CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
Edna Wilson and her granddaughter Gianee, a P.S. 64 student, protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing in February. Wilson is among those who were disappointed with the transfer options the city presented to students in schools that it is is phasing out. (Luke Hammill)

An escape route from the city’s most struggling schools that Department of Education officials touted as a significant innovation is unlikely to be an option for many eligible families, parents and advocates say.

When the city closes low-performing schools, new students aren’t allowed to enroll and current students stay on until they graduate. The arrangement has drawn criticism from state officials, families, and advocates who say high-need students see morale and support decline as their schools diminish in size.

This spring, just before finalizing plans to close 22 schools, department officials said they felt a “moral imperative” to help students who want to leave closing schools do so. They said they would mail transfer applications, including a list of possible destination schools, to all 16,000 students in the 61 schools that would be in the process of phasing out this fall.

“They presented it to families as an alternative to protect their children,” said Emma Hulse, a community organizer with New Settlement who has helped South Bronx families fill out transfer applications.

“But when the package actually hit people’s mailboxes, we realized it’s not a meaningful alternative,” she said.

The transfer rule represented a tweak to a longstanding process required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under that law, struggling students in schools that have landed on the state’s list of low-performing schools must be given the option to apply for seats in higher-performing schools. The new policy made students in closing schools that are not on the state’s list also eligible for transfer, and gave them all preference for open spots over students in other schools.

But the numbers suggest that few of the newly eligible students will end up in a different school. Last year, out of 143,141 students who were eligible for transfers, just 700 were placed in other schools through the transfer process, according to department data.

Department officials would not provide data about how many eligible students actually applied for transfers last year. But one major obstacle for those who did is that schools must have open seats in order to accept transfers. And high-performing schools tend also to have strong enrollments.

An added issue is that some schools that might be desirable destinations for students fleeing phase-out schools did not appear on the list of options the department distributed. (Transfer applications were due last month.)

Geraldine Maione, the principal at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education School in Brooklyn, said she has received phone calls from parents at nearby Sheepshead Bay High School, which will start phasing out at the end of the year. Maione said the parents want their children to be able to transfer to Grady, especially since it is setting up a new nursing program at a time when Sheepshead Bay’s is closing.

But Grady is on the state’s “Priority” list of low-performing schools, which means it can’t be on the list of schools that accept transfers — even though the city gave Grady a high B on its most recent progress report. Another nearby school, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, also cannot take Sheepshead Bay students for the same reason.

“We’re being measured by too many different rulers,” said Maione, who has struggled to maintain her school’s enrollment in recent years. “So which one do we stand by? I don’t know.”

Hulse said parents she worked with had encountered a similar problem. Many Spanish-speaking families preferred bilingual programs. P.S./M.S. 194, which received an A from the city, could have been a good match for their children, but it is on the state’s “Focus” list. (It is also operating well over capacity already.)

“If the list was expanded to include other schools offering bilingual options in the Bronx, like P.S./M.S. 194, we could have given these parents better choices,” Hulse said.

The state used data from the 2010-2011 school year to create its Priority and Focus school lists, State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said. But the most up-to-date NYC progress reports available are based on last year’s data, so schools that have shown improvement aren’t on the transfer list. Tompkins also said the state and city evaluate schools slightly differently.

But he said any disconnect between the city and state accountability lists would not affect many students.

“Even were it permissible to meet federal and state requirements regarding public school choice through offering students the choice to transfer to a Focus or Priority School that had a high NYC Progress Report grade, the effect on the number of transfers would likely be extremely modest,” Tompkins said.

GothamSchools found 24 Priority or Focus schools in the Bronx and 20 in Brooklyn that received at least a B progress report grade and at least a “proficient” quality review rating from the city. Those schools do not appear as possible transfer destinations on the lists families have received, even though some schools on the list got lower grades from the city.

But even if families can find a high-quality school with open seats, getting in and getting there remain challenges.

The department publishes transfer packets in nine languages. But Hulse said many Spanish-speaking parents came to New Settlement needing help with applications because they received information only in English.

“It’s terrible because it’s something so important and I can’t fill it out on my own,” said Ana Montero, whose child attends P.S. 64. “I have to find someone else to help me.”

Also, many parents depend on school buses to get their children to school. But the city won’t provide busing for students who attend school outside of their home borough, a problem for elementary school families looking to secure a transfer. High costs forced the city to eliminate inter-borough busing in 2011 for No Child Left Behind transfers, according to Robert Carney with the Office of Pupil Transportation.

Magatte Ndiaye’s daughter is in the third grade at P.S. 64. Since she has to be at work at 7 a.m., she can’t take her daughter to school in Manhattan, and she doesn’t think there are many good school options in the Bronx.

“If they send her to Brooklyn or Manhattan … and she can’t have buses, she’ll have to stay at P.S. 64. And I don’t like that because it’s a failing school,” she said. “And she has two more years … even if she passes here and goes to middle school, she may be lower than the other people.”

Edna Wilson, the grandmother of another third-grader at P.S. 64, shares Ndiaye’s concerns. She found a number of good schools on the transfer list for her granddaughter — but they were all in Manhattan, too far for her to travel.

“It seems like they give you one thing and then take something else away,” Wilson said.