,449 students, will receive $149.8 million in funding, $19 million more than last year. Maryland's share will be $642.6 million, $92 million more than last year, for its 846,582 students. Virginia's public schools, with 1 million students, will receive $897.9 million, $126 million more than last year.

Few area parents appear to have picked up the option. Prince George's County has 6,000 students who are eligible to transfer to better schools, but only 700 have applied so far, Mrs. Howard said.

Montgomery County also has 6,000 eligible students, but only 102 have applied to move, said Chrisandra Richardson, a Title 1 specialist for the school system.

"It is a very difficult decision for a parent to make to move out of the community," said Mrs. Richardson. She added that parents also were reluctant to make a move based on the results of one test.

In Prince George's County, two of the five receiving schools identified are over capacity and two others are more than 90 percent full.

"There are so few schools to choose where capacity is not an issue," Mrs. Howard said, adding that supplemental services would be provided to students who could not move because of overcrowding at receiving schools.

D.C. officials, including Mr. Seleznow, refused to identify the 12 schools eligible for the choice program, saying a list finalized earlier was under review.

In Prince George's County, the schools where students have been offered the option to move are Bladensburg Elementary, Gaywood Elementary, Riverdale Elementary, Concord Elementary, Longfields Elementary, John Eager Howard Elementary, Lyndon Hill Elementary, Morningside Elementary, Overlook Elementary and Nicholas Orem Middle School.

The Montgomery County schools are Burnt Mills Elementary, Gaithersburg High School, Harmony Hills Elementary, Highland Elementary, Kemp Mill Elementary, Rosemont Elementary, Summit Hall Elementary, Weller Road Elementary and Wheaton Woods Elementary. One other school, Broad Acres Elementary, also was eligible, but no one applied for a transfer from there, Mrs. Richardson said.

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