An almost insignificant number of students transferred out of low-performing public schools in the District this year, according to recently released figures, even though more than half of the school system's 64,000 students were eligible to switch schools.
Of an estimated 25,000 to 33,000 students eligible to change schools, only 106 applied for transfers, and 68 of them were accepted. Those numbers appear startlingly small when compared with other school districts in the Washington region. In Fairfax County, for example, 119 students transferred in September from just two elementary schools, in Herndon and Reston, after those schools failed to show improvement in student performance.
The transfer of only 68 students -- which amounts to about one in every 500 students who were supposed to have the freedom to change schools -- has surprised and befuddled scholars, officials and advocates. They offered a variety of possible reasons, ranging from the short window of time parents had to apply for transfers to the difficulties of moving children to schools that are farther from their homes.
"Clearly something went wrong when only 106 parents out of at least 25,000 who were eligible applied to transfer," said Dianne M. Piche, executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a nonprofit group formed in 1982 to monitor civil rights practices. "But there are other districts, regrettably, where the numbers are also low."
Piche, who co-edited a May study on student transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, said that many school districts failed to provide clear information and enough time for parents to make informed decisions about transferring their children.
Under the federal act, students are to be given the option of attending a different school if their school fails to show test-score improvements for two years in a row. The act allows states and the District to define their academic standards and has been criticized for not offering a meaningful way of determining whether school districts are complying with the transfer provision.
Several education experts said that the low number of transfer applications was discouraging, given the level of dissatisfaction among parents.
In the District, parents who wished to transfer their children had to file an application in person between Aug. 7 and 21, and packets were mailed out less than two weeks before that enrollment period.
"Two weeks is an unrealistic notice period," Piche said. "Most parents have already made their plans for the school year, in many cases for child care or after-school programs and for their children's siblings."
She added that mailing packets is not necessarily an effective way of informing parents because many might have moved or might not be able to read English.
School officials said they are trying to learn why so few District students have transferred since 2003, when the act's transfer provisions took effect in the city.
"We need to find out about why parents didn't opt for it, rather than making guesses," said Robert C. Rice, a top deputy of Superintendent Clifford B. Janey. "The time is right for us, the school district, to do a sample or study that would give us more information on why parents transferred or did not transfer their children. The time is right for us to ask those questions."
Rice shared Piche's concern that parents might not know about their rights under the federal act. "Do enough of our communities and families understand No Child Left Behind, and what does it mean for a school to be needing improvement?" he asked.
When the District released its test scores in August and announced that 68 of 149 schools were "in need of improvement," officials warned that there would not be nearly enough spaces to accommodate the number of students eligible for transfers.
At the high school level, where parent dissatisfaction appears to be the most severe, all but three of 16 schools were deemed in need of improvement. The three remaining schools -- Banneker Senior High School, Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the School Without Walls -- have special admission criteria and were not open to students wishing to transfer.
At the middle and junior high school level, only the Thurgood Marshall Educational Center, which has children from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, seemed to have adequate test scores and enough open spaces to accommodate transfer students. But by Aug. 9, the start of the two-week period when transfer applications were accepted, the school's seats already had been filled.
In the end, approximately 900 seats were available for transfer students, all of them in elementary schools. But in reality, each school had only two "feeder" schools to which students could transfer, and parents often did not find those alternatives attractive. The two grades with the highest number of transfer students were the second grade, with 15 transfers, and the fourth grade, with 17.
Many parents are deeply dissatisfied with the school system as a whole but are willing to work with their children's individual schools rather than disrupt their education by transferring them to schools that might not be better, said Darlene T. Allen, president of the District's coalition of parent-teacher associations. "To most parents, the options were simply not satisfactory," she said. "The range of options wasn't large."
Rice agreed. "There were probably too few options for parents to feel comfortable accepting them," he said, adding that many parents might be attached to a particular teacher or instructional program that is effective even if they have doubts about the school as a whole.
Walker-Jones Elementary School at 100 L St. NW and Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center at 4650 Benning Rd. SE had the most students transfer: 13 each.
At Walker-Jones, the principal was removed recently after questions were raised about an illegitimate doctorate that she had claimed on her official record. Ray Bledsoe, who became interim principal Sept. 16, said he is trying to improve relations with parents of the school's 464 students.
A principal at Gibbs Elementary School for 18 years, until 1999, Bledsoe has come out of retirement three times to temporarily lead elementary schools. He attributed his success at Gibbs to high parental involvement and a dedicated staff.
"I had almost 100 percent attendance at every PTA meeting," he said. "We had a good staff that had the trust of the parents, and there was very little turnover of staff members. Teachers were trained, and parents were brought in for workshops on parenting. I left that school in very good shape."
He cautioned that improvements at Walker-Jones would take time. "You cannot compare schools, even schools in low-income communities," Bledsoe said. "What works at one school may not work in another."