Nowhere to go

First day of school at Jones–Clark Elementary

A letter sent home this week to parents of students attending dozens of campuses across Southeast Texas informed them that not only was their child’s school not up to par, but Texas law allows for a transfer to a campus or district that hasn’t exhibited such educational inadequacies. Anyone looking to cash in on that option for the sake of their child’s education would find, however, that there simply is nowhere to go. At least, not for free.

The problem comes in the 1995 legislation that allows for students attending campuses that scored 50 percent or less on the STAAR exam in any two of the last three years or were rated Improvement Required in 2013 or 2014 to be offered a choice to change campuses. But it’s what’s not in the legislation that’s the problem.

Texas Education Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said that the education agency tracks campuses that meet the 1995 legislation requirements and places them on a Public Education Grant (PEG) list. State requirement is that students of campuses on the PEG list be offered the option to attend classes elsewhere, but according to Culbertson, local rule does not require that there be a place for the students to go.

“There’s no requirement that a neighboring school district must accept the transfers,” Culbertson said. “Transfers are completely a local option, a matter of local control – they can either accept them or not.”

“Basically, the PEG list is out there to give students the choice,” Culbertson added, but options available to those students are few.

“There’s really not a lot of options,” she reiterated. “The parents can demand better from their schools. If the school is on the PEG list, they can go to their schools and demand to know what they’re doing to improve. Parents are going to have to get involved if they want change.”

In Beaumont Independent School District, nine campuses made the list. Among those earning the designation were six elementary schools – Amelia, Blanchette, Jones-Clark, Fehl-Price, Pietzsch-MacArthur, and Martin – Smith Middle School, and Ozen and Central high schools.

West Orange-Cove has two campuses on the PEG list – the district’s only middle school, and the district’s only elementary school. West-Orange Stark Elementary was rated Improvement Required both in 2013 and 2014, with deficiencies noted in writing and math both years, as well. The middle school campus was marked PEG due to the Improvement Required rating in 2013, and the deficiencies noted in science in both 2013 and 2014.

Buna Elementary also made the list.

In Port Arthur, five campuses are listed as PEG: the Memorial Ninth Grade Academy, Memorial High School, Staff Sergeant Lucian Adams Elementary, Travis Elementary, and Washington Elementary. Only Washington Elementary was noted as Improvement Required in both 2013 and 2014 years; Travis Elementary and Memorial Ninth were noted Improvement Required in 2013; and Memorial High was rated Improvement Required for 2014.

Nederland’s Highland Park Elementary made the PEG list, a carryover from a 2013 Improvement Required designation.

Nacogdoches ISD had six campuses on the PEG list. The district’s Emeline Carpenter Academy of Technology made the PEG list for an Improvement Required designation for 2013 and 2014, and the campus was deemed deficient in reading, writing, and math both years as well.

The districts not on the PEG list are in no rush to accept an influx of students, either.

Bridge City, Vidor, Lumberton, Port Neches-Groves … no one contacted said they accept PEG transfers.

Little Cypress-Mauriceville spokesperson Sherry Combs said the school district she works for has made a conscious decision not to accept any students outside their zoned boundaries.

“We do not have an open enrollment,” she said. “We have a fee; the difference in what the homeowners in our district pay in school taxes to make up the difference in what it costs to educate a child that we don’t get from the state or federal government.” Even then, there are some restrictions, she said.

“We just don’t see it as fair to our taxpayers,” Combs explained. “Then you have to deal with not having enough teachers … classrooms space … For the good of our students, we just can’t take any more.

“You’d like to be able to say we could take care of everyone and do it the best. We have people with children with special needs move to our district just because of the special programs we have … foster care kids … we have a lot on our plate, and we just can’t take on more and be fair to the students we already serve.”

TEA’s Culbertson said she understands school districts throughout the state are already operating on tight budgets with campuses maxed-out in terms of capacity. There is little that can be done to compel school districts that neighbor PEG list performers to step up and accept the transfers. Aside from grassroots activism and parental involvement at the home district level, the only option to parents, Culbertson said, is to appeal to state legislators.

State Representative Joe Deshotel said he, too, sees a quandary.

“I can see why schools can’t just accept any kid that wants to come,” he said. “If you have a school that is an exemplary school and just two miles down you have 200 kids in a school on a PEG list, there’s no way that exemplary campus can just take in 200 new students.

“I can see why they send these letters home. But I can see them not forcing an unlimited number of people on other school campuses and districts. I think it would be chaos if they did.”

Deshotel also suggested grassroots parental involvement, possibly even working to pass Home Rule statute or Parent Power, “which gives parents power to go in and affect changes.”

“These programs are spreading,” he said, “and (these measures) are oriented to giving parents voices and avenues to make change.

“We have some bills working in the legislature that give parents more power. There are other tools for parents, but parents have to be involved.

“Parents need to know about them, for sure. There should be some information on that list that lets parents know what they can do. Those things are just not well publicized.”

In Beaumont, an open meeting to discuss the district’s PEG list is scheduled for Feb. 25. After that date, according to Beaumont Independent School District correspondence, information related to the list can be found on the district’s website at bmtisd.com under the Accountability tab.

Culbertson said a community meeting is the perfect opportunity for concerned stakeholders to work with district officials on how to make PEG list campuses better performers, especially since neighboring campuses and school districts state-wide are rarely inclined to take PEG transfers.

“Community engagement and a board willing to implement these changes is key,” she said.

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