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Boundary wars: New law lets parents choose school

But Hall County's proposal could put that choice at risk

POSTED: July 10, 2009 5:48 p.m.

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Tane Shannon felt she had no choice.

When the parent of a rising Johnson High School freshman stood before the Hall County school board last November, she asked if there was anything board members could do to improve the school that some perceive as lackluster.

Nearly a dozen other parents at the meeting agreed, saying they felt Johnson lacked student and parent involvement, a dynamic athletic program and spirit-fueled Friday nights.

"I really care about this school," Shannon, a Johnson graduate herself, told the board. "I love Johnson High School. I don't want to put on another jersey on Friday nights."

Yet she's made the difficult decision to pull her daughter out of the Hall County system and enroll her at Buford High School. She did so before a new state law took effect July 1 that might have permitted her to transfer her daughter to another Hall County high school.

The General Assembly passed House Bill 251 this year that will give parents like Shannon more options if they are not satisfied with the schools for which their kids are zoned. The law lets parents request transfers to schools in other attendance districts that may have openings within their designated school system.

The new law is proving to be unpopular with local superintendents. But not so with parents. Shannon said she's relieved legislators are heeding parents' cries for school choice.

"I think (parents) definitely want it," she said. "I'm glad it happened because now people can go where they feel. ... I'm curious to see what it's going to do to some of the schools."

Superintendents are nervous about how the law might change their schools. In Hall and Jackson counties, officials say they have qualms about potentially costly personnel issues and racial and socio-economic inequities that could stem from the new law.

How the law works

Federal law requires students at schools with No Child Left Behind "Needs Improvement" labels or students with special needs to have first priority in transferring to schools with empty seats. If the schools are not at capacity after those first-priority students' needs are met, HB 251 transfers are then considered. If the number of children seeking transfers to a school exceeds the school's empty seats, a lottery determines which students will be eligible.

The law requires parents to furnish all transportation to the transfer school. And schools that are less than four years old are not eligible to receive HB 251 transfers. Students granted a transfer are not guaranteed a spot at the transfer school's feeder school.

All 180 school systems in the state must comply with the law except for a handful of charter school systems and the Gwinnett and Forsyth systems, which have an Investing in Educational Excellence, also known as IE2, contracts with the state, freeing them of certain state laws in exchange for more accountability.

The Gainesville school system was one of the state's first charter systems and is not required to comply with the law. Yet the Gainesville system's five elementary schools are all already schools of choice.

Hall County has applied to be an IE2 system, which would also exempt it from the law. But Eloise Barron, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said any transfers granted this fall under HB 251 will be honored throughout the upcoming school year regardless of whether the system gets its IE2 status approved this year.

More choice or more chaos?

Some superintendents say they don't want HB 251. Before the new law was signed, Hall County had already initiated three programs of choice for this fall. Schofield said he believes in "controlled choice," but the "top-down" school choice mandate has the potential to make the upcoming school year more hectic than necessary.

"Yes, we'd like to give families more and more choices and opportunities like the World Language Academy, like the da Vinci school, like the Lanier Career Charter Academy," Schofield said. "But we've also got to do that within the realities that we've got a fixed amount of space and a fixed amount of resources, and with 26,000 students, you've got to do that in a non-chaotic way. My challenge to (HB) 251 is that it just adds more chaos to an already uncertain era in the economic times that we're in."

Schofield said neighborhood schools often thrive because its parents live in the same area, creating a sense of community and driving the success of schools.

He said he feels now is not the time for the state to mandate a disruption in neighborhood school zoning.

"It has bad timing because we have enough uncertainty right now in these economic times," Schofield said. "We hope we've got our personnel situation just about exactly where it needs to be. And with mandates from the state level about how many children can be in a classroom, this just has the potential to throw more surprises in the mix at the last minute when you thought you had enough teachers at a certain school."

Schofield said he is concerned the law will cost Hall County and other school districts more in personnel. The law comes after Hall County laid off 100 teachers this spring to balance its $211 million budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1.

Jackson County schools Superintendent Shannon Adams said he opposes the law for the same reasons Schofield does and beyond.

"I just think it's a bad idea all the way around," he said. "... I think it could add confusion when school systems are trying to decide where to build new facilities. It's hard to plan where you need to build facilities for purposes of growth if that growth pattern can go anywhere they want to go."

But there's a deeper concern brewing, Adams said.

"I think it has the potential to create haves and have-nots among schools," Shannon said. "When the perception gets out when there are one or two or three schools in a school system that are better than others, that's hard to combat, whether it's true or not. ... I fear that if it stays in place long enough, that could occur."

Adams said the 7,000 students in his system are mostly white students, but he's concerned upper socio-economic groups could gravitate to certain schools. He said that could leave impoverished students, who like minorities historically have more challenges to succeed academically, clustered at other schools, which would throw off the academic and economic balance the Jackson system currently has. He said for more racially diverse school systems, he worries HB 251 transfers could eventually create somewhat segregated schools.

Both Schofield and Adams said these racial and socio-economic shifts over time could affect which schools and school systems meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" as defined by No Child Left Behind. The amount of federal funding school systems receive is linked to their AYP performance.

So far, demand for transfers isn't high. Only three or four requests have been submitted in Jackson, but more than 24 parents have called to inquire about the new law.

Gary Stewart, Hall County's director for administrative services, said the system has received eight school transfer requests.

More options for school system leaders

While parents enjoy more school choice, Schofield said the state Department of Education is asking school systems to trek down one of three paths: become a charter school system, become an IE2 system or remain a traditional school system.

A charter school system, like the Gainesville school system, includes only individual charter schools that have more autonomy and financial freedom than regular schools.

An IE2 system, like the Forsyth or Gwinnett systems, is in many ways a hybrid between a charter school system and a traditional school system.

IE2 systems establish a contract with the state Department of Education like charter schools. The contract outlines a plan that will release the IE2 system from some state spending laws, class-size regulations or even HB 251, for example, if the system guarantees it will improve students' results on standardized tests such as the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, high school graduation tests and even SAT scores.

The state approved the Forsyth and Gwinnett systems' request to opt out of HB 251 under their IE2 status.

Last week, the Hall County school board approved a letter to the state Department of Education expressing its intent to become an IE2 system. Schofield said after at least two public hearings, the Hall County school system could become an IE2 system by January 2010.

If the IE2 status is granted, Hall County could become the state's first IE2 system with existing charter schools, Schofield said.

While Schofield said he will recommend to the board it include an exemption from HB 251 in its IE2 contract, it remains to be seen whether the system will be required to provide school choice under the law for the 2010-11 school year.

Schofield said he and the board are seeking community input as to how residents would like the system to move forward regarding the IE2 contract and its potential option to circumvent the new state mandate.

"Our contract needs to be written by our people and our community," he said. "It will be my recommendation, but again it will not be my plan. It will be the community's plan."




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