THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Thousands of students flee home districts

60% more opt for other towns’ schools

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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The number of Massachusetts students leaving their local public schools for other districts has surged 60 percent in the past decade, with thousands more waiting for openings, a movement that signals rising discontent with many hometown schools and a level of desperation to attend better ones.

Many families are fleeing poorly performing urban districts such as Springfield, Worcester, and Fitchburg to enroll their children in nearby systems that have better reputations and higher test scores. While many suburban Boston schools do not accept outside students, those that do, including Avon, Ipswich and Rockport, report far more applicants than available spots.

“They are voting with their feet,’’ said Anthony Bent, the superintendent in Leominster, which last year lost 246 students who elected to go to other public schools.

The record number of students taking advantage of the state’s school choice program has drawn little attention amid the clamorous debate over charter schools, which enjoy growing popularity as alternatives to traditional public schools.

In the last decade, the number of students participating in the program has quietly swelled from 7,342 in 2000 to 11,807 in the last school year, another symptom of frustration with public schools, particularly those in poorer communities where academic performance often lags and where drop-out rates are typically high.

Just as minority students in Boston will wake up before dawn and travel long distances to attend well-regarded suburban schools through the Metco program, parents across the state are increasingly willing to move their children to unfamiliar schools and provide their own transportation in hope of getting them a better education.

“This shows the enormous demand for school choice,’’ said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that has long advocated school choice. “The competition really injects a level of accountability into the system.’’

Massachusetts public schools are generally acknowledged as being among the nation’s best, and even staunch charter school proponents say they have made significant strides.

Yet as the intense demand for charter schools indicates, parents in many districts believe their children deserve better.

“It’s the same impulse,’’ said Marc Kenen, who directs the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. “It’s parents looking for an alternative for their children.’’

The Patrick administration has worked to expand school choice by allowing more charter schools in struggling school districts.

The largest migrations of students have been concentrated in the central and western parts of the state, but lately the phenomenon has accelerated inside Interstate 495, educators said. West Bridgewater, for instance, now takes in 173 out-of-town students, many of them from Brockton, after starting the school choice program in 2005, when it took in 91. School choice enrollment in Ipswich has nearly doubled over the past five years, from 87 to 161. Most of the students come from Gloucester.

“We go through a very serious analysis to make sure it will not cause any overcrowding or additional burden on the existing classrooms,’’ said Rick Korb, school superintendent in Ipswich. “And we have far more applicants than we can select.’’

Under a state law enacted in 1991, students can attend public schools in any district that accepts outside students and has seats available. Selection is random, although preference is given to siblings of students in the program. Families must provide their own transportation.

School boards vote each year on whether to admit outside students, and school officials determine how many to accept at various grade levels. State education officials do not track the number of applicants for school choice programs, but local school officials say demand has been steadily rising.

Most districts in Greater Boston do not accept out-of-town students. But in recent years more communities across the state have opened their doors, enticed by the $5,000-per-student subsidy they typically receive from the students’ home districts.

With budgets under siege, 172 of the state’s 329 school districts now take in students from other towns.

“It’s not out of the goodness of their heart,’’ Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massa chusetts Association of School Superintendents said of districts’ motivation. “It’s a way to maximize their resources. Especially in this economy, why wouldn’t you?’’

That gain comes at the expense of districts that lose students, typically low-income communities that can least afford it, educators said.

“When the kids leave, they don’t leave in nice, neat clumps, so the expenses stay about the same,’’ Scott said. “You can’t close a classroom, eliminate a bus route, or turn off the heat.’’

The exodus creates a vicious cycle, critics of the program say, depriving struggling systems of the money and motivated students they need to improve. That deepens existing inequalities among rich and poor schools, they say.

Bent said school officials in Leominster, which also saw 181 students come to its schools from out of town, view the high number of families leaving the system as a referendum on its performance and see the competition as keen motivation to improve.

Last week, the school board agreed to survey parents who decided to enroll their children elsewhere. The board’s goal is pinpointing areas of weakness.

“We have to make it as strong as can be, so parents aren’t motivated to go elsewhere,’’ Bent said.

Alan Ingram, superintendent of Springfield schools, has set a similar goal, saying administrators are focused on making the system parents’ first choice.

That resolve is precisely how school choice improves education, supporters say.

Yet many educators are torn over its impact. Susan King is superintendent of Rockport schools, which accept twice as many out-of-town students as they did five years ago. She questions whether the system is fair to schools on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

“There’s a piece of me that’s philosophically concerned about it,’’ she said.

Jill Norton, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, an independent research group in Cambridge, voiced similar concerns. She understands why parents are driven to explore other options, but worries about the impact on the schools they are leaving.

Some students from Springfield and Holyoke, for instance, are turning to Chicopee, which last year drew well over 200 students from other towns.

“We’re a safe community with a sound educational system,’’ said Superintendent Richard W. Rege Jr. “There is heavy demand.’’

Parents who enroll their children in another town’s schools typically place a premium on education and often take an active role in the schools, he said.

Maureen Nickerson of Springfield enrolled her daughter Jenny in Chicopee High School for ninth grade. Nickerson had grown up in Springfield and went through the public schools, as had her older daughter.

By the time her daughter Jenny entered her teenage years, however, Nickerson was looking for an alternative, and felt that Chicopee was a better choice. “For her, smaller is better,’’ she said. “The school really prepares you for college. It’s a good program, and she’s done really well there.’’

Matt Callahan, a senior at West Bridgewater Middle-Senior High School, came to that town’s schools in seventh grade, when his parents expressed concern about the budget issues facing schools in Bridgewater.

He was nervous at first about being the new kid, but found acceptance quickly and said he has thrived in a smaller system.

“Everybody knows one another,’’ he said. “You’re able to get a lot more individual time with teachers.’’

Statewide, the demographic breakdown of students in the school choice program is not known. But local officials say the new students sometimes provide a measure of integration into predominantly white schools.

“We think diversity enriches our school,’’ said Margaret Frieswyk, superintendent of schools in Avon, a small town south of Boston that borders Brockton and Randolph. “We have a pretty strong academic track record, and students feel safe when they come here. We’d love to accept everyone.’’

Some school officials say students are often driven by reasons beyond academics, and their departure is often not an indictment of hometown schools.

Some prefer a smaller school or want to play a higher level of competition in sports. Others want a fresh start.

“It’s not necessarily that they are in a bad system,’’ said Patricia W. Oakley, superintendent in West Bridgewater, where school choice enrollment has risen to 173 students in the past five years. “They are just looking for the right fit.’’

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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