Wichita school district phasing out transfer option for some students

For the past six years, students assigned to certain high-poverty Wichita schools that failed to meet testing goals were allowed to transfer to other schools in the district.

Now that option – a sanction required by No Child Left Behind – is being phased out.

Superintendent John Allison said a waiver granted to Kansas this summer by the U.S. Department of Education means Wichita no longer must offer transfers and free bus rides to students whose schools are identified as “on improvement” by the state.

Last year, seven Wichita middle schools – Curtis, Hamilton, Jardine, Marshall, Mead, Pleasant Valley and Truesdell – offered free tutoring or transfers because they hadn’t met state improvement targets for at least two consecutive years. Students who opted to transfer could attend either Coleman or Hadley middle schools.

This year, only seventh- and eighth-graders who transferred last year were given the option of attending Wichita’s so-called “choice” schools, Allison said. He hasn’t decided whether transfers will continue next year.

“We knew choice was potentially in play in terms of the waiver, but we had no idea how it would all shake out” until shortly before school started last month, Allison said. “The decision we made was kind of middle-of-the-road.”

Some Kansas districts, including Topeka, opted to discontinue transfers altogether this school year. Allison said a more gradual phase-out, which did not require a vote by the school board, seemed more palatable.

District officials said they didn’t have precise figures Wednesday for how many students opted for transfers last year, or how many seventh- and eighth-graders have transferred this year.

Board member Connie Dietz said she supports Allison’s decision to not offer transfers to sixth-graders this year but to continue the option for older students.

“We needed to go ahead and let those kids (seventh- and eighth-graders) go because they planned for and counted on that arrangement,” Dietz said. “But it (the transfer option) appears to be going away, and I’m OK with that.”

Dietz and other district leaders have long criticized many sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which they say were costly and largely ineffective.

Besides transfers, Title 1 schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for three straight years were required to offer free tutoring to students who receive free and reduced-price lunches.

At first, Wichita schools could offer tutoring services directly to students. But after the district as a whole was labeled as needing improvement in 2007, it was no longer eligible to do so. Instead, the district had to contract with state-approved private tutoring companies.

Over the past three years, the district spent about $4.2 million on contracts with outside tutoring companies. It has spent about $1.7 million on transportation for students who transferred schools.

“I think it’s fair to say that none of us have been really enamored with that program – the tutoring or the transfers,” said board member Lynn Rogers.

“While there are some parents that really liked it, I don’t know if we ever felt like we saw the results we wanted. I don’t think we got real bang for our buck.

“There are just a lot of federal mandates and regulations attached to No Child Left Behind that we couldn’t do anything about.”

In February, Dietz said she voted against contracts with four private tutoring agencies in protest against the requirement.

“There was never any evaluation as to whether they were really performing a good service or not, whether students were improving,” Dietz said. “We were just given a list and told, ‘Here. These are the ones you can use.’ ”

Dietz said the waiver of some requirements of No Child Left Behind doesn’t mean the district will abandon tutoring altogether. But services could be provided directly by the district, or by businesses approved by the district.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing because the district knows best who would provide good services to our students,” she said.

Might parents be disappointed if they’re unable to transfer their children to different schools? Perhaps, Dietz said.

“Hopefully they can feel good about the school their child is going to, or find a magnet program that will work for them,” she said. “We have a lot of choice in this district.

“Our schools should be working closely with parents to continue to provide an excellent education.”