Some students who switched schools are transferring back

Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In the halls of diverse, blue-collar Marshall High School, 15-year-old Karen Kullberg fits right in, with her fishnet stockings, black spike heels and red and blue feathers stuck in her hair.

But when she transferred to wealthier Cleveland High earlier this year, her bus fare paid by the Portland school district as part of a sweeping new federal education law, she stood out in a sea of Abercrombie and Fitch.

''I figured it would be fun to start over, to meet new people and things,'' she said. ''But the students there prejudged me and talked about me behind my back.''

So Kullberg transferred back to Marshall, one of three high schools in Portland to be branded a ''failing'' school this year under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act because of its persistently low test scores.

Around the country, some youngsters who have transferred out of their poorly performing schools are switching back, often because they miss their friends or feel they don't fit in.

No Child Left Behind is the centerpiece of the administration's education reforms. The law requires schools to test children every year from grades three to eight. After two years of stagnant scores, school districts must pay transportation costs for any student who wants to transfer to a better school. There were about 8,600 such schools this year nationwide.

Estimates on how many students transferred nationwide have not been released by the U.S. Education Department.

But Jack Jennings, the director of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, said the group's just-released survey of 48 states indicates that relatively few parents have so far chosen to transfer their children. For example, only 49 of 2,300 eligible students in Howard County, Md., opted to transfer, as did only 331 of 11,000 in Fulton County, Ga.

Some preferred their neighborhood school, Jennings said; others may have been unaware of the option.

Students like Kullberg, who transferred, then transferred back, are even rarer, but could become more common as the law takes hold and students find themselves missing their old friends, hating the commute or struggling academically at a new school, Jennings said.

''The grass always looks greener,'' he said. ''If you are in one public school, and you think another is better, maybe you get there and realize it isn't so great. Whether you are in one school or another, nothing is perfect.''

Barbara Bengel, who administers state and federal programs for the Fresno, Calif., school district, said it is always hard for a child to leave a familiar place.

''You are sending a child who is struggling in most cases to a school in which many children are on or above grade level, and there is no extra support, no one to tutor them after school, no reading intervention,'' Bengel said.

In San Antonio, where a reclusive billionaire puts up $5 million a year to cover private and religious school tuition grants for students from the poor, almost entirely Hispanic Edgewood school district, there has been a trickle of students returning to the public middle and high school, said district spokesperson Kaye Cont-reras.

''They come back at the middle and high school level,'' she said. ''The assumption was that people would make a mass exodus out of the district. And actually, some kids do leave in elementary school, and go to a religious school or a private school, but when the kids get older and want to participate in expanded courses, like calculus, or play football and band, the other schools are so small in size that they can't offer those things.''

In Fresno, only five children out of 772 applied for transfers from Fort Miller Middle School, said principal Jack Moore; two of them wound up returning.

In Chicago, about one-quarter of students who had planned to transfer to different schools ultimately decided against it, said Jeanie Chung, the district's spokesperson.

''We had 1,165 students who were cleared to make transfers to a different school under No Child Left Behind, and of those, 289 ended up back at their original school,'' Chung said.

And in states where school choice has gone even beyond the federal mandates, there is evidence of families who once embraced the choice concept now pulling back from it.

In Florida, a 1999 law allowed the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay tuition at a private school, if a student's public school had received a failing grade. A recent survey by The Miami Herald found that about 60 Miami-Dade students of the 330 who used vouchers this year have transferred back to their old public school, about 18 percent overall.

Students told the newspaper that they simply felt more comfortable at their neighborhood schools, even those labeled as failing.

In Portland, 11 of the 150 or so students who applied for transfers didn't stick it out, including Kullberg. The transfer idea was her father's in the first place, she said, after she didn't pass algebra her freshman year at Marshall and caused trouble at home.

Once she decided her new school wasn't for her, she started acting up, hoping her father would send her back to Marshall.

''I skipped school to go to the mall and try on prom dresses. I watched 'Grease' and went to an antique store,'' she said.

She is back at Marshall now, where she doodles through her remedial math class and is on a first-name basis with the cafeteria ladies.

''People say, 'Oh, Marshall sucks, there's no school spirit and it's dirty and there are drugs,' but there are in every school,'' she said. ''But it's not as bad as it seems here, and I would have been miserable at Cleveland. Here, people don't bug you as much if you try to be yourself.''

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