Barrett: On the quiet despair of being consigned to a failing school

Barrett: On the quiet despair of being consigned to a failing school

February 26th, 2012 by Steve Barrett in Opinion Columns

The lifeline is about to be cut.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, Hamilton County students, like students around the country, have the option to transfer out of failing public schools and go to better ones outside their regular attendance zones.

But not for much longer.

Acting on Tennessee's new federal waiver from No Child, Superintendent Rick Smith proposes that the school board end the transfers starting as early as the coming academic year. Mercifully, students already at a transfer school would get to complete whatever years of education that school covers before being forced to return to their zone. But new transfers would mostly stop.

And that stinks.

I loathe as much as the next sentient being the intrusive No Child Left Behind law. But my objection is to federal busybodies, not to the transfers -- which are a good idea despite federal support.

Smith is undoubtedly appalled by the $830,000 cost of transporting the students. I don't blame him. But cutting off the transfers would be demoralizing for the students.

Word combinations that my typing fingers seldom compose include, "Eddie Holmes, former president of the local NAACP, is dead right," or "I agree with Eddie Holmes," or "Would somebody please listen to Eddie Holmes, for crying out loud?" But while I don't see evidence for Holmes' suggestion that racism is the motive behind halting the transfers, he couldn't be more correct in his diagnosis that students do not get the same education in all the county's schools.

That helps explain why more than 400 students this year have chosen to go to public schools other than the ones they are zoned for. That is more than double the number who switched to better schools last year, so interest in transfers is clearly growing.

Imagine, therefore, the horror -- the terror, really -- of parents who have been banking on their children being able to escape a failing school, only to learn that that option is now likely to be cut off.

Or don't imagine it. Just listen to Stephanie Redding, whose daughter thrived after transferring to Hunter Middle. Redding had first avoided Orchard Knob Middle because of its reputation, and put her daughter in East Lake Academy. The girl was subjected to bullying there, however, and was getting into fights -- the kinds of things that make it difficult to focus on, you know, learning. But at Hunter, the Times Free Press reported, "her daughter raised her grades from a D average to B's and C's ... ."

Hope she enjoyed it because if the school board ends the transfers, she'll sooner or later be shuffled right back to the zone that stifled her achievement. While some new transfers would be permitted, they would be limited to students admitted to magnet schools or those who face various hardships.

Let us forgo, for now, discussion of the curious view that a counterfeit education at a bad school doesn't qualify as a "hardship" and focus instead on the fact that shutting down the transfers is the equivalent of telling a starving man to pay no attention to that apricot fritter behind the curtain. The parents who request transfers realize that their children could get a better education on safer campuses elsewhere in the county. But they will be denied an opportunity they know could set their children on the path to a decent life.

What could be worse than that?

Oh I know! All the patronizing gabble about plowing unspent transfer money back into the bad schools to which the kids will now be consigned.

Parents are choosing to remove their children from those schools because of long-term, demonstrated failure, just as they are choosing to send their children to other schools because of demonstrated success. The good results at the receiving schools are a known quantity, while the notion that pouring cash into weak schools will fix them is lard-caked guesswork.

We're talking here about children who are sharp and eager to learn. They recognize a good thing, or a bad thing, when they see it. It seems the board could maintain this last resort so that those kids, at least, wouldn't face the daily anguish of being trapped in a school that doesn't work -- and knowing it.