Transfers barely a blip on school’s radar

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Parent Felipa Mena

photo by John Booz

Parent Felipa Mena

Last year, faculty morale slumped at Hans Christian Andersen Community Academy on the Near West Side when the school learned it was among 50 schools that had to offer its students transfers to other schools under the No Child Left Behind act.

Then, when the School Board announced the schools Andersen children could attend—Sabin Magnet and Lozano Bilingual Academy—it was like pouring salt in the wounds. Sabin and Lozano both have specialized academic programs that make them popular with parents from around the city.

At Andersen, the faculty views this as unfair competition. “We take everyone,” explains Vice Principal Sherry Whitmore. “It’s not fair that those other schools get to choose who they take.”

To make matters worse, some of the school’s most academically able students were among the first to request transfers, according to Whitmore.

But as it turned out, the new transfer program had little impact on the school of some 760 students. Only 19 transferred to Sabin and Lozano, and several of them returned by the end of the school year. “They missed it here,” says Whitmore.

With that experience under its belt, Andersen barely flinched at the School Board’s latest round of No Child announcements, especially since there will be fewer seats available for transferring students this year. “I imagine that the impact will be small,” says

Principal Suzanne Dunaway, whose school will again have to provide choice. “What’s new is that [students] are going to be offered tutoring.”

Dunaway’s forecast likely will hold true throughout the district. In August, state school officials announced that 365 Chicago schools had run afoul of No Child’s school performance requirements and that some 240,000 students enrolled in those schools would be eligible to transfer. However, Chicago school officials announced that only about 1,000 places at 38 schools would be available to receive students.

The remaining 200 or so schools in the city performed well enough to receive transfers but were exempted by the school board because they are either selective enrollment schools that require testing or are considered overcrowded.

For Andersen parents, last year’s transfer options, Sabin and Lozano, are now off limits because they failed to meet the NCLB guidelines. Three other nearby schools that did better—Columbus, De Diego, and Pritzker—are among those exempted.

Burr Elementary is the only school from the area, Area 5, accepting students.

Regardless, many Andersen parents remain loyal to the school.

“I like Andersen,” says Felipa Mena, who has three children currently at the school. Calling the school “wonderful,” Mena says the principal and teachers are open to the community. She says that parents are more likely to leave the school because of rising housing costs in the neighborhood than the quality of the school.

Under the federal rating system, the school is in the second year of choice because it failed, for a third year in a row, to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) in scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT).

Under an AYP measure that is in some ways more stringent than last year’s, schools this year had to have at least 40 percent of their students—both as a whole and among each of eight demographic subgroups—at or above the state standard in math and reading. The subgroups are blacks, Hispanics, whites, Asians and Native Americans; low-income students; students with disabilities; and students with limited ability in English. Last year, the minimum performance cutoff was higher—50 percent at or above standards, but subgroups were not considered separately.

Andersen, a largely Hispanic school that is 95 percent low income, has so few students in half the subgroups that they don’t count for accountability. The groups that do count at Andersen are blacks, Hispanics, limited-English students and low-income students.

For the student body as a whole, Andersen did best in math, with 35 percent meeting the requirement. Among demographic subgroups, it did best with Hispanic students—38 percent met the requirements.

In reading, 26 percent of Andersen students met the state standard. On this measure, black students did best.

While some Chicago schools required to offer choice did well on Chicago’s own accountability measures, Andersen was not one of them. In 2002, Andersen was rated as a school of “challenge,” the district’s second-lowest designation.

Meanwhile, at Sabin

Officials at Sabin say that the 16 students who transferred last year from Andersen encountered some difficulties, but that they were not overwhelming.

The transfer students tended to be in the higher grades and did not necessarily buy into the school’s dual-language program, according to Sabin Assistant Principal Beatrice Colon. They had “a lot of catching up,” she says. But she adds, “Sixth grade is a hard year anyway.”

Edna Arroyo, a member of the Sabin local school council, says she was frustrated by the choice program. Some of the Andersen students struggled academically and, in her opinion, should not have been moved. And some parents had “unrealistic expectations” for their children’s success at Sabin, she says. Even at the best schools, learning is not automatic, she says.

While Sabin continues to perform relatively well among Chicago schools, with 44 percent of students at or above state standards in reading and 49 percent in math, it wound up on the other side of the choice list this year because of the performance of one subgroup on one subject—only 31 percent of limited-English students met the mark in reading.

Lozano also became a sending school. While all groups made the grade in math, none hit 40 percent in reading.

Flavia Hernandez, the area instructional officer for Area 5, which includes Andersen, Sabin and Lozano, says that the choice program posed few problems last year. “I think principals in this area have been very good about accepting children,” she says. “If the school is being run well, I don’t think [taking in students] should hurt them.”

According to a CPS spokesperson, the district has “no way of knowing” whether the No Child transfers have had an impact on test scores.

Movement of students among schools has been a widespread feature of Chicago schools since well before No Child Left Behind. About 25 percent of CPS students move in or out of a school during the school year, according to the district’s annual report card. More than 90,000 elementary school children, roughly a fourth of the total, attend schools outside their neighborhoods due to magnet programs, desegregation efforts or overcrowding, according to CPS. Slightly more than half of high school students attend schools outside their neighborhoods, according to a Catalyst analysis.

A key difference with No Child is that, in cases where the demand exceeds the supply, preference is to be given to students with the lowest income and lowest achievement levels.

While opinions about choice vary, few Chicago officials or advocates believe it will improve schools.

“If a parent is not satisfied with the quality of the education at a local school, one can argue that the parents should have some sort of recourse,” says 1st Ward Ald. Manuel Flores, whose ward includes Andersen. “But that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Last year, Madeline Talbott, head organizer of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), said CPS was not providing enough choice under No Child. Now she says the choice requirement holds “no promise” for improving the education of children most in need. “If all you can do is transfer into another school that isn’t necessarily doing much better than your school, that’s ridiculous and a waste of money,” she says.

Others blame CPS for failing to provide enough choice to make a difference. With only one spot for every 240 students, “it’s more like the lottery than a choice program,” says George Clowes, senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit that advocates choice. “I think they could have made significantly more space available.”

In the meantime, Principal Dunaway at Andersen reports in mid-August that she has received just “a few” calls about transfers, many of them unrelated to No Child Left Behind and some from parents who want to transfer their children into the school. “I can see us achieving 40 percent [the federal minimum] next year,” she says. As for the year after that, when the cutoff increases to 47 percent, she’s not so sure.