First Person

Opinion: School choice … is it really?

Julie Poppen is editor of Education News Colorado’s sister site, EdNews Parent.

Well, it’s that time of year and I’m not talking about racing around looking for cranberries or figuring out how many pounds your bird should be. I’m talking open enrollment.

Kids on school busSix years ago, this was my situation: I frantically sought all the information I could on Boulder elementary schools. I analyzed their websites, loading them with way too much import: “Oh, that one is nicely designed and creative – they must have fabulous parent volunteers and the school must be top-notch, too” or “Geez, what a crappy website, don’t they care enough to present a positive image to the world?”

As much as I say I don’t care about test scores, I looked at those too. As a former K-12 education reporter in Boulder, I had a distinct advantage. I had already visited many of the schools I was now considering for my precious daughter. I knew which ones aced the CSAPs, which ones focused on the arts, which ones were struggling.

My husband and I faithfully showed up at the open enrollment tours and school visits for parents. We dutifully took notes and scrutinized children’s art on the school walls as if we were art brokers: “Wow, they must have a really good art teacher here … or is the teacher guiding their work too much, so it looks too professional?”

Of course, all this happens smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. I remember getting really sick, but still feeling like I had to show up at these open enrollment venues. At one visit, my ears were completely clogged, I felt rotten and I had to wonder what the heck I was doing. Still, I was there, checking out the parent volunteers who escorted us around the school. “Hmmm … they seem nice, and very well-dressed. Would I fit in?”

Open enrollment season is indeed a crazy time. How can you not participate in the dance? I mean, it’s your child, and you want what’s best for him or her, right?

A false promise

But choice also is a false promise. We like to pretend that we all have abundant choices about where our children attend school, but the fact is, we don’t. If you saw “Waiting for Superman,” the lottery analogy is dead on. I won’t pretend to compare my situation in Boulder Valley – one of the state’s top school districts – to the plight of inner city families surrounded by failing schools. But the end result is often the same. You can’t always get what you want.

We settled on a few schools we really liked for our daughter. One was small, in a historic building downtown, and had a well-developed International Baccalaureate focus. We knew our chances were very slim, but we submitted an application anyway. Then, as our second choice, we selected an elementary school known for its outstanding academics and its focus on music and math.  I think we even picked a third.

Luck of the draw

The result? We didn’t get in any of the schools. So we enrolled at our neighborhood school. Now, we’ve only got one year left before middle school. Things have turned out all right (for the most part) but sometimes I wonder if our daughter would have had a more enriching experience in a different, smaller, more nurturing setting. Who knows?

Turns out, in Boulder Valley, 60 percent of the 30,000-student district’s students attend their neighborhood school; 32 percent are enrolled in a focus school or neighborhood school outside their home boundary; and 8 percent attend charters, according to BVSD Assistant Director for Student Enrollment Mike Wilcox. But the numbers are constantly shifting. Wilcox reports that more people are submitting open enrollment applications every year – topping out at more than 6,000 applications last year – or roughly 20 percent of all students.

Of those applicants, 43 percent get their first choice school – a percentage that has declined in recent years because demand is growing while the number of open seats is not.

Improving your chances

So, is there a strategy to improve your chances of getting in the school you want? Wilcox says the single best strategy for families is to make sure they feel very strongly about their first choice school – don’t pick a school “you may be iffy about.” And be patient.  It’s a lengthy process.

Karin Piper, choice and charter school advocate, says it’s vital to talk to people at the school you’re interested in to understand what you can do to improve your chances. Some focus or magnet schools may bump neighborhood kids up higher on a list, for instance. Many schools put a priority on siblings of enrolled students.

She notes that one Core Knowledge school in Parker had only 436 enrolled students last year, but 2,000 still on the waiting list to get in. She said even if parents put their child on the wait list when he or she was an infant, he or she may not get into kindergarten there.

“You end up being held hostage by your zip code,” Piper says.

The only certain way to get into a school you want – if it’s a neighborhood school – is to buy or rent a house within the boundary of that school, she says. For many people, that’s clearly a pretty big challenge.

As for charters, “founding families” or employees often get first dibs on coveted classroom slots. So, Piper says, if you are aware of a charter opening in your area that you’re interested in, consider taking a more active role by volunteering – or working – for the school.

Charter schools cannot handpick students. So making a cash contribution to a school won’t increase your chances – but it doesn’t stop over-zealous parents from trying to gain favor however they can, charter school observers say.

So is it really a choice where your child goes to school? It seems the only answer is to continue the push to improve all schools by whatever means necessary so that all children and families have a real choice – not just a chance – at a great education.

2012-13 open-enrollment deadlines and links for Colorado’s largest school districts

  • Jefferson County Public Schools – First deadline is Jan. 24 – More info
  • Denver Public Schools – First deadline is Jan. 31 – More info
  • Douglas County School District – First deadline is Jan. 5 – More info
  • Cherry Creek School District – First deadline is Feb. 1 – More info
  • Adams 12 Five Star District – First deadline is Feb. 1 – More info
  • Aurora Public Schools – First deadline is May 1 – More info
  • Boulder Valley School District – First deadline is Jan. 13 – More info

Learn more about the choice process in Denver by watching this EdNews Parent video. The tips are good for any parent involved in this process. Note that the open enrollment deadline referenced was for 2011, so please disregard that part.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.