District set for sixth year of school choice

NASHUA – The school district is entering its sixth year of allowing students at low-income schools that have failed to meet state testing standards to attend other schools in the city.

Last year, 97 students took advantage of the school choice option and Brian Cochrane, the district’s director of accountability and assessment, said he expects about the same number of students to change schools this year.

Cochrane said it’s difficult to tell whether it’s in the best interest of students to change schools but questioned whether the school choice option has had its intended effect.

“Instead of being a mechanism for serving what was intended to be the neediest students, often it’s far more advantageous for those students who are behind to stay in Title I schools,” Cochrane said.

The district makes clear in an announcement on its Web site that a “change to another school may not be in the best interest of the child.”

Cochrane said the district has not conducted any type of analysis to see whether there has been any academic impact, good or bad, for students that have changed schools.

Schools that receive Title I federal funding for low-income students and have been labeled “schools in need of improvement” must offer a choice of a non-failing school, according to requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act. The district was first required to offer school choice in 2004.

This year, parents of students at four elementary schools – Dr. Norman W. Crisp, Fairgrounds, Ledge Street and Mount Pleasant – were informed through a letter about their option to choose a different school, according to the district.

For next year, parents at Dr. Crisp and Mount Pleasant were given the choice of Birch Hill and Broad Street elementary schools. Parents at Ledge Street and Fairgrounds were given the choice of New Searles and Sunset Heights elementary schools.

Fairgrounds saw the most students leave its school last year, with 43 taking advantage of the choice option. Ledge Street had 40 of its students opt for school choice.

Federal Title I funding is distributed to schools that draw students from low-income neighborhoods.

But with that additional funding comes additional services, Cochrane said.

“Non-Title I schools don’t have access to the number of resources that Title I schools have to offer,” Cochrane said.

The district is required to provide transportation to the students who opt for choice.

That money comes from the district’s Title I funding.

Letters went out to parents at the end of the school year and the deadline for submitting the application was July 10. Families who move into the city during the summer after the deadline will be given the choice option as well, Cochrane said.

The deadline for changing schools this year was moved up because the district chose to inform parents earlier, Cochrane said. Last year, the deadline was Aug. 8.

Although federal law requires they offer choice to all students, Cochrane said if there is not enough space, the district may give preference to the lowest-income and lowest-achieving students.

Parents who want to move their child are required to meet with the building principal before their application is approved, Cochrane said.

Schools are deemed “in need of improvement” if they don’t make enough progress on the statewide test, the New England Common Assessment Program. Students are measured in math and reading.

Schools often fail to “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP, in one of the subgroups in which students are broken down by race or other categories, such as special education, English as a Second Language or family income status.

Jane Quigley, principal of Dr. Norman W. Crisp Elementary School, said that during the conversations with parents considering changing schools, she talks about why the school is “in need of improvement.”

“Basically, we invite the parents to come in and we talk about what their concerns are and what their wishes are,” she said. “I always make sure they understand that every school in Nashua is high quality.”

Dr. Crisp only had four students leave through the choice option last year.

Quigley said she informs parents that the school has seen its scores go up over the past three years, but just not at enough of a clip that is enough to get off the list.

The school made Adequate Yearly Progress last year in both math and reading, but will have to do it again next year to get off the list.

If the school does get off the list, students who chose to move can stay at their new school, but the district would no longer be required to provide transportation.

That was the case for Amherst Street Elementary School, which got itself off the improvement list last year.

Quigley said she also talks with parents about the social impact of taking their child out of their neighborhood school.

“We talk about how their children would not be in the same school as their friends in the neighborhood,” she said.

School choice through No Child Left Behind shouldn’t be confused with variances, which the district grants on a case-by-case basis, allowing students to attend a school other than their own neighborhood school.

The district does not provide transportation for variances.