Ann Arbor parents notified of transfer options after schools land on state's 'Focus' list
Parents in many Ann Arbor Public Schools got a surprising letter in their email inboxes this week. The letter, from district administrators, told them that because of academic performance issues at their child's school, they could request a transfer to a school in a neighboring district.
The options? Schools in Lincoln, Willow Run and Ypsilanti, where students typically score much lower on assessment tests than those in Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor News
Why would Ann Arbor schools, whose students are typically among the highest-achieving in Washtenaw County, suggest parents might want to send their children to schools with lower test scores? Because the state says they have to.
The letters, a requirement of a new program the state launched this year designating schools with large achievement gaps as “Focus schools,” left some parents upset and confused.
“I understand they are required to offer an alternative,” said Amy Jordan, a parent at Carpenter Elementary School. “But I thought it was awfully insulting to families and educators who are working so hard to make their schools great. And not to mention confusing for families who may be new or temporary to (the Ann Arbor Public Schools).”
On Aug. 2, the Michigan Department of Education released its annual school report cards, indicating which schools in the state met Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for the 2011-12 academic year.
But the state also launched a new program, cracking down on the achievement gap in schools, per the requirements of a flexibility waiver it was granted through the federal government for No Child Left Behind.
The program designated 27 of Ann Arbor’s 33 buildings as Focus schools, meaning they have a substantial performance disparity between students scoring in the top 30 percent and bottom 30 percent of test takers on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) examination and the Michigan Merit Exam (MME). All of Ann Arbor’s 21 elementary schools are on the list, in addition to Clague, Forsythe, Slauson and Tappan middle schools; Huron and Pioneer high schools.
However, not all of these 27 schools had a note emailed to parents listing their transfer possibilities. That’s because only parents at 11 of the 27 schools will be given a choice.
Focus schools that receive Title 1 grant funding from the state are required to give students the option of attending another non-Focus school that met AYP.
Title 1 funding is awarded to schools with a higher percentage of low-income families. In Ann Arbor, the Title 1 Focus school rule applies to Abbot, Allen, Bryant, Carpenter, Dicken, Mitchell, Northside, Pattengill and Pittsfield elementaries.
Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Scott Menzel, who met with state officials recently on this topic, said the state has required Title 1 Focus schools to provide transportation for students wanting to attend a non-Focus school, which the state can’t do without a funding element.
“They can’t do an unfunded mandate,” Menzel said, explaining why only those buildings with Title 1 grant funds were asked to provide a list of transfer options. The Title 1 Focus schools now are required to set aside a portion of their grant monies for choice transportation.
The options for Ann Arbor students are attending either their Focus schools or:
- Adams Elementary (limited availability), Ypsilanti Public Schools
- Brick Elementary (grades 1-5), Lincoln Consolidated Schools
- Childs Elementary (grades 1-5), Lincoln
- Model Elementary and Early Childhood Center (kindergarten), Lincoln
- Willow Run Primary Learning Center (grades K-1)
- Lincoln Middle School
- Scarlett Middle School, Ann Arbor
- Whitmore Lake High School
These were schools that both met AYP and were not named to the state’s Focus list.
Every district in Washtenaw County except for Manchester had at least one building designated as a Focus school, Menzel said. If a school is not on the transfer list, it likely was a Focus school itself, did not meet AYP (for example, Skyline High School) or did not have the capacity to open up enrollment to Focus school transfers, Menzel said. Space issues kept schools in Dexter, Chelsea and Saline from being offered as options to parents in Ann Arbor.
He added Manchester had limited availability and agreed to open a few slots for students from Chelsea and Saline schools designated as Focus schools.
Per the state’s Focus school requirements, the list of transfer options had to be made available to parents by Aug. 21. AAPS attached a transfer request form to the letter with a deadline of Sept. 4.
Carpenter Elementary Principal Charles Davis said he fielded about 50 phone calls and emails from confused Carpenter parents in the 24 hours after the letter was sent out. A few more parents stopped by the building with questions, Davis said.
Most parents wanted clarification on what it meant to be a Focus school, he said.
“I broke down the definition and tried to share with them that it’s just a new way of labeling a school. Nothing is changing,” he said, explaining Ann Arbor has been working on its achievement gap issues and will continue to do so. “Basically, I just tried to reassure parents that we are the same incredible school that we were three weeks ago, before we got labeled.”
Davis said no parents indicated to him that they'd be pulling their children from Carpenter, but rather parents were relieved to learn they didn’t need to look for another school. He said a number of parents also asked why they couldn’t transfer to a different elementary within AAPS. Davis explained it was because all of Ann Arbor’s elementaries were given the state’s Focus school designation.
Davis added a number of Ann Arbor’s elementaries, such as Angell and King, were rated in the 98th and 99th percentile statewide.
Jordan said she is frustrated by the state’s new designation system. Her husband works in the automotive industry and as a result, her family is friends with a number of international families that are in Ann Arbor on a temporary basis. For example, she tutors English as a second language to Korean families who have moved to the area for four-year stints to work for Hyundai Motor Company. She said for these families, the letter and the idea of their child’s school being put on a Focus list was alarming.
"They don't understand the language well, and here they get a letter offering alternatives for their child's education," Jordan said.
" It just doesn't seem fair. We're a good school, doing good things, with good parents. And we’re being put in this position where we almost have to defend ourselves," she said of the Ann Arbor school district.