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Student transfers from failing schools via No Child law swamp successful ones

Tamara Gordon leads her eighth-grade students in a history lesson in an overflow classroom at Beltsville Academy.
Tamara Gordon leads her eighth-grade students in a history lesson in an overflow classroom at Beltsville Academy. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 11:37 PM

In some struggling school districts around the country, students transferring from failing schools are overwhelming the few successful schools in their areas, an unintended byproduct of the No Child Left Behind law.

The issue arose in Prince George's County this year, when the parents of nearly 3,000 middle-schoolers learned just days before school started that they could switch their children to the only two non-specialized middle schools in the county that met the law's performance goals. About 200 families accepted the offer, taking their new schools by surprise.

The flurry of transfers - more than 700 in Prince George's this year across all 12 grades - has packed classrooms while underscoring a tough aspect of the Bush administration's landmark education initiative. It demands steadily rising achievement - all students are supposed to pass benchmark tests by 2014 - and, as a result, more schools fail every year.

So students hop to more successful schools, leading to dwindling populations and funding for the weakest schools and crowding for the better ones.

School leaders are concerned that the moves could jeopardize any fragile progress at the failing schools. And parents of children at the successful schools worry that the wave of new students will overwhelm teachers and drag down the only programs that are meeting the new standards.

"This is a worthy impulse that turned out to be an unkeepable promise all over the country," said Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a prominent advocate of more rigorous standards. "The number of schools being deemed in need of improvement is becoming vastly more than anybody in their right minds can expect to actually be improved."

The transfer requirement, in which school systems must allow students to transfer from high-poverty schools that repeatedly fail, has created similar problems in the past for struggling school systems around the country, including New York City and suburban Atlanta. They and other systems have responded by limiting the number of students who are allowed to transfer.

In other systems, such as the District's, the number of failing schools is so overwhelming that few meaningful choices exist, unless students leave for charter or private schools.

In Prince George's, by contrast, there were decent choices and a school administration that thought it was important to comply as fully as possible with the law. The school system is using $1.3 million of its federal Title I funds on busing students to their new schools.

"Our whole philosophy has been options and opportunities for parents," said Prince George's Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. "It's a conundrum for us, how to do this inside of a structure where there are fewer and fewer options" as No Child Left Behind becomes stricter.

Almost 120 students crowded into Beltsville Academy, helping push enrollment to almost 1,050. Eighty went to Walker Mill Middle School, raising enrollment to 760.

At Beltsville, the higher-performing of the two schools, morning drop-off now swirls around the low-slung red-brick building tucked into a residential neighborhood just outside of the Capital Beltway. Buses bring in students from miles away.


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