Some Baltimore County students are losing the option to transfer out of failing neighborhood schools - the result of the system's decision to stop giving its middle schools federal money aimed at concentrations of low-income students.
By choosing to spend all its federal Title I funds in the county's elementary schools starting next month, the school system will no longer be obligated under the federal No Child Left Behind law to provide transfers to students in its six failing middle schools.
Middle school students who have already transferred under No Child Left Behind can remain at their new schools, but no new transfers will be permitted. Nearly 300 middle-schoolers transferred this year, compared with about 70 two years ago.
Officials said the change is intended to increase programs and services for more of the system's youngest children, and not to skirt the requirements of No Child Left Behind. If any of the county's elementary schools were to be declared failing - none currently is in that category - those students would be allowed to request a transfer.
School systems are required to use a portion of their Title I funding to transport the transfer students to their new schools. This school year, Baltimore County spent about $1.5 million to bus transfer students - all of which will be reallocated to the elementary schools.
Baltimore County received $21.4 million in Title I funds for this school year, and it expects to receive about $20 million for the coming academic year.
County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said the system has been using Title I funds in middle schools for about five years and hasn't realized the academic gains that leaders had hoped to see. He said the county's middle schools have generally had among the weakest performances on state standardized tests, and school officials have decided that the wisest use of the Title I funding is in its elementary schools.
"The greatest investment we can make is in the foundational years," he said. "The Title I money was not making the impact we were expecting to see at the middle-school level."
The county's decision to stop using Title I money for its middle schools puts it in line with most districts across Maryland. Of the state's 24 school systems, only three others have Title I middle schools: Baltimore City and Kent and Prince George's counties, according to the Maryland State Department of Education's Web site.
During the current school year, 294 students from six Baltimore County schools - out of an eligible pool of 4,015 students - opted to transfer to another middle school. They came from Dundalk, Golden Ring, Lansdowne, Old Court, Woodlawn and Loch Raven Technical Academy middle schools.
For the 2006-2007 school year, 183 students transferred from among an eligible pool of 2,601 students in three county schools. The previous school year, 71 students of an eligible 1,976 children from three schools transferred.
Baltimore County school officials believe that spending all the Title I money at the elementary school level will prepare more children academically for middle school, said Lisa Williams, coordinator of the system's Title I office, which oversees the district's use of the federal grant program aimed at helping economically disadvantaged schools.
Targeting the money, for example, will enable the school system to begin offering an extended-day and extended-year elementary program starting in summer 2009, she said. The hope is to stem the "summer loss" of reading and math skills that often occurs when children are out of the classroom for long periods.
Hairston said the school system plans to provide other initiatives to help middle school students, including more "college readiness" programs such as the College Gateway, a partnership between the district and the Community College of Baltimore County aimed at eighth-graders.
Nationally, a growing number of school systems have been reviewing their approaches to No Child Left Behind.
Some school systems, including a few in Vermont and Illinois, have refused to accept Title I money altogether to avoid what they consider costly mandates, according to Joel Packer, director of education policy and practice with the National Education Association. Those school systems tend to be smaller, rural districts that aren't in line for much Title I funding.
Others states, including Virginia, have talked about opting out of No Child Left Behind - and its attached funding - but none has, Packer said.
Signed into law in 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind law is intended to reduce the achievement gap for poor, minority and special education students. Schools that receive Title I funding and that fail to meet state standards two years in a row must allow parents to request a transfer of their children to better-performing schools within the system. Schools that miss the benchmarks for three consecutive years must offer supplemental educational services, such as tutoring.
Nationally, most school systems concentrate Title I funds in their elementary schools. About 25 percent put some of the money in their middle schools and 10 percent into their high schools, according to Packer.
"Part of the reason school systems do this is to try to help educationally disadvantaged kids early on with their reading and math skills," he said.
John F. "Jack" Jennings, president of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, said fewer than 2 percent of eligible students nationally take advantage of NCLB's transfer option.
Some school systems aren't doing a good enough job of advertising the option, which can't be done with Title I funds, and some parents choose to keep their children in their neighborhood schools because they are familiar to them, he said.