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Do You Have a Choice?
Local School Boards, 'No Child Left Behind' Law Give Parents, Students Options Beyond Neighborhood School

By Ann Marchand
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2003

There was a time when a child could only attend the public school closest to his home. But times are different now, and although neighborhood schools are still an option, they are not the only choice for parents seeking to meet their child's educational needs.

Throughout the Washington area, there are multiple options for parents seeking alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools. Those choices, however, are not uniform across the region, conforming to the dictates of local school boards. But even where options are limited to neighborhood schools, the federal No Child Left Behind law stipulates that if a neighborhood school underperforms for two consecutive years, parents may transfer their child to another school.

In the District, publicly funded schools either fall under the domain of the D.C. Public Schools administration or are one of 40 charter schools. The D.C. public schools offer neighborhood elementary and middle or junior high schools and a choice of 16 senior high schools. The system also offers magnet schools, such as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which have selective admissions and a specialized focus, as well as academies within schools.

The charter schools operate independently of D.C. public schools and are overseen by either the D.C. Public Charter School Board or the D.C. Board of Education. Charter schools receive public funds, which are distributed based on enrollment. Such schools vary widely in focus, curriculum, structure, size and environment. For example, the Cesar Chavez High School in NW Washington gives students a grounding in public policy, while the KIPP Academy, which mirrors other KIPP schools in Houston and New York, observes long school days, Saturday classes and mandatory summer school in an effort to prepare its middle-schoolers for college.

In selecting a charter school, parents should first decide what defining characteristics they are looking for and use that to narrow down options, said Nona Richardson, communications manager for the charter school board.

"The thing that I suggest they do first is look at the focus of the school, then the size of the school and location. Once they've narrowed it down, then visit the school" to get a good sense of whether the school offers the best environment for that child, she said.

In Virginia, the state tends toward neighborhood schools, though local school boards have the authority to implement publicly funded options, including granting permission for charter schools.

Currently, there are eight charter schools in the commonwealth, though none are in Northern Virginia.

Local school boards have to give priority to charter school proposals that support students who have not succeeded in traditional school settings, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

Virginia school boards also have wide latitude in creating schools to best serve their students. For example, Arlington County has a wide network of neighborhood elementary schools but also offers several countywide alternatives. Enrollment in the countywide schools is determined by lottery. Fairfax County runs the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which uses academic criteria to determine admissions. Tuition to that school, which is also a regional governor's school, is free to parents in Fairfax, and the tuition for out-of-county students is paid by their school system, though not all school boards allow their students to apply for admission.

In Maryland, options are fewer.

"Maryland is pretty much a neighborhood-school state," said Bill Reinhart, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. He noted that although there is no state magnet school program, Prince George's County offers one that allows parents choice beyond a neighborhood elementary, middle or high school.

There are currently no publicly funded charter schools in Maryland. There is one private charter school in Frederick. This spring, the Maryland General Assembly passed a measure to allow for such schools, but the state is "a long way from getting the first public charter school at this point," said Reinhart, noting that there often are significant administrative hurdles to surmount when establishing a school.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, students in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress-a school must improve the proportion of its students who achieve state standards of academic proficiency-for two consecutive years may transfer to a better-performing school in the district. Students also may transfer from a "persistently dangerous" school or one that lacks "highly qualified" teachers.

To be designated as an underperforming school or a school "in improvement," a school must miss state benchmarks for two years in a row. In Virginia, there are 34 schools with such a designation. And at the beginning of this school year, parents in those schools were advised of their option to request a transfer to a better-performing school.

Pyle, of the Virginia Department of Education, said that from the 34 schools identified last year, 373 parents requested transfers and 226 students were transferred. In making the transfers, he said, the law requires that priority go to the lowest-achieving students from the highest-poverty homes.

In Maryland, there were more than 100 schools designated as improving; the District had 16 such schools.

Pyle also urged parents to look beyond the designation to the core of a school, noting that more parents elected to keep their children enrolled at a school than opt for a transfer. Just because a school is designated "in improvement" doesn't mean it's a bad school, he said. It's just that-improving.

However, statistically a school may show progress even if it falls shy of reaching state benchmarks. This may be true if a school misses the mark in just one demographic subgroup but reaches them elsewhere.

"If a parent likes her child's teacher and has a level of satisfaction with the education her child is receiving, that's what's important to that parent," he said. "There are a lot of things that would prompt a parent, even if presented with this option, to keep her or his child in the school."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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