Hamline mural

Bumbling No More: Transfer Accomplished

This is the fifth and final post in a series about trying to transfer a student from a struggling school to a better school outside of the annual school selection process in Chicago Public Schools. You can find parts one, two, three and four of the series by clicking on the hyperlinks.

On Monday, Youngest started at his new school: Upswing. After his first day was over, he texted me: “I loved it. … I feel like that school is my safe spot.”

So how did we get here? Youngest made the call himself.

After putting out my feeler to Way-Up-There Central Office Contact, Youngest and I had a chat. I put it all out there to him–that it looked like either we’d have to wait a long time for Great Neighborhood School while I kept on pushing the system, or he’d have to stay over at my house during the week.

He didn’t want to wait much longer, nor did he want to stay at my place, especially with all the uncertainty around how much longer his parents will be able to be here in Chicago. I understood.

“I think Upswing would be a good option for me,” he said.

“If you’re OK with that, I’m OK with that,” I said.

So, I went back to Mr. Nice Guy. He was willing to take Youngest. Then, before we hung up, he said, “I have to be really honest with you. Today we had a lockdown situation.” He explained there’s a small group of eighth-grade boys at Upswing who have been causing a lot of problems. Though it turned out the situation was overblown, word got out and scared parents had shown up.

“We’re trying to shut down the rumor mill,” Mr. Nice Guy added. Two thoughts flashed through my brain. First: oh, no, maybe this is going to be the same-old, same-old. Am I simply moving Youngest out of the frying pan into a new fire? Second: well, at least these folks are actively trying to shut down the rumor mill and work with the kids who have been causing trouble.

Ultimately, I’m still convinced Upswing is a better option than Not-So-Great, not least because I know how to reach Mr. Nice Guy and he’s responsive.

After our conversation, I let Way-Up-There Central Office Contact know that things have worked out.

Final Paperwork Hurdles

Shortly thereafter, Mamá and I went over to do the paperwork.

Before we started the process, I asked Youngest to let me know if there was any friend he’d like to be with in class, hoping to make things a little more comfortable for him. He mentioned a friend we’ll call Fulano.

When I ask if he can be in Fulano’s class, Mr. Nice Guy’s facial expression changed, and he shivered. We left Mamá with the school clerk and stepped into his office.

“If you hadn’t already talked with me, I would be telling her no right now. Fulano is one of the boys I was telling you about. He may not make it through the year here.”

“I bet Youngest has no idea that’s going on,” I replied. “His mom keeps him on total lockdown. He probably hasn’t seen him for two years.”

In the same breath, Mr. Nice Guy and I said, “They probably knew each other at Great Neighborhood School.”

“I will let Youngest and his mom know.” Mr. Nice Guy puts him in a different classroom. The clerk hands Mamá the stack of enrollment paperwork. We ask who should complete it. The guardianship form is in the paperwork we have already brought over. The secretary says Mamá.

Mamá is about to go to her 12 hour shift, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. We’re trying to figure out how she’s going to get the papers back to the clerk. The clerk says she’s there by 6:30 a.m. They decide Mamá can drop them off after she takes Youngest to Not-So-Great for what we all hope is the last time.

As we walked across the parking lot, she told me she had applied for Youngest to attend Upswing either last year or the year before (I didn’t catch this exactly). He had been wait- listed.

Later, I texted Youngest: “Stay away from Fulano. He is big trouble at Upswing. Mr. Nice Guy almost didn’t let you in.”

Youngest: “What! I never knew he was causing problems in school. When we were in school at Great Neighborhood he was a great kid. But, yeah I’ll stay away from him. If I knew he was getting in trouble I wouldn’t have had the idea to go to his class. Thank you for telling me.”

I forwarded that last part to Mr. Nice Guy, who texted back: “Thank you.”

Then, of course, there was just one more paperwork hurdle: the out-of-area form. Youngest texted me: “Maureen, they sent you a form from Upswing that you’re gonna have to fill out and lmk when it’s filled.”

I was very confused. Youngest said I was supposed to have an email. I looked in my inbox and there was no email from Upswing. The next morning, I went over and the clerk told me that the vice-principal must send me the form and until I get it and send it back, Youngest can’t start.

Fortunately, I did receive the form that day–last Friday–and got it back just in time for Youngest to start Monday of this week. On Monday morning, Mamá, my daughter and I all went with Youngest to Upswing so early we had to wait for the school doors to open. He told me later that he likes his homeroom teacher. The students are well behaved. Mamá doesn’t have an email, so we are sharing one of mine. His homeroom teacher and his counselor both responded to my initial emails within 24 hours. So far, so good.

Let’s Reduce the Need for Transfers and Make Them Easier When Necessary

While I’m delighted that all this effort put Youngest in a better situation, it really shouldn’t be necessary to go through so much headache. First of all, every neighborhood school should be a Great Neighborhood School. That’s the core challenge, especially in big-city districts.

But, even if every school had a baseline level of quality and competence, there would still be times when students need to move. Already, the district has allowed students without a permanent home to choose whether to stay at their previous school or transfer to the school nearest their shelter or other temporary housing. A former teacher at Great Neighborhood School suggested that simply expanding which students are allowed to stay at their previous school after a move could help offer more students essential stability. As she said:

“there should be safeguards in place for sure in terms of students who are dealing with trauma- (ie parents being deported, parent illness, etc.) we do it with kids who are considered STLS… seems like we could just choose to include more. … students who are dealing with ACES or trauma need consistency, structure and to see adults that they know and trust daily. If CPS is committed to equity and educating the whole child- they would safeguard students who are in any traumatic situation.

We also batted around the idea of having an open enrollment period at the beginning of each school year–from school start to the 20th day, when enrollment counts at schools must be finalized for the state. Perhaps central office could keep and manage a list of all open seats across the system and create a well-publiziced, simple system for parents to request a seat. Unweighted lotteries could be held for seats in schools that are especially popular.

Readers, we at Chicago Unheard would like you to weigh in with your transfer stories and your thoughts about how CPS enrollment and transfer policies could be improved to help more children and young people enjoy stable school placement.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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