With four themed magnet schools and one charter school drawing students from across the city regardless of attendance boundaries, School District 186 prides itself on offering “choice” to Springfield families who want to put their children in unique educational settings. [See “Choice schools,” April 7, 2011]. But besides the popular magnet schools Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton is so keen on expanding, District 186 is required by federal law to offer a different kind of school choice, “Public School Choice,” to any student at a high-poverty school that has underperformed for at least two straight years.
District 186 has followed that requirement in the past, but this year is looking for a way out. Instead of offering Public School Choice to every student at each failing school, the district is hoping to offer the option only to three students at each failing school. Rather than offer Public School Choice to more than 4,000 schoolchildren, as it did last year, the district would offer it to about 40 students. The waiver request is currently in draft form as the district waits for feedback from the Illinois State Board of Education, but a final waiver application is due by July 30.
“We’re required by law to offer it to every kid in the school, but we’re getting to the point where we have no choice,” says Larry McVey, the district’s coordinator of Title I programs. Under the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, Title I schools – those with high poverty rates, generally 75 percent or higher – receive additional federal dollars but are also subject to more rules. One of those rules is that districts must offer students the option of transferring to a better performing school if their own school fails to make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for two years in a row. McVey says that as No Child Left Behind standards rise, more and more schools fail to meet them, leaving the district with fewer and fewer schools to which students from failing schools can move.
Though it has the option to move Public School Choice students to any school in the district, District 186 only moves them to other Title I schools. Asked why kids from poverty schools can only go to other poverty schools, McVey responded that a non-Title I school wouldn’t have all of the same supports, such as parent educators, who check in with families, ensuring they make it to parent-teacher conferences and sometimes connecting them to such services as clothing or food banks.
This year, 18 of more than 30 district schools are Title I schools and 13 of them had to offer Public School Choice. That’s up from seven the year before and two in the 2008-2009 school year. Though two more schools will become Title I schools next year, for a total of 20, it’s likely that even more Title I schools won’t have made AYP for a second year in a row and will have to offer Public School Choice.
Whether or not the district is permitted to offer Public School Choice to only some of the students at each failing school, as usual Springfield will not have to allow moves for all applicants. In the past, District 186 has denied moves for anywhere from 73 to 90 percent of applicants.
ISBE does not oversee how districts decide who moves, and McVey says federal guidelines are murky at best. He says that individual schools in District 186 often rank students according to low-income and academic performance and then he calls parents to ensure they’re applying for a transfer for the right reasons.
“The perception of school choice is that ‘I don’t like my janitor, so this is my ticket out.’ In actuality, it’s not that at all,” McVey says. “It’s a federal mandate that says, ‘Look, if you’re at a low performing school and your child is low income and low performing, then you may have the option or opportunity to transfer to another school that would be performing better than you.’”
In the 2008-2009 school year, only two Springfield schools offered Public School Choice to a total of 800 students. Thirty-one applied for a transfer and three were actually moved. The next year, seven schools had to offer Public School Choice to 2,173 students. Ninety-nine of those students applied for a transfer and the district allowed 26 of them to change schools. For the current school year, the district offered Public School Choice to 4,108 students at 13 different schools. One hundred and twenty-eight students applied for a transfer and 29 moved to a different school.
Since 2008, most schools have only transferred between zero and four students each year, but two schools have transferred many more students at a time. Graham Elementary School moved 15 students this year, and Washington Middle School moved 20 students the year before.
Contact Rachel Wells at email@example.com.