First Person

Editor's blog: School choice, is it really?

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.

Six years ago, this was my situation: I franticly 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.

Charter school advocate and EdNews Parent expert Karin Piper 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 any way 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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.