Few ask to switch schools
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
When the federal No Child Left Behind Act arrived in Hawai'i this year and more than one-fourth of the state's public school children were eligible to transfer to a different school, educators didn't know if they should expect an avalanche or a trickle of requests.
Just in case, they braced for the worst-case scenario: a bureaucratic nightmare of organizing student transportation and the physical shuffling of thousands of students. Parent letters were mailed out in a dozen languages, principals were prepped on procedures and the Department of Education waited for the deluge.
It didn't come.
In Hawai'i and in school districts across the country, it seems that families are loath to leave their neighborhood schools.
About 48,000 children in Hawai'i attend high-poverty schools that have consistently failed to reach academic benchmarks set by the state for reading and math.
Yet few families have taken advantage of the provision of the federal education law known as school choice, which allows students from failing campuses to transfer to schools with higher standardized test scores. The DOE received 131 transfer requests from families, or less than 1 percent of those eligible.
Many parents who chose to disregard the school transfer option cited their children's friends, proximity, satisfaction with the education they were receiving and the availability of tutoring and after-school programs on their campus.
Those children who did receive transfers will switch schools tomorrow, the first day of the second quarter of the school year under the state's traditional calendar.
Young Mahalath, a Palolo Valley resident who sends his 9-year-old son to Palolo Elementary, said he wouldn't think of switching his child to a school far away from his neighborhood even though he could have applied for it.
"He's got friends here," Mahalath said. "He's got lots of friends, and he likes it."
Nationally there's also been little interest in transfers. Just 37 students at a school district in Colorado Springs, Colo., have chosen to move to a new school. In Fulton County, Ga., 331 of 11,000 eligible children were expected to transfer.
Maribel Sicely is one parent who took advantage of the option to transfer. She asked that her 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son move from Wahiawa Elementary to nearby Hale Kula Elementary, which is at Schofield.
Sicely said it's a 10-minute drive to drop off her children in the mornings. They attend the after-school A-Plus program, and her husband picks them up after school. Both children switched to the new school last week because Hale Kula was willing to take them early.
"My husband is in the military, and we wanted the kids at a school on base," she said. "The transition was very smooth. We were able to work with the vice principal at Hale Kula, and she was willing to take them right away. I was very worried that they both might not get in. I have a friend who could only transfer her daughter to another school but not her son. I was very blessed to get both of them in."
The requests for transfers and tutoring are new options available to parents under the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal education law that mandates yearly improvement in the nation's high-poverty schools. In Hawai'i, 82 schools did not meet the state's academic goals last year.
Two of Antonette McLean's three children attend Palolo Elementary, which she said is close to family members and provides after-school tutoring.
"This isn't a perfect school," McLean said. "Most of the kids are learning English, so their scores aren't as high. But they have the VISTA (tutoring) program and special services. I like it here."
Educators had suspected that many parents might wait until next year to apply for transfers because the parent-choice program is new and untested. They also thought parents might stick with the neighborhood schools so their children could remain with their friends, participate easily in after-school activities and not have to go through the disruption of switching schools midyear, especially with schools using different calendars.
Transferring also may have been limited because slots at better schools are hard to find.
But national and local opinion polls also have consistently shown that people tend to have a higher opinion of their neighborhood school than of other campuses.
The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools released during the summer showed that the closer people were to a school, the more they liked it.
More than 70 percent of parents of public school children gave their school a grade of A or B. Just under half gave the schools in their community a grade of A or B. And only 24 percent of people gave the nation's public schools as a whole a grade of A or B; 16 percent gave them a D or F.
The 2001 Hawai'i Opinion Poll on Public Education showed that people feel much the same way here, even though they don't think quite as favorably of Hawai'i's schools as other people think of their community schools.
Nearly half of Hawai'i's parents rated their child's school with a grade of A or B. Only 19.4 percent of parents gave public schools statewide a grade of A or B.
Lima Paleafei, whose 8-year-old daughter attends Honowai Elementary School, one of the campuses children could transfer from, said she is happy with the school and the teachers.
"It's fine if other people want to move, but I'm satisfied with my child here," Paleafei said. "I was a school teacher myself, so I help her a lot. This is a two-way street with the parents and the teachers. A lot of times parents just send their kids to school and expect the teachers to do everything. I'm right behind my child's education."
Alfonso Fernandez, whose daughter Aubrey, 5, also attends Honowai Elementary, said he couldn't be more pleased with the school. Aubrey arrived from the Philippines a year ago and is in first grade, but is already bilingual in Tagalog and English.
"My daughter has learned a lot here," Fernandez said. "Even I was surprised."
Although Hawai'i has long had a geographic exception rule that allowed children to transfer to different campuses, the No Child Left Behind Act marks the first time that low-income children get priority over other students.
Because poverty is considered a major risk factor for children, the No Child Left Behind Act targets schools where at least 45 percent of the student body receive free- or reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty. The schools receive federal money to improve learning and, in turn, are expected to demonstrate annual progress in academics.
Hawai'i had 127 high-poverty schools last year.
Lisa Sarcedo, a parent with children attending Palolo Elementary, said she wants them to remain there because of Success For All, the school reform program Palolo is involved in. She said other schools that are not in high-poverty areas might not have the same number of before- and after-school programs.
"I believe in the program. I believe in the teachers," Sarcedo said. "This school is doing fine. It's a small campus. The kids get lots of attention. This school can offer a lot more than some other schools."
Reach Jennifer Hiller at email@example.com or 525-8084.