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Mercury News 
Published on October 20, 2003, Page 1A, San Jose Mercury News (CA)

Dozens of local schools with low test scores are informing parents that they can transfer their children to schools with higher scores this fall.

But most parents are saying no thanks. Many parents insist that test scores don't matter as much as their children's teachers and principals, the convenience and security of having their children close to home, and the sense of community that exists on many campuses.

''There is no way I would send my child anywhere else,'' said Laura Wolford, a 10-year Naglee Park resident with a son in kindergarten at Horace Mann Elementary, a San Jose Unified school allowing transfers. ''I'm too rooted in the school and the community.''

With many local parents standing behind their schools, it is unclear what will come of federal efforts to reform public education in California. The transfer option, available for the second year, is a cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all children proficient in English and math by 2014.

Altogether, about 1,100 of California's 8,500 public schools made this fall's list of schools that must allow transfers because their state test scores show that they are not on track to meet this target.

Despite sending thousands of letters informing parents of their options, many local districts report just a handful of transfers under the new law, especially at the elementary school level.

In San Jose Unified, which sent out 3,000 letters to parents at six elementary schools, nine children are transferring. In the Campbell Union district, which sent out almost 1,400 letters to parents at two schools, five are moving. And no students are moving in either Alum Rock, which sent out nearly 1,000 letters to parents at two schools, or in the Ravenswood district, which sent out 2,000 letters to parents at four schools.

Parents love schools

Many districts had liberal transfer policies even before the new federal rules. But school officials also offer another explanation for the small number of transfers.

''Most parents love their own school,'' said San Jose Unified Superintendent Linda Murray. ''They get involved and they know the teachers and principals and so they don't really see this label as reflecting the education their own child is getting.''

Marla Olszewski, program specialist in Campbell, ticked off a list of otherfactors that parents should consider in evaluating a school: student diversity, teacher experience and elective offerings.

Mona Mitchell, whose son is a fifth-grader at George Mayne School in Santa Clara Unified, is looking beyond test scores. Mitchell first began volunteering at Mayne when her daughter, now a seventh-grader at Peterson Middle School, started kindergarten. Today, Mitchell is Mayne's attendance clerk, PTA president and a school site council member. Because she knows the school so well, she was not rattled when it made the transfer list this fall.

''I know how dedicated and qualified our teachers are,'' she said. ''And there is a real sense of community at this school. At this level, it's about people, not numbers.''

Proximity a plus

Many parents are also sticking with their neighborhood schools because they want to keep their children nearby.

Mireya Santiago has a daughter in eighth grade at Lee Mathson School in Alum Rock, which also made the transfer list and is just two blocks from Santiago's house.

''It's good that my kids are close to me in case of emergency or if I want to drop in and see what is going on,'' said Santiago, who also has a son in fourth grade at Cesar Chavez School, a block away.

Some parents are taking advantage of the transfer choices. Marthe Stapleton, a mother in Campbell, moved her 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter from Rosemary School to Capri shortly after classes started this fall. She wanted smaller classes and higher scores.

Already, Stapleton said she sees a difference in her daughter's fourth-grade homework in the new school. The girl is reading a short book a night and doing weekend writing projects. ''They've stepped up the pace,'' Stapleton said.

One district that has seen a substantial number of transfers is San Jose's East Side Union High School District. Altogether, 357 of the 9,200 students offered transfers switched schools under the new federal law. The higher number reflects the generally higher transfer rates at the high school level. At East Side, 721 students transferred for other reasons -- in many cases to attend a district magnet program.

Although few local parents are choosing to move their children under the No Child Left Behind program today, administrators still worry that it can siphon off the best students from weaker schools. ''Once you label a school like this, people tend to not want to go to that school,'' said Bernardo Olmos, principal of East Side's James Lick High School, which is on the transfer list.

While many local educators say they support the goal of the federal law -- to lift failing schools -- they worry that it comes down hardest on the schools coping with the greatest challenges. For one thing, the schools facing sanctions tend to be those serving mostly poor kids. And in California, language barriers compound the problem because the state standards tests are given only in English.

Many educators also complain about provisions in the law that require each
ethnic and socioeconomic subgroup in a school to meet test score targets, and that require 95 percent of these students to take the state tests.

The intention is to hold schools accountable for all students. But the result is that the performance -- or the absence -- of just a few students on testing day can bring down an entire school.

That's what happened at Mayne, Mona Mitchell's school. The school must allow transfers because 94.5 percent of its Hispanic students and 94.5 percent of its low-income students took the state tests last year. Had just three more children taken the tests, Mayne wouldn't be facing sanctions.

What really bothers Santa Clara Unified Superintendent Paul Perotti is that Mayne's test scores have been rising. Yet the federal law gives the school  no credit for that.

For now, the parents at Mayne are not too worried about what the federal government has to say about their school. All 450 students are staying.

''To have the government come in and just slap a label on you, it's not  fair,'' Mitchell said. ''I know my child is getting a good education.''


PHOTO: RICHARD KOCI HERNANDEZ -- MERCURY NEWS Mona Mitchell, with her son, Ricky, a fifth-grader at George Mason School
in Alviso, says ''it's about people, not numbers.''

Copyright (c) 2003 San Jose Mercury News