Friday, March 2, 2012

Musical chairs

In the past, when elementary schools in our district were declared “schools in need of assistance” (“SINA schools”) under No Child Left Behind, their families were given the option of transferring out to other, non-SINA schools. A few years ago, my kids’ elementary school took in dozens of new students that way.

Now, the state is applying for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Apparently, if the federal government grants the waiver, districts would no longer be required to offer the transfer option to families at SINA schools. This would mean that the kids who were allowed to transfer to our school could be required to return to their designated attendance area. Rumor has it that our district would, in fact, take advantage of that rule and require those students to switch schools a second time – if only because the school district would then have more control over how many kids attend each of its schools.

This strikes me as a good example of the kind of unintended consequence that “education reform” proposals are apt to lead to. The government invited these kids to switch schools on the theory that they had been disadvantaged by their existing school assignment. Many of the SINA schools had a fairly high degree of turnover already, so some of the students who transferred to our school may have already switched schools before. Now, just a few years later, the government may force those kids to switch schools yet again – meaning that some of them may end up having switched schools twice or even three times just during the course of elementary school. How can that possibly help disadvantaged kids?

I hope the speculation is false, and that our district will allow any child who transferred out of a SINA school to finish out elementary school at his or her current school.

More coverage of the waiver proposals is available here.


KD said...

I've been wondering about the very same issue, especially because a friend of mine has a child starting kindergarten this year and thinks she will have several schools to choose from due to SINA.

I'd wonder what the district would decide with siblings who will be starting school..will they go to school in the designated attendance area, or will they be allowed to go to school with their sibling.

I've always found this part of NCLB troubling, because I'm not sure it ever served its original purpose. When kids are not attending school in their designated attendance area, that means that school can lose teachers. For the school that receives the transfers, I'm sure that is causes disruption there as well.

Chris said...

KD -- Siblings do complicate the issue. I wonder if it would really be that hard to accommodate them, though. At some point, the reality of serving individual families ought to trump control and efficiency concerns, especially if the number of affected kids is relatively small.

The district certainly ought to inform people ASAP what its approach will be, so people making choices this coming year will know the future consequences of those choices.

I agree that the SINA transfer rule was pretty questionable from the beginning. If kids in a particular school are struggling academically, I certainly wouldn't leap to the conclusion that it was somehow the fault of the building or the teachers who work there, or that moving those kids to a different building would address the problem. It sure seems like a funny way to provide "assistance" to a school in need of it. But the federal government is more willing to blame buildings and teachers than to address the socioeconomic disparities that are probably the more explanatory factor.

The influx of SINA transfers did cause some disruption at Hoover, if only because the school population got so large that they had to create new classrooms out of what was formerly non-classroom space (and they had to build a "temporary" addition), and had to add teachers and rearrange class lists at the last minute. The biggest disruption, though, wasn't because of the added students, but because of the administration's overreaction to the presence of those students. The influx of SINA students coincided with the implementation of PBIS and the ratcheting up of the school-wide focus on obedience and behavior. Maybe those things were destined to happen anyway, but it's hard not to suspect that they were at least in part a reaction to the presence of these kids from that "school in need of assistance."

Sarah said...


The district may not necessarily have to revoke transfers, but they may have the option to no longer provide bussing to those students who transferred.

In my observations of the students who transferred, it tended to be the more proficient students that left SINA schools. This policy allowed Title I funds to pay for bussing that went to students who normally wouldn't receive Title I funding. It was a bad policy from the beginning.

Julie VanDyke said...

Hi Chris,
I'm sure you'll be surprised to hear I have a lot to way about this blog topic. I'll have to do it in pieces due to evening plans to attend UAY fundraiser tonight...but, in the meantime, I may be wrong but I will be VERY surprised if they can or would even think they could get away with forced reverse of already granted SINA transfers. They have already done what they can do by no longer paying to bus new SINA transfers (something Plugge had chosen to do instead of using that same money in a responsible "green" manner for tutoring as was the district's option all along). Still, even in disagreement with the whole SINA transfer, white-flight thing (why on earth would they choose to bus kids out instead of spending that money on tutoring????), I think that if they granted the previous kids SINA transfers, they should honor the busing of those kids through the end of their attendance at the given school they were transferred to.
Best wishes,
Julie VanDyke

KD said...

