January 2010: School Guide

Balancing the Equation

Does the recession have you rethinking your school choice? A Q&A guide to the pros and cons.
By Mary Jo DiLonardo

Illustration by David Plunkert
In today’s struggling economy, are private schools offering more or less financial aid? What about creative financing or payment plans?
Every year Atlanta magazine surveys private schools to produce our annual guide. Of the three dozen schools who responded to our optional questions about financial aid, all but three said they are providing more financial aid this year—some offering scholarships for the first time. Blessed Trinity Catholic High School distributed $200,000 in additional aid, and the Westminster Schools added $285,000. Saint Joseph Catholic School has increased financial assistance by 5 percent, and Paideia’s board of trustees created an emergency fund for existing families during the current school year. High Meadows created a new eight-payment plan, and the Heritage School even offered an optional tuition insurance policy that would cover tuition in case of job loss or other unexpected financial setbacks. Nearly all schools reported more requests for help, with increases ranging from 5 to 85 percent and even doubling in one school’s case.

Are schools cutting back on staff or services? About 20 percent of private schools reported cutting personnel this year. Of those, most eliminated only one to three positions, although one school cut 10 percent of its staff. Only three private schools reported making any changes to programs, services, or amenities. In those cases, drama, wrestling, and cafeteria services were the ones to go. On the public side, Governor Sonny Perdue called for three furlough days and a 3 percent funding cut.

Have public schools seen an increase in enrollment? Nearly all metro area public school systems have seen an increase in enrollment this year. For example, at the beginning of the school year, enrollment was up by 1,026 students in Cherokee County and 1,950 students in Fulton County. School administrators say that some of those new students were transfers from private schools, though the exact numbers were unavailable. Overall population growth actually slowed in most metro counties between 2007 and 2008.

Have private schools experienced a drop in applications? On the flip side, about a quarter of private schools reported a decrease in applications this year, with drops ranging from about 3 to 40 percent. A little more than one-third lost more students than usual at reenrollment time. Of course, the good news was that meant more available spots for new students.

How do schools help students adjust when transferring schools? At Walton High School in Cobb County, counselors pair all new students who come from nonfeeder schools with “buddies.” If possible, transfers are assigned the same lunch as a friend, and aids make sure new students make it to their buses at the end of the day. “The biggest thing for kids coming from private school isn’t the size of the classes,” says Walton counselor Anne Carlson. “It’s lunch and getting to the bus.” She suggests that new parents in any school join parent-to-parent groups to learn how the school operates.

Similarly, Pace Academy learning specialist Michael Callahan recommends that parents be familiar with what he calls the “hidden curriculum” of the new school. “Learn all the nonacademic things like: When will the teachers meet with students? How does lunch work? Where are the classes located?” he says. “When you go to a school for years, it’s automatic. But as a new person, it’s hard to figure out.” At Pace, new students are also assigned a “buddy” to help them navigate. And in ninth grade, typically the year when many new students come to Pace from other schools, there’s a three-day retreat to help the kids get to know each other off-campus, as well as a peer leadership program that matches seniors with freshmen.

How does the new “school choice” law work? Signed into law last May, House Bill 251 allows Georgia residents to send their children to any school within their county or city system as long as classroom space is available. Each system determines its definition of “available classroom space” and doesn’t have to create room by adding trailers. Parents are responsible for transporting their students to the new school. The application process varies by system, so contact your county or city system for specifics. The law requires systems to publish a list of schools with available space prior to the start of the school year, but don’t be surprised if your county’s top-scoring schools are full.

How can students request a No Child Left Behind transfer?
Parents may apply for a NCLB transfer if their child’s home school is on the “Needs Improvement” list for failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) two years in a row (or, more rarely, is rated “persistently dangerous” or the student has been the victim of a violent crime). Families eligible for a transfer should automatically receive written notice, usually two weeks before school begins. They can send their children to another school within their county or city system as long as that school has space available and is not also failing. Every district has its own procedures, but there is usually either a website or a phone number listing optional schools and instructions for requesting a transfer. In these situations, the system is required to provide transportation. However, Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education, suggests, “Find out why your school is in ‘needs improvement’ before you make the decision to transfer. Nearly half the schools that did not make AYP last year missed it in one area by maybe two kids.” To make AYP, schools must meet minimum standards in areas such as participation, achievement, and graduation rates—criteria which must be met by each subgroup, such as different ethnic groups and special needs students. “Look at the AYP report online,” says Tofig. “Quite often, when parents do that, they feel better about their school.” To view AYP reports, visit gadoe.org and click on “Data Reporting,” then “AYP.”

What about other public options like magnet, International Baccalaureate, or charter schools? How do students apply?
Magnet schools focus on a particular specialty. For example, Cobb County’s Pebblebrook High School includes a magnet program for the performing arts, and Atlanta’s Henry W. Grady High School is a communications magnet for future journalists. Because magnets usually have admission requirements such as academic achievements or auditions, new students are generally accepted only during an annual application cycle. Like magnets, International Baccalaureate schools are specialized, academically rigorous programs within regular schools. As the name implies, their focus is on global issues, foreign language, and international understanding. The curriculum is set by a Geneva-based organization that accredits both private and public schools throughout the world. At the upper class level, students must apply and be accepted by an IB program in order to attend. Charter schools are public schools directed largely by their own communities. They operate under “charters” that describe their unique missions and curriculums. This gives the schools more flexibility in choices such as textbooks, coursework, and allocation of resources. Charter schools are open to any students who live within that school’s attendance zone, which is defined in the school’s charter. If there are more interested students than available space, charter schools must conduct a random lottery. They may use some enrollment preferences, but not those related to academic performance. The application process varies by school.

How does a student qualify for advanced classes in public school? Gifted programs have different names, such as Target or TAG, in each county or city, but the basic criteria are set by state law. In Georgia, a student can qualify for a gifted program by scoring in the 99th percentile (K–2) or 96th percentile (3–12) on a mental abilities test such as the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and by meeting one of the additional criteria below. Alternatively, he or she can also qualify by meeting any three of the four criteria below:

1. 96th percentile on a mental abilities test such as CogAT
2. 90th percentile on total battery, total math, or total reading on an achievement test such as the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-10) or Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS)
3. 90th percentile on a standardized test of creative thinking or creative characteristics such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking
4. 90th percentile on a standardized motivation rating or meet a minimum GPA (often 3.5) over two years for grades 3–12

Schools will provide all the necessary standardized tests for students who are referred for evaluation. According to state regulations, “student-generated products/performances” may also be submitted to a panel of experts to help meet criteria two, three, and four above. However, each county or city sets its own procedures and must provide equal opportunities for all students. Therefore, alternative assessments such as student projects, or even privately funded testing, may not be viable options. For Georgia’s gifted education guidelines, visit gadoe.org/ci_iap_gifted.aspx.

The above four-pronged evaluation is generally used to determine a student’s access to advanced classes all the way through middle school. A notable exception is middle school mathematics, where aptitude and placement are often determined for that subject alone. In other words, a student may qualify for accelerated math classes even if he or she is not “gifted.”

The good news is that high schools have more flexibility in student placement. Parents may be able to request that their child be placed in honors or Advanced Placement classes, sometimes even if the student does not meet recommended criteria.