About half of the District's public school population, or 33,000 students, are entitled to transfer to better-performing schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 because their schools have failed to meet test-score benchmarks for two years in a row.
But there was no great rush among parents to submit transfer applications yesterday, the first day that such applications were being taken.
At the Logan Building, a crumbling two-story structure near Union Station in Northeast Washington, two schools officials sat at a table in Room 107 with laptop computers and a pile of application forms in front of them. For most of the day, only a trickle of parents -- 15 by early afternoon -- dropped by to ask about the transfer option.
Parents have until Aug. 21 to submit transfer applications. Many have just received notices mailed in the past two weeks to all households of children attending the 68 schools "in need of improvement," as classified by results of the Stanford 9 reading and math tests. They were administered in April to students in third through 11th grades.
Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization based in the District, said he was not surprised about the lack of demand.
"The fact is a lot of people who are really dissatisfied have already gotten out of the D.C. schools," Hess said, noting the array of public charter schools that have been created in the District since 1995. "What you have left is people who are reasonably satisfied, either because there's something about the school program that they like or because they're not familiar with the details of the school's performance or their options. It's everything from single parents who are working 16-hour days to parents who are barely in control of their own lives."
Most parents are unfamiliar with the complexities of education policy, Hess said, and some might even disregard the official notices that arrive in the mail. "People get a lot of junk mail," he said. "Most people don't read the newspaper. Local television channels don't spend time talking about the enrollment window for public school choice." He suggested that many, if not most, parents will learn about the transfer option only through word of mouth, passed along by friends.
In one respect, the interest in school transfers, at least as of yesterday, might mirror the trend in applications for the federally funded school voucher program in the District that President Bush signed into law this year. In the voucher program, not all high school students could be accommodated. Meanwhile, not enough elementary school students applied to fill the available slots. As a result, some vouchers ended up being awarded to low-income elementary school students who already attend private schools, instead of those transferring from the public system.
In the District, dissatisfaction with the schooling in the junior and senior high grades has traditionally been higher than at the lower levels.
"Most of the parents who are requesting transfers are requesting transfers for secondary schools," noted Ralph H. Neal, assistant superintendent for student and school support services. "Because we do not have any secondary schools that we can offer parents to transfer students to, that's probably one of the reasons why there is not a long line."
Each of the 31 elementary schools deemed needing improvement has been matched with two "receiving schools," generally nearby, to which students can transfer. When classes start Sept. 1, Neal said, the transfer students will be taken by chartered buses to and from their original neighborhood schools.
But at the middle, junior high and senior high levels, there are no transfer options. An Aug. 2 letter that was signed by Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice and mailed with all 33,000 packets identified Thurgood Marshall Education Center, a Northeast Washington school that has classes from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, as the only transfer option for middle school students. However, Neal said that all the seats at Marshall are full, and parents who sought transfers for their middle school students were turned away yesterday.
Toni L. Adams, whose daughter is about to enter eighth grade at Browne Junior High School for the third time, left the Logan Building in frustration. She said that Shanicka, 15, has been teased and has started "hanging out with the wrong crowd." She said the school does not maintain discipline. But her transfer request was turned down. "It makes me upset," said Adams, 29.
Diane Brown, 39, said she felt pride when her daughter completed sixth grade at Malcolm X Elementary School. But in September, 12-year-old Whitney is supposed to enter seventh grade at Johnson Junior High School, which Brown described as "just low on everything -- reading, math and the other subjects."
Brown plans to wait until January, when she can apply for Whitney to attend an "out-of-boundary" school -- Hine Junior High School -- although there is no guarantee that Whitney won't be placed on a waiting list. In the meantime, Whitney will have to study at Johnson for at least one year. "I have no choice but to be okay with it," Brown said, releasing a sigh.