Some 300 to 500 Buffalo families are learning this week that their children are going to be transferred from failing schools to good ones. Another 1,700 to 1,900 will be notified next week that their kids are still stuck in schools the state deems not up to par.
The Buffalo Public Schools began making phone calls this week to the families whose transfer requests will be granted, and the hundreds of other families will start hearing from the district soon, too.
“We’re doing a couple of things,” Will Keresztes, chief of student support services, said Thursday. “Families are beginning to receive phone calls getting offers of transfers. For the families that we cannot provide transfers to yet, a letter of notification will be issued the first of next week because we want them to have that notification at least two weeks before the school year begins.”
The transfer process has begun as the district still waits to find out if the state Education Department will approve the plan or send it back to the district for more revisions, which parent leaders say could include giving them a greater voice in the process.
The rankings for the 2,200 students who applied for transfers were completed between Aug. 5 and 9, with the requests prioritized based on student need, in accordance with federal law, said Keresztes, who is overseeing the effort.
The government requires that students who applied for transfers be ranked in order of greatest academic need by using a number of measurements like state assessments and regents scores for high school students. Students at least two grades behind go to the top of the list.
For younger students who do not take standardized tests, the district is relying on classroom benchmarks.
Another criterion involves the socioeconomic background of the families. Students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals also get moved up the list.
“Basically, the child with the most need has to be placed first,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
The Buffalo Board of Education approved the school choice transfer plan Monday afternoon to give students in poor-performing schools a chance to switch to other city schools in good standing with the state. The state Education Department has labeled 42 Buffalo schools as failing.
As parents accept a transfer, the registration process begins immediately, Keresztes said, with the enrollment change entered into the computer system on the spot.
The district will then follow up the phone call with a letter confirming that the family accepted the transfer.
“We’re sending them something in the mail, but if they accept the offer by phone, we want to expedite it. Then we can do registration, take care of transportation and everything over the phone to make everything easy,” Keresztes said.
The district has even made allowances for parents who are not ready to commit on the spot, even though they asked for the transfer. They will be given a little extra time, but not a lot.
“Sometimes parents want a day or two to think about that. If a parent doesn’t make a quick decision, we’re giving them an amount of time to get back to the district – a day,” Keresztes said. “If we don’t hear from them by the next day, we’ll call them back. But we do need to begin filling these seats. We are trying to be as accommodating as we can. We are trying to exhaust every possible seat we have.”
For those families who aren’t initally selected, they may still have a chance to have their children transferred. For instance, if a parent from the group of 300 to 500 refuses the transfer that he or she applied for, that seat will be offered subsequently to a student from the list of remaining families, Keresztes explained.
“Seats may become available for them, as we’ll be calling parents every day,” he said, adding the district will be offering transfers through Feb. 7, 2014.
But the parent council is raising questions about how the selected families are being notified and how the correspondence will be verified so that interested families who are initially selected don’t miss out.
“What if you can’t contact me by phone, or my phone is turned off, or I don’t answer? Do I lose my spot?” Radford wondered.
He said that if school officials cannot get in touch with parents by phone, that is a way to reduce the size of the list and violate the integrity of the transfer program.
“Before you knock them off the list,” the district “has to verify they don’t want that seat,” Radford said. “As a parent, you have to give me some proof or some signed document that says I don’t want the seat. I want you to give me some verification you talked to an adult who said we don’t want the seat.”
Parent representatives plan to bring that issue up at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, Radford said.
The parent council began heavily promoting the transfer option last year as a solution for families whose children are stuck in failing schools. It also filed a complaint with the state over the district’s failure to accommodate all such requests.
The council’s outreach helped increase the number of transfer requests from about 500 in a typical year to the more than 2,200 this year.
The district was put under further pressure in June when the state Education Department ruled that school administrators must find a place for every child who wants to transfer and that “lack of capacity” in good schools could not be used as an excuse to deny transfers. Radford, at the time, called that ruling “unprecedented.”
Nevertheless, school officials did not come up with a plan to immediately accommodate all transfer requests. Radford expects the current plan, which school officials sent to Albany on Monday, to be rejected and that the state will order school officials to involve parents in revising the blueprint.