The leader of Buffalo's parent group is calling on families to exercise a right that thousands have under federal law but that few exercise: to transfer their children out of struggling schools and into those that are faring better.
The No Child Left Behind law has extended that right to parents of children whose schools fail to make adequate progress on state tests two years in a row.
In Buffalo, about 15,000 children a year qualify for the right to transfer to a better school. Typically, only a few hundred -- about 3 percent -- do.
The Buffalo Public Schools have failed to significantly improve the persistently lowest-achieving schools year after year, so parents should refuse to send their children to those schools, says Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
Radford is hoping that the threat of a mass exodus from certain schools will help leverage solutions for turning those schools around.
"Ultimately, the real issue is that we want some movement on turning around the persistently lowest-achieving schools," Radford said.
"That process has been frustrated by the administration the first year, by its refusal to move principals. By the teachers last year, with their refusal to move teachers. And by the teachers this year, with their refusal to get evaluated."
Buffalo now has 13 schools considered persistently lowest-achieving -- those among the worst 5 percent in the nation. In addition to those schools, 10 others have performed poorly enough at least two years in a row to qualify their students for transfers.
This means that students at more than 40 percent of the district's schools now qualify for a transfer.
Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said Radford's efforts would disrupt the system, but not contribute toward any solutions.
"I think this would be a pushback to the system as a whole or a pushback to the teachers union -- but I don't think it's a step toward improving the education in the system," she said. "Instead of using laws to divide us, I think we should be putting our energies into making sure every child goes to a school that is well-run, where learning is an expectation."
For several years, parents have had the right under federal law to transfer their children to other schools, she noted.
Last school year, 14,578 students in 23 schools were eligible for transfers under No Child Left Behind, according to information provided by the state Education Department.
Of those, 373 students -- 2.6 percent -- applied for transfers. All were offered a transfer; 270 took one.
Those numbers were fairly typical for each of the last three years, according to the information from the state.
It's also fairly typical of urban districts across the country. In the same year, for instance, 3.8 percent of the 43,327 students in Memphis who were eligible for a transfer took one.
No district in New York has ever received more transfer requests under No Child Left Behind than it could accommodate, according to Jonathan D. Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department. Districts are not required to create additional seats at schools in good standing to accommodate all the requests, he said.
If Buffalo were to receive more requests than it could accommodate, the federal law indicates that the district would have to prioritize transfer requests based on the academic need of individual students.
"Students scoring at Level 1 on the state tests would get priority over students scoring at Level 2," Burman said.
Dixon said the low percentage of eligible Buffalo students who opt to transfer indicates that families are satisfied with the schools.
"By and large, people are happy with the schools they're in," she said. "Our parents have had the choice to transfer away from these schools, and many have chosen not to. That indicates satisfaction with some part of their child's education."
Every year, the district notifies the families at the affected schools, in writing, of that right -- as required by law -- and provides them with a list of "schools in good standing" that they may request a transfer to.
It is not a very long list.
Dr. Charles Drew Early Childhood Center 90 offers prekindergarten through second grade. Two others -- Early Childhood Center 61 and Roosevelt Early Childhood Center -- offer prekindergarten through fourth grade.
Five others offer prekindergarten through eighth grade: Hillery Park, Discovery School 67, Houghton Academy, School 81 and Southside Elementary.
>A question of options
Choices, though, are most limited for the 5,500 high school students who are eligible for a transfer. Seven high schools in Buffalo are considered bad enough by the federal government that their students must have the option to transfer to a better school.
But there is only one school that the district makes available to them: Math Science Technology Preparatory at Seneca, which offers grades 5 to 12.
There are several other high schools "in good standing," but they require students to meet certain criteria for admission. The district does not list those schools as transfer options: City Honors; Olmsted 156; and Leonardo da Vinci, Hutch-Tech and Emerson high schools.
The lack of transfer options illustrates the predicament that families find themselves in, said Hannya Boulos, director of Buffalo ReformED.
"Even if you want to transfer, it's not like you have high-quality options that are available," she said. "Parents don't really have a choice."
Radford said he is prepared to challenge the legality of the district's decision not to offer schools such as City Honors and Hutch-Tech as transfer options.
Dixon said she believes that the district is operating within the law but that if the federal government determines otherwise, the district will come into compliance.
The window for transfer applications was Jan. 2 to Jan. 31, according to the letters about the transfer option that the district sent to families in December. That likely makes talk of a mass exodus a moot point for September 2012, Dixon said.
But if the district tries to decline transfers based on a local deadline, Radford said, he will challenge the decision by appealing to officials in the state Education Department.
In the end, he said, what he wants is not to fight for transfers, but to see the low-performing schools improve.
"What I want is a solution. The only thing we don't want is what happened this year: Schools were failing. We didn't get school-improvement funds. We kept kids in the same failing situation without making schools better," Radford said. "What we want to generate right now is a sense of urgency."