Choose and Lose

How I got my kid into a decent public school and learned that "choice" is not all it's made out to be

We come back a week later for an open house. There's a short multimedia presentation, a Q&A with Cadotte and the kindergarten teachers, and more time to look around. As my husband and I try to leave, a Burroughs dad stops us to insist that we detour past the lunchroom, where volunteers have set out cookies and Dunn Bros coffee. He's effusive and sincere, asking about our kids and telling about his and how happy they are with the school. A few days later, we get a handwritten thank you card from Cadotte.

Cadotte guesses he gave this tour to 150 to 175 people last winter. As a result, Burroughs shot past the hot schools of years past, Lake Harriet and Barton Open, and became the most-requested school in Minneapolis for the brand-new school year. Every kindergarten seat was filled and a waiting list will replace any dropouts. Twenty-three families were lured back from private schools.

Far from resenting his marketing duties, Cadotte relishes them. "It happens that this is my passion," he says. "I just want to make people feel good about where they send their children." He used to be a teacher at a magnet school, he explains, "and they're in the business of marketing. We as schools have to get better at this business and we have to let people know what we're doing."

To that end, district administrators recently asked Cadotte to conduct two marketing sessions for other principals. Much of what was discussed "just wasn't stuff they thought to do," he says. The workshops went well, and he thinks that his colleagues left energized to do more to promote their schools.

"Selecting a school is kind of like buying a house: You walk through three or four and one of them speaks to you," Cadotte says. "The bricks and mortar help with some people. I know some parents pick us for the high achievement academically. When you walk through the school it's very peaceful, and an open school is maybe not so peaceful. I know that our sense of community is our strongest asset."

The school's community is tightly knit and its parents supportive and involved. But it is also a relatively easy community to serve: Seventy percent of Minneapolis students qualify for subsidized lunches, versus just 24 percent at Burroughs. Whereas 43 percent of district students are African American, just 6 percent of Burroughs kids are. Asian Americans, Native Americans, and special education students are similarly underrepresented, although at 21 percent, there are nearly twice as many Latino children, many of them enrolled in the school's English-Language Learner program. White children make up 68 percent of the student body, vs. 26 percent district-wide.

In short, the families that populate Burroughs are the ones the district hoped to retain when it adopted choice. It's a great school, and my family does feel lucky to have it as an option. Like most people, although we're interested in the welfare of all of the kids in our community, our first priority is sending our children to safe, effective schools. But our luck is someone else's misfortune: Burroughs is an enclave in a Minneapolis system that is not equipped to offer this kind of education to all of its students.

 

A few blocks southeast of Burroughs, at 57th and Emerson, a parent leads a much more casual tour of Kenny Community School. She's warm and personable and seemingly unprepared for a lot of the questions we ask. She knows all the teachers, though, and corrals them as needed to field our queries. The school seems cheerful and flexible, a little more human in scale, and more racially varied than Burroughs. The building is old and modest, but test scores are nearly as high.

Kenny gets low marks for self-presentation, though. When I called a week ahead to RSVP for the tour, as instructed by their flyer, the office staff didn't know what I was talking about. The kindergarten teachers aren't around, even though most of us have five-year-olds. Two of their classrooms are dark and locked. No one can explain how they decide which children attend all-day kindergarten, which half-day. Kenny shares a principal with another elementary school, Armatage, in an effort to save money. She wasn't there; the assistant principal was, but he was in the library helping make ready for a book sale.

Beloved by its pupils though it is, Kenny is never full. A few weeks after the tour, in fact, the district announced a plan to close it and nine other under-subscribed schools to save money. The plan was tabled only after a community outcry; the district has announced that it will hold a series of public forums on the subject. You might think that Kenny's administrators, facing such obvious duress, would work twice as hard to sell enrolling there. But no. Later I compare notes with several other parents in my neighborhood, who are similarly perplexed. We all agree that we liked the school just fine--and that we wouldn't have harbored a moment's doubt about sending our kids there if we hadn't drunk the Dunn Bros down the street.

When I reached Kenny Principal Joan Franks on the phone for this story, she was mystified. Kenny parents put up yard signs around the neighborhood. The school rented a billboard and placed ads in local papers. "When people say we're not marketing, I'm not sure what they're talking about," she says. "There's a lot of word of mouth. You cannot find a Kenny parent who would not lay their life down for that school."

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