Student transfer option at risk in Hamilton County

photo Rick Smith

IF YOU GO• What: Hamilton County Board of Education meeting• When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday• Where: Central offices, 3074 Hickory Valley RoadMOVING OUTIf the No Child Left Behind transfer program is phased out, students will have fewer options for transferring out of their zoned schools. Remaining options include attending one of Hamilton County's magnet schools or receiving a hardship transfer, which officials say are granted on a limited, case-by-case basis for reasons such as medical issues.To learn about the system's magnet program, call 209-8475.To learn about hardship transfers, call 209-8496.

Options for students to leave their zoned schools in search of a better education could narrow as the Hamilton County Board of Education considers phasing out a decade-old school transfer program.

After Tennessee received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law in February, school systems no longer must provide transportation for students from schools that didn't meet federal benchmarks to better-performing ones. The transfer option is a safeguard meant to provide a route out of some of the lowest-performing schools.

But that safeguard came with an annual price tag of nearly $1 million in local transportation costs, and national experts still debate what effects, if any, the transfer program had on student achievement.

In Hamilton County, about 500 students chose to transfer this year, records show, a figure that is more than double the number of transfer students in the 2010-11 school year. That's just a fraction of the thousands of students who were eligible.

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he doesn't want to end the program abruptly. He's recommending the board phase out transfers so students can finish the grades at their current school before being moved back to a zoned school.

"I expect it to pass," he said. "We're going to continue No Child Left Behind transfers until we age our kids out of their current schools."

The board is set to vote on the issue at its Thursday meeting.

A primary concern for Hamilton County administrators, and those across the country, is the high cost of transporting a small group of students. Locally, busing costs about $830,000 annually.

The waiver from NCLB allows the school system to reallocate those funds as the program dwindles. Smith and board members say it will be important that any available funds be used in the struggling schools that students are leaving.

Board member Jeffrey Wilson, who represents several low-performing schools, said he would like to see the transfer program continued.

"If not, then we need some programs in place for these kids," he said. "If you don't have the opportunity to transfer out, then we need to make sure we've got programs in these zoned schools. That's the issue. It's an equity issue."

Some in the community see the issue as one of racial or socioeconomic equality. Many of the 17 schools that students are eligible to transfer from have high concentrations of poor and minority students. But for other parents, the issue is as simple as having choices if they don't think their zoned school is the best option for their children.

Because Calvin Donaldson Elementary School is one of the low-performing schools, Joanna Vaughn had hoped to transfer her son, who will be in kindergarten at the school next year, to Lookout Mountain Elementary School. But administrators told her that, barring home school or private school, there was little chance of attending another school, even if she provided her own transportation.

Vaughn said she hopes the school board will continue the program to provide other options for families.

"Just from our perspective, I think it would be great to have a choice," she said. "I think it would be great for all the families in this area."