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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede