Hamilton County student transfer program in jeopardy

Hamilton County student transfer program in jeopardy

February 19th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Rick Smith, superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, discusses education in his office.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should student transfers from struggling schools be eliminated?


Elementary Schools

Clifton Hills Elementary: 7 to Alpine Crest Elementary, 2 to Falling Water Elementary

Calvin Donaldson Elementary: 10 to Lookout Mountain Elementary, 6 to Lookout Valley Elementary

Eastside Elementary: 15 to Soddy Elementary, 13 to Allen Elementary

Hillcrest Elementary: 13 to Snowhill Elementary

Orchard Knob Elementary: 2 to Allen Elementary, 2 to Daisy Elementary

Rivermont Elementary: 1 to Falling Water Elementary, 1 to Soddy Elementary

Woodmore Elementary: 40 to Ooltewah Elementary, 7 to Snowhill Elementary

Middle Schools

Dalewood Middle: 22 to Loftis Middle, 3 to Soddy-Daisy Middle

East Lake Academy: 8 to Brown Middle, 13 to East Hamilton Middle/High

East Ridge Middle: 7 to Ooltewah Middle, 14 to Signal Mountain Middle/High

Lookout Valley Middle: 1 to East Hamilton Middle/High

Orchard Knob Middle: 57 to Hunter Middle, 21 to Ooltewah Middle

Tyner Middle Academy: 4 to Hixson Middle, 1 to Red Bank Middle

High Schools

Brainerd High: 118 to Ooltewah High, 12 to Sale Creek High

Howard School of Academics and Technology: 12 to Sale Creek High, 47 to Signal Mountain Middle/High

Red Bank High: 10 to Hixson High, 4 to Sale Creek High

Soddy-Daisy High: 1 to Hixson High

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education


Across the state, 57,254 students were eligible for school transfers in 2008-09, though only 2,465 -- about 4 percent -- actually transferred. In the same year, 154,615 of the nation's 672,101 students, or about 23 percent, elected to transfer.

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith wants to eliminate transfers that for a decade have allowed students to leave struggling schools for a chance at a better education elsewhere.

The change is made possible by a waiver granted to the state from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Smith said the action could take effect as early as next year if approved by the Hamilton County Board of Education, though he emphasized that the transfers would not end abruptly.

Locally, some saw the school choice provision as a safeguard for educational equality and opportunity by giving students in the inner city a chance to attend what they perceived as better suburban schools.

More than half the transfers in Hamilton County are students from high-poverty and majority-black schools, and ending the transfers would penalize them disproportionately, critics say.

Officials point to the high cost of transportation associated with the transfers -- nearly $1 million a year -- and the complication of busing students across the county as major reasons for booting the program.

But Eddie Holmes, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he doesn't buy the argument that it's too costly.

"It has always cost too much money to bus black kids out of black neighborhoods into white neighborhoods," he said.

As head of the local NAACP chapter, Holmes was involved in a 26-year desegregation lawsuit against Chattanooga City Schools that began in 1960.

Holmes said the real issue is educational equality, because some inner-city schools aren't up to par with those in outlying areas.

"Don't assume that all schools are equal, because they're not," he said. "They're not even close."

Losing the school transfer requirement could be one of Hamilton County's first moves toward discarding the shackles of No Child Left Behind, which was criticized widely as being too harsh and unrealistic.

But the federal waiver granted to Tennessee and nine other states also gives them room to scrap other NCLB requirements.

Among them is the after-school tutoring that has been offered to students in schools that fell short of testing benchmarks.

The value of transfers

The value of allowing transfers has been widely debated nationally. Ending transfers would save Hamilton County Schools more than $800,000 a year.

Across Tennessee and the nation, only a fraction of eligible students actually elect to transfer. And school systems spend millions to bus students to schools out of their regular attendance zones.

"I think there's a sense that in most school districts it has not been an effective initiative. That's because it was too easy for school districts to keep it from being effective," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit educational think tank.

Because school systems had to direct money to transportation, Petrilli said they had no real incentive to see robust participation.

"I think what we've learned is that having some kind of federal mandate for those kids to go elsewhere just wasn't working," he said.

Hamilton County Schools will spend about $830,000 this school year to bus nearly 500 students -- more than double the number of students who participated last school year. Yet in total, more than 8,500 students in 17 county schools are eligible for transfers, according to figures provided by the Hamilton County Department of Education.

If NCLB transfers are taken off the table, students will have to attend their zoned neighborhood school unless they are admitted to a magnet school or receive a special hardship transfer, which the school system grants case-by-case for those with issues such as medical problems.

Smith said he doesn't want to end the transfer program suddenly. Students should be allowed to finish at their current school before moving back into the schools they are zoned geographically for, he said. For example, a middle school student could stay at his transfer school until eighth grade before moving back to his zoned high school.

"I would recommend we phase out that process," he said. "I would not recommend we just discontinue."

School board member Jeffrey Wilson said he thinks school transfers do provide some value to the students participating.

"I think it gives them some opportunities that they might not have in their neighborhood school," he said.

But if any change is made, Wilson said he hopes the board will use caution.

"I am greatly concerned," he said. "Whatever needs to happen needs to be done with an extremely thoughtful and slow pace."

The school board hasn't taken up the issue, but board members said they would begin discussing transfers soon.

Local decisions

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said participation in student transfers varies across the state. And school leaders say the program has had mixed results.

School systems are frustrated with having to hold back an exact percentage of their federal funds for transfers and after-school tutoring programs. And because more and more schools were labeled as failing under the escalating goals of NCLB, Huffman said systems struggled to match schools with higher-performing ones.

"It becomes a relatively unmanageable situation fairly quickly," he said.

Huffman noted that nothing with the state's NCLB waiver will force districts to stop offering the transfers.

"The money is still there," he said.

But the decisions on how to use it should be up to local school systems, Huffman said.

If that funding is taken away from transportation, some say it should be diverted back into the very schools some are trying to get out of.

"Right now those children have left those schools because they don't feel they're getting a good enough education," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit that supports local schools.

"The goal here is to now use those resources that have been freed up to improve those schools," he said. "If the decision is to end the opportunity for children to move from one school to another, then it's critical the neighborhood schools they go to are really outstanding schools."

Stephanie Redding, whose daughter uses an NCLB transfer to attend Hunter Middle School in Ooltewah, said flexibility is important for parents and students.

After moving to Chattanooga, she said she put her daughter in East Lake Academy because of what she had heard about Orchard Knob Middle School. But at East Lake, her daughter was picked on and was getting into fights, she said.

At Hunter, her daughter raised her grades from a D average to B's and C's, Redding said. And if her daughter is made to go back to a zoned school, Redding said the school system should invest in making schools like Orchard Knob better.

"If Orchard Knob was a bad school, you should take that money you're spending on busing them and spend it on getting good teachers at Orchard Knob," she said.

Redding said people flee inner-city schools for better opportunities for their children.

"We need the same opportunities here," she said. "If you're going to take the bus system away, then the money that was going toward that needs to go to the inner-city schools."