Last summer, Tara L. Jackson was worried about her son going off to sixth grade at West Baltimore Middle School, a school considered failing by state standards.
So when she was offered the opportunity - under the federal No Child Left Behind law - to transfer Tavon to a better school, she didn't hesitate. Today, she is glad he moved to Patapsco Middle School.
"He had a pretty good experience. The teachers there were excellent. I think he got a lot out of it," Jackson said.
Hers was one of 84 families that decided to move their children to better schools last year, a tiny percentage of the 30,000 families that were sent letters inviting them to take part in a new program to help children attending failing schools.
That so few parents are taking advantage of the option to transfer their children or to get extra tutoring is puzzling many educators in the city and across the state and nation, where participation rates are similarly low. In part, parents are concerned about sending young children to distant schools.
This summer, the school system will again mail notices to more than 27,000 families offering them the chance to transfer their children or to apply for tutoring services.
If large numbers of parents opt for the transfers, the school system acknowledges, it will be unable to handle all requests.
In Baltimore, about a third of the schoolchildren qualify for transfers, but the district has only 301 available placements in 17 city elementary and middle schools.
Baltimore's dilemma is similar to that facing many urban school districts, which find they have dozens of failing schools and thousands of students who qualify for transfers, but not enough places in higher-performing schools.
Transfers were relatively few across the state last year, according to preliminary data from the Maryland Department of Education. Although 110 Maryland schools were designated as failing, fewer than 400 students transferred.
The city had a lower transfer rate than other districts where fewer students qualified. In Baltimore County, with three failing schools, about 80 students transferred.
In Prince George's County, 117 students transferred.
Although few city parents have elected to have their children transferred, state officials say the city schools must do a better job of opening up more slots in higher-performing schools and making it easier for parents to navigate the process.
"We have insisted that they re-look at the capacity," said Sarah Hall, Title One director at the state Department of Education.
How hard the federal government will push school districts on the issue is unclear because this is only the second year the option has been offered.
Kathy Christie, vice president of the nonprofit Education Commission of the States Clearinghouse, said that "the burden falls to the districts to make other options available" if places in existing schools are insufficient.
She said school systems might have to consider creating charter schools. The federal law also says that school districts can make arrangements with surrounding districts, where there might be more higher-performing schools, to accept children. So, for instance, the city could ask Baltimore County to take some of the transfers, although local and state educators acknowledge that is unlikely.
"Districts are struggling with what to do," Christie said.
Deborah M. Banks, Title One coordinator for the city schools, said Baltimore has increased the number of spaces - to 301 this year from 194 a year ago - by slightly lowering the criteria for a school designated as a high-performing school.
She also points out that although more than 300 families requested transfers last year for 194 places, many of them turned down the opportunity when it was offered.
Just before school started, the system was calling parents to try to fill seats available at high-performing schools, spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said.
Hall and Banks said parents have many reasons for not wanting transfers. Some are worried about their children traveling across a city to an unfamiliar neighborhood or concerned that their children might not be accepted in the new schools.
Some parents are also concerned that they won't be able to actively participate in their child's education if the school is a long way from home.
Danielle Nicholson, who has three children in city schools, understands those issues well. When she got the letter inviting her to apply last year, she quickly had her two young children transferred to James Mosher Elementary and Bentalou Elementary.
"My thought is, 'OK, you have an opportunity to make it a little better for your child, why wouldn't you take advantage of that?'" Nicholson said.
She said she is happy with both new schools, particularly Bentalou, where her daughter started first grade last year. "Ms. [Mary] Winterling is an awesome principal. She knows every one of her students. ... [Students] are there and learning. It is such a good atmosphere," she said.
But when it came to her third child, a middle-schooler, she wasn't comfortable with a transfer far from her West Baltimore home. She was offered a spot for him at Cherry Hill Elementary and Middle School.
Under the federal law, an elementary school child who transfers must be transported by a school bus. But as a middle-schooler, her son would have had to take public transportation across town to Cherry Hill, returning home after dark some days.
"I am not familiar with the area or comfortable with it," she said. So she opted to keep him at West Baltimore Middle, closer to home.
A more popular option has been the tutoring programs, an alternative that 1,400 parents requested for their children and 743 parents took advantage of last school year. That might increase this year with 15 private tutoring companies now approved by the state to offer services to children statewide.
The school system will hold public meetings beginning at 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Montebello Center at Morgan State University, 2100 Argonne Drive.
Parents can learn about tutoring available from contractors that will be on hand, according to Banks. A similar meeting for parents will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Athletic Department Gymnasium at Baltimore City Community College, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave.
For parents interested in transferring their children, two meetings will be held July 23 at school system headquarters, 200 E. North Ave., and July 24 at Edmondson Westside Skills Center, 4501 Edmondson Ave.
Both meetings are scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.