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School district struggles over state ruling on students’ right to transfer

Buffalo school administrators are struggling with a state Education Department ruling that says the district must find space for every student who wants to be transferred out of a failing school and into a better one.

The ruling is likely to cause serious headaches for a district in which 45 out of 57 schools are considered to be low-performing by the state.

“This is serious,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “This is unprecedented, as far as I know.”

In a letter to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown last week, the Education Department’s Office of Accountability said the district “is not in compliance” with federal and state requirements that allow any parent with a child in a “priority” or “focus” school to seek a transfer to a school in good standing.

In theory, this means that the parents of more than 27,000 children – out of an overall district enrollment of 34,700 students – are entitled to have their children transferred to a school that is not on the state’s watch list.

In reality, less than 3 percent of eligible parents typically request student transfers, according to district information for the last six years. For this school year, only 502 parents requested such transfers. Of that number, 165 transfers actually occurred.

Radford said that many parents never previously bothered to apply for transfers because they were discouraged by district administrators who told them there simply wasn’t enough capacity to accommodate all requests.

“Up until now, it wasn’t a real option,” he said.

A number of transfers also did not occur either because the children were wrongly declared ineligible, because parents withdrew from the district, or because the parents declined an available seat at a school in good standing.

Of those who were left, the district had more success in making transfer options available to children in elementary grades.

But in 95 of the applications – 85 of which were at the high school level – parents were denied the right to transfer their children because there simply wasn’t an open seat available at any of the district’s higher-performing schools.

Frances B. Wilson, the district’s chief academic officer, said Tuesday that the district has done the best it could.

“At the time that all of this occurred, we couldn’t honor the requests, and we didn’t see other options that were viable for us to use,” she said.

The parent council filed a complaint with the state in November over the failure of the school district to accommodate all transfer applications.

“The federal regulations are designed to protect the child so that a child in a failing school cannot be condemned to attend a failing school against their will,” Radford said.

State and federal regulations do “not include lack of capacity as an acceptable reason to deny students the option to transfer,” State Assistant Education Commissioner Ira Schwartz wrote in the findings letter.

The state Education Department appears to have reversed its position from a year ago when a spokesman for the department said districts are not required to create additional seats at schools in good standing to accommodate all requests.

Among the district’s 16 high schools, only five are considered in good standing by the state, and all of them have specific admission testing standards. That raises the bar considerably for parents looking to transfer their children to any of the available high schools – City Honors, Olmsted 156, Leonardo da Vinci, Hutch-Tech and Emerson.

Federal guidelines regarding No Child Left Behind say that if a school district does not have enough existing capacity at its good schools, it must expand those schools somehow or consider other alternatives, such as opening new charter schools or working with private schools or neighboring school districts to provide students with seats outside the district.

In response to the state determination, Brown stated, “We are reviewing the information provided by the state in determining how to best address the state’s expectations for the development of a corrective action plan for the 2013-14 school year.”

Wilson said that nothing is off the table for consideration as a solution. The crafting of a corrective action plan has already started and will be complete by the state’s deadline of June 30, she said.

“We’re going to look at all the options,” Wilson said.

Radford produced a letter from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo stating that Catholic schools within a 1-mile radius of Buffalo have the ability to accommodate roughly 300 high school students. An additional 450 elementary students could be accommodated at Catholic schools within the city limits, he said.