After Cassandra Robinson moved to Hephzibah from Texas this summer, she enrolled her two sons at Hephzibah High School for their senior year.
On their first day, it took the twin brothers a few hours to figure out it wasn’t going to work.
“At Hephzibah, it didn’t make (adequate yearly progress), the curriculum wasn’t strong and the school in general lacked discipline,” Robinson said.
Although she lives miles away from Augusta’s Laney-Walker neighborhood, Robinson was able to transfer her sons to Lucy C. Laney High School because of an option created under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
The school choice program allows students at struggling schools to switch to better-performing schools no matter where they live in the district.
This school year, 318 Richmond County students chose to switch schools – out of the 10,333 who were given the option.
Reasons why a student might take advantage of school choice vary, according to schools spokesman Louis Svehla. It could be because parents think a school is not serving them well or it could be solely because of convenience.
Traditionally, only a small number of students use the provision to switch schools. Last year, 337 out of the 11,130 eligible students transferred.
“Sometimes a change in environment is good. Sometimes, depending on how that child learns, it can be very disruptive,” Svehla said. “But it’s a case-by-case basis.”
For Robinson’s sons, the decision was based on atmosphere. On the first day, they said they easily could pick out which students were in gangs.
They saw a female student curse at the principal in the cafeteria, and they didn’t feel enthusiasm from teachers.
Svehla said each school in the district has its own issues and that problems with gangs or violence are not unique to one particular campus.
But when Robinson looked at her options, Laney was the only alternative the district provided because it’s the only Richmond County comprehensive high school not in Needs Improvement status.
Although Laney has not met AYP benchmarks in seven years, it has received almost $2 million since 2010 from a federal School Improvement Grant, which made the school replace half its teachers, invest in technology and enact better instruction strategies under the so-called “Turnaround Model,” the most sweeping of the options the grant allows.
That model also allows a school to “reset” its AYP status, and it takes two years of not reaching the benchmarks to land on the Needs Improvement list.
T.W. Josey and Glenn Hills high schools also are in the second year of that grant, but they chose the less-intrusive “Transformational Model,” which doesn’t require such sweeping staff changes and, therefore, does not reset a school’s AYP status.
As the only option for high-schoolers wanting to switch schools, 105 students transferred to Laney using school choice this year, according to Principal Tonia Mason.
After her sons’ first day at Hephzibah, Robinson toured Laney, met the principal and teachers and enrolled her students for the next day.
“Even though Laney didn’t make AYP, it’s obvious they’re on the right track,” Robinson said.
However, when students choose to leave a school, it’s not always about labels.
Rollins Elementary School Principal Cheri Ogden said that of the 11 pupils who transferred to Rollins this year, she heard some families say the location was better for them, while others just heard good things about the school.
When schools habitually fail to make AYP and have to offer their students the option to move out, it may create an inaccurate image about the school’s true quality, Ogden said.
“To say a school did or didn’t make AYP doesn’t explain enough,” Ogden said.
“I hate that schools get labeled that way. I hate there’s this perception that Rollins is a better school than another school when, really, we meet different needs.”