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Article updated: 7/31/2012 10:48 PM

Dist. 203, 204 offering choice for families at struggling schools

Students at struggling schools may switch

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Two of Illinois' largest and best-performing school systems are joining many other districts across the state this fall in offering families the choice to leave schools struggling to meet federal standards.

Naperville Unit District 203 alerted families at Mill Street Elementary School earlier this week that they will be allowed to transfer to other district schools. Indian Prairie Unit District 204 will send letters Wednesday informing parents at Georgetown and Longwood elementary schools that they also will be given the choice to transfer because the two schools likely failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for the third consecutive year.

Last year, both districts were required to offer supplemental services to students at each school that fell short of federal No Child Left Behind standards for the second straight year.

The districts now are required to offer the "choice" option for each school likely to fall short of the standards for a third straight year when official numbers are released in the next few days.

"Part of the complication is that we have not yet received final AYP numbers, so you're not supposed to make decisions until we have final notification," said Kathy Duncan, chief academic officer in District 204, which covers portions of Naperville, Aurora, Plainfield and Bolingbrook. "As we are drafting the letter to parents, we're saying we anticipate these (two) schools will not meet the standards.

"We're trying to not upset an apple cart that doesn't need to be upset and at the same time have all our ducks in a row and ready to leave the starting gate if that's where we land."

Under No Child Left Behind, 85 percent of students in every subgroup needed to meet standards in 2011 while 92.5 percent were required in 2012. The state board of education has gotten a waiver from the federal government to roll the standards back to 85 percent for the coming school year, but that is not changing the outcome for either district.

District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges said parents at Mill Street will be able to choose Meadow Glens or River Woods if they decide to move. District 204 plans to notify families by letter by Monday, Aug. 6.

Neither district, however, expects much movement once the choice is given.

Bridges said no children moved last summer when District 203 was forced to offer choice to the families at Jefferson Junior High.

Indian Prairie has never had to offer choice before but officials there also expect few, if any, moves. Duncan said most families already have formed lasting bonds with their schools and would be reluctant to leave.

"I don't think we'll have large numbers, because here's the reality: both Georgetown and Longwood are excellent schools with extraordinarily talented staff. They are delivering the District 204 curriculum through the 204 instructional model," she said.

"So for a family to move from Georgetown to some other school in the district, they're not going to get better teachers, they're not going to get better curriculum and they're not going to get better instruction," she said. "We're in a district that I'm very proud to say has excellence in each and every school."

The state board of education also has asked the federal government for a waiver that would give schools two more years before they have to offer choice.

If the state receives that waiver before school begins Aug. 15 in District 203 or Aug. 23 in District 204, the districts will rescind the choice offering. If a waiver is granted once school starts, the students can stay in their new school for one year or return to their home schools. The districts are required to pay transportation costs for those students for only one year.

Other school districts facing similar circumstances with one or more schools include Addison Elementary District 4, Fenton Community High School District 100 in Bensenville and Lombard Elementary District 44.

Fenton is a single-school district and offers no alternative to families. District 44 already offers open enrollment, but families pay for the transportation. The district will be responsible for those costs this year if students move. Letters indicating that change will be mailed two weeks before the Aug. 27 start date.

Rather than sending a letter, District 4 holds meetings to educate parents on their rights for school choice. Parents often choose to stay put after the meetings.

"If you look at the students who do not have limited English or disabilities, they are making AYP," said Lisa Black-Gomez, assistant superintendent of student services. "So when we communicate that, and parents understand their children are making AYP, then there is no reason to move them."

• Daily Herald staff writers Elisabeth Mistretta and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.

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