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.
Seventh-grade classes were so packed in the beginning of the school year that students had to sit on the linoleum floors because there weren't enough desks, parents said, and students have to share lockers. The double-wide trailers that provided extra capacity were also packed.
The school system quickly rolled in more trailers, which teachers decorated with cheerful posters and mismatched chairs. The brand-new principal hired four more teachers and came up with a traffic plan to ease choked hallways during passing periods.
More than half the county's schools failed to meet the No Child standards this year, up from last year, even though test scores rose modestly. Hite said the influx of transfers "adds a strain to those schools that are actually doing well," calling them "overwhelmed."
A growing chorus of education advocates shares the concern.
"Every year that the law is in existence it makes less sense," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide. "It's just overlabeling a problem without providing any help."
Nationwide, almost a fifth of middle school students who were eligible to transfer in the 2006-07 school year didn't have any choice, because none of the schools in their district met federal standards, according to a 2009 federally funded RAND study.
The Obama administration has proposed modifying the consequences for under-performing low-income schools and giving them more flexibility in addressing their problems. For example, instead of allowing students at a failing school to transfer, a school system could extend the school day at the troubled school or spend more money on retaining highly qualified teachers.
"We are taking a much more flexible approach with regard to choice," said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Education Department. "Having this federal mandate, which is a one-size-fits-all requirement, doesn't make sense to us," she said. Around the country, only 1 percent of students who are eligible to transfer take advantage of it, she said.
But a proponent of No Child Left Behind argued that the transfer requirement has done some good, even as he acknowledged that it wasn't perfect.
"We kind of got put into a corner" during negotiations, said Sandy Kress, one of the authors of the law. "We wanted there to be greater choices, to private schools as well as across school districts." Kress said the compromise, which limited choices only to public schools, "was less desirable" and led in part to the problems school districts now face.
But the performance standards are attainable, Kress said, and the law was designed to put pressure on school systems to improve.
Parents who chose Beltsville Academy over their home school said that they were willing to trade their old, poorly performing classrooms for the crowded ones at Beltsville.
"Even with the smaller classes" at Buck Lodge Middle School, Donna Whitney's son's local school, it "just has not made it," she said. At Beltsville, where her son started the sixth grade this year, "I don't feel like I have to fight tooth and nail being an advocate for my son," she said.
Still, there was tension at Beltsville, she said, even though school staff had been accommodating.
"The parents who were already there seemed to look at the new students as pariah[s]," she said.
Those parents say that's not the case, but they question the system that led to the situation.
"If what's working in the school is working, why mess with it?" said Sevasti Nagel, who has a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader at Beltsville Academy. "The influx of students has been very confusing.
"Why isn't more money spent to make these schools achieve [the No Child standards] instead of sending their students to another school?" she said.