I'm not at all for the district providing busing for the SINA transfers, especially if we were going to be extending the transfer rights to siblings.

I recall an article about this issue in the P-C quite a while ago. I don't know how much the district spends, but surely this money could be spent in a better way, instead of just targeted toward selected families.

One of the families we know that has transferred to another school for SINA reasons lives incredibly close to the school they are designated to attend. They receive busing to a school that is quite far away. It is one thing to protect the right of this family to continue to attend the school...another thing to use district money to pay for it.

Chris said...

Thanks, Sarah, Julie, and KD for the info and input. I agree that it was a bad policy from the beginning, and I can understand how it might be hard at some point to keep running buses if they were to phase the transfer option out. Still, it doesn't seem fair to tell families at a disadvantaged school that they can transfer, with busing, to a different school, and then, just two or three years later, tell them the deal is off -- meaning that some of them will effectively be forced to change schools again.

Maybe that kind of thing is inevitable in a big institution like our school district, but it wouldn't engender much trust in future interactions that the district has with the people it serves. It reminds me of the district's interaction with the Pheasant Ridge families. Sometimes commitments turn out to have been unwise, but is that a sufficient reason to back out on them?

Maybe it's too strong to call the district's SINA transfer option an open-ended "commitment," but given the ostensible reason for offering it -- to help kids in disadvantaged schools -- it's easy to see how the families involved would be caught off guard by a reversal, and might have made a different decision if they had known in advance that it was a possibility. If I had to make my child change elementary schools a second (or even third) time, because I took advantage of an offer that was supposed to help her, I'd feel pretty betrayed.

Erika said...

Hi, I just stumbled on this blog because today I received a letter regarding the SINA status of Coralville Central. My daughter was to be starting school (kindergarten) there in four days. My frustration is that one of the schools that is open to transfer (Wickham) is much closer to our home and therefore much more convenient for her to attend. We would be able to bike to school safely from where we live. I want to go into the office tomorrow and ask about transferring, but I also want to ask why they had to wait until the week school is starting to send out these letters. In the letter is says that if you don't hear from them that the transfer has been approved that you have to attend the original school's ice cream social. It is frustrating as a parent of a new kindergarten student to be offered a transfer, but not receive notification of such offer until the week school starts (after we have already attended orientation etc. at her original school). Why would a transfer request be denied? What do they base their acceptance on? And why do they make the due date for the transfer application one week after school starts? Also, I had no idea until reading the above comments that there is a possibility that even if we were granted the transfer that they might revoke it the next year. Very frustrating for a parent.

Anonymous said...

The musical chairs extends to the classroom level. Mere hour(s) before the icecream social dozens of parents muttered "What the hell?!" after receiving a message from the principal that they split up the 3/4 and 5/6 classes and that "if you got a letter from Teacher A, you are now in Teacher C's room".

mariaconz said...

I know that No Child Left Behind is not popular with a lot of folks, and I understand some of the reasons why. Teachers don't like it because they're measured and evaluated on learning deficits largely created by neglectful parents, not bad teachers.

Yet I also know that there's no way that the Iowa City Community School District or the board would recognize that serious problems exist in Iowa City schools without labels they can't walk away from.

Denial is king in the Iowa City area, whether it's bad schools, bad parenting, sexual abuse, or the incompetence and corruption of elected officials. Labels like Schools in Need of Assistance and District in Need of Assistance cut through some of that denial, not all.

Chris said...

Erika -- Thanks for commenting! I think that must be a very hard decision to make, and it doesn't help that the whole process occurs so late -- literally in the days before school is supposed to start. I'm pretty conservative when it comes to moving kids from one school to another -- any apparent advantage of a different school could disappear as quickly as it appeared. It's an especially hard decision to make with a kindergartner -- who knows what seven years might bring? It sounds like Wickham has a lot of advantages for you -- you'd just have to cross your fingers about your ability to stay there as the years go on. But you have to cross your fingers no matter what you choose. Good luck with the decision.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Yes, talk about big changes at the last minute! More discussion here.

Maria -- Thanks for commenting! I can't agree about the SINA designation, though. Even if I agreed with using test scores as a measure of educational success, I would object to using low test scores as the indicator of whether a school is "failing" -- test scores are influenced by too many things other than the quality of the school and the teaching.