D.C. School Choice Program Offers Few Options

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

Earlier this month, parents of students in 81 low-performing D.C. public schools -- almost two-thirds of the District system -- got a packet in the mail announcing that federal law entitles them to transfer their children to a stronger school.

The notice goes out every August, required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But in a system filled with failing schools, parental choice can be a hollow proposition. Perhaps that's why officials reported Friday that they had received just 34 applications for transfer. The deadline is tomorrow.

"What a joke," LaCrisha Butler said.

Butler is one of the few who is pushing ahead. She wants to pull her nephew, Travis, out of Coolidge High School, which this year failed, for the fifth time in a row, to hit math and reading test benchmarks required by the law.

The eight other mainstream high schools he might attend also are under federal mandate to restructure and improve. That leaves the District's five "specialty" high schools: the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, McKinley Tech, Banneker, Phelps and School Without Walls. All have admission requirements that pose significant obstacles for Travis, a special-needs child who has an individualized education plan.

Younger students face a similarly narrow band of choices. Alternative schools must be academically sound and sufficiently secure so they are not deemed "persistently dangerous," as defined by D.C. law. The nearly 5,000 children in the District's 11 floundering middle and junior high schools have just two choices under the No Child Left Behind option: Deal and Hardy.

For the nearly 20,000 children at the 48 elementary schools under some kind of federal sanction, there are 11 alternatives. None is located in wards 7 or 8. The schools are Cleveland (Ward 1); Hyde (Ward 2); Mann, Hearst, Key and Janney (Ward 3); Barnard and Shepherd (Ward 4); Langdon and Noyes (Ward 5); and J.O. Wilson (Ward 6).

"This is a problem that school districts across the country face," D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said in a statement. "That's why the administration is focused on increasing school achievement levels, hiring strong teachers and principals. . . . All in an effort to prevent this type of predicament in years to come."

The scant choices are not the only problem, parents and school activists say. The notification packets were mailed Aug. 5, giving families less than three weeks to make decisions and apply for transfers before classes begin.

Rhee's spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, said the information could not have gone out earlier because results of the District's annual standardized test, the DC-CAS, needed to be "crunched, analyzed and verified" to determine which schools were failing. The data weren't available until mid-summer, she said.

"We mailed the packets as quickly as possible," Hobson said.

The city's public charter schools, about half of which are subject to some form of No Child Left Behind action, also are required to send advisories in early August. But the notices generally come so late that, practically speaking, they don't mean much. The most desirable public charters are full. The only guaranteed spot for a charter family is in their traditional neighborhood public school.

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