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

The other school where Franks is principal, Armatage, has a school-within-a-school Montessori program, which is a popular draw. And Burroughs, she acknowledges, "has big flash." But she's hard-pressed to see what Kenny might do differently: "There's been a lot of talk about whether there should be some specialization, but it's difficult to figure out what kind of specialized program could go in."

Most Minneapolis families get to request a first and a second choice of schools, provided only one of the two choices is a magnet, that is, a specialized school with a broad attendance area. The other choice must be a neighborhood school. Mail in your choice cards by January 15, and there's a 98 percent chance you get one of your choices. The worst-case scenario is that your kid goes to your neighborhood school; how bad a bargain that is depends on your neighborhood.

My family is one of the exceptions, however. We live in one of 10 so-called "open" areas, which are not assigned to a single neighborhood school. Most of us still get one of our top two choices, although we're allowed to list a third as backup. When the placement lottery's held, we also get a slight preference. Although that helps, what the neighborhood really wants is for kids who live together to go to school together. Irony of ironies, we run across a couple of families borrowing addresses in our neighborhood so as to increase their chances of getting into Burroughs--never mind that we aren't even in one of Burroughs's assigned neighborhoods.

By the time the deadline for mailing in our choice cards comes around, we're unreasonably anxious. We don't list Kenny, even though we think our son would do well there. Instead, like every other middle-class family we've talked to, we try to handicap our chances. If your top choice is competitive, the strategy seems to be to list it first, and then try to list an equally popular second choice. So we list our top choice, and then we list Burroughs as number two.

Amber Hawkins, another mom in my neighborhood--no relation--toured Kenny, liked it, and wondered why its administrators weren't courting her vote. Like us, she figured that since Kenny never fills up, she could always try to get her son in later if they lost the lottery. "All we wanted was a safe, good school," she says. "Do they do an okay job? And do the teachers care? And do you recognize kids' strengths and weaknesses?"

It never occurred to either of us that Kenny might be in the process of losing the most important popularity contest ever, and that we might lose it as a fallback.

 

Two years ago when Jon Smith (not his real last name) was in search of a school for his oldest son, his neighbors and friends were all trying to figure out how to get their kids into hot schools. They toured several. Ramsey Fine Arts Magnet was on a lot of the neighbors' lists, and "of course everybody raved about Barton," he recalls. At the time, the neighborhood school in Lyndale, where the Smiths have lived for 10 years, had a terrible reputation. Despite its location in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying chunk of Minneapolis, 90 percent of the students at Lyndale Community School are impoverished. Sixty-three percent are African American, and more than 40 percent aren't native English speakers. It's never full, and there's never a waiting list. The Smiths went to an open house at the school anyhow, and left impressed. "And then we went while school was in session," he says. "And the assistant principal took us around and we were very impressed." They heaved a massive sigh of relief and quit the choice process. "We were really anxious when we were going through it," he continues. "Which school is the best? And then if you decide this is the one, is he going to get accepted? And then there's waiting for that letter." Smith's son is still at Lyndale, and thriving. Lyndale's principal, Ossie Brooks James, has effected an academic 180-degree turn within its walls; test scores have risen steadily over the last four years and last year the school climbed off the list of programs failing under No Child Left Behind. Today, its students score well above average and James has won all kinds of national recognition. The phrase "beat the odds" pops up a lot in stories about Lyndale, which, statistically, shouldn't be succeeding. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all students usually perform poorly in schools where 75 percent of the student body or more is living in poverty. Indeed, there's a growing body of research suggesting that it's economic integration, not racial, that's most important to student achievement. "There have been many billions of dollars invested in trying to make high-poverty schools work, and no one's able to make it work, with some exceptions," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation. "Concentrations of poverty can severely impede the goal of providing a good quality education. The schools with the highest concentrations of poverty tend to have the least prepared students, the least involved parents, and the least experienced teachers." Kahlenberg cites a number of school districts around the country that have experimented with making sure that school choice does not result in economically segregated schools. The results have been positive, and many districts have still managed to give parents one of their top three choices, he says. In contrast, unrestricted choice such as Minneapolis offers tends to have a negative overall effect. "The research I've seen is that if you don't have some safeguards in place, choice can actually contribute to economic and racial segregation," he says. Century Foundation research has found that economic segregation in the nation's largest 100 metro areas is increasing. "In coming years, more school desegregation orders are likely to come to an end, with districts returning to a system of 'neighborhood schools' that reflect economic and racial segregation," Kahlenberg writes. "[The] study projects that economic school segregation will increase in all but six states between now and 2025." Lyndale sits just outside the open area where I live, which has no community school, and the meeting the Smiths attended is one example of James's efforts to reach out to my anxious neighbors and me. That her efforts haven't met with more success says more about us than her, I think. Still, in a system that requires schools to market themselves, I wonder whether "beating the odds" has the sizzle it takes to sell the place. Minneapolis Public Schools leaders are slated to spend the next few months considering "realignment," a process that amounts to deciding which schools might be closed or reorganized to offset the district's falling enrollment and the perennial budget crises. There's talk of redrawing the map that dictates which students are eligible to attend which schools. As part of the process, administrators might do well to visit LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which has had economically integrated schools for several years. In order to achieve economic integration there, almost half of elementary pupils had to be bused. This fall, LaCrosse will vote on a referendum to remedy that and to save money. Boundaries will be redrawn. Five elementary schools will be closed, and two new ones built. Of course, LaCrosse isn't surrounded by suburbs that offer disgruntled middle-class parents an easy out. Bill Green served on the Minneapolis School Board from 1993 to 2001, and co-chaired the task force that designed the current hybrid system of neighborhood schools and magnets. He's sure Kahlenberg's right, but he's also convinced that middle-class families fear economic integration more than racial integration. "In a day when suburban white kids can wear their pants halfway down their butts and play hip hop, our suburbs continue to resist affordable housing," notes Green, a professor of history at Augsburg College. "In the final analysis, parents have to be willing to send their kids to certain schools. Yet at the same time, you can't ask parents to make their kids part of some socioeconomic experiment. So it becomes a question of political will. And look who's in charge of the state and federal governments, which are in charge of that. "I think choice is very important," he continues. "But it's only meaningful if policymakers are willing to guarantee the funds to make good things happen."   When my son got on that big yellow bus, it wasn't to go to any of the schools named in this article. He's going to the first school we walked into where we knew, immediately and instinctively, he'd be right at home. Like him, it's a little loud and rambunctious, insatiably curious, and extroverted in nature. Indeed, the choice process was all but forgotten when we showed up for orientation and learned that thanks to our charter- and voucher-loving governor, our new school is so strapped for resources it's counting on parents to contribute basic classroom supplies. Around the district, hundreds of teachers won't be coming back to work, and art, music, and other "extracurricular" classes have been cut. Amber Hawkins, too, wishes that the district had spent less energy on school choice and more on adapting schools to the needs of working parents. Her son's new, highly sought-after school can't offer him full-day kindergarten, and the school's before- and after-school care program doesn't have room for all the kids who need it. She didn't learn what time the bus comes, whether her son's assigned to morning or afternoon kindergarten, or whether he's on the childcare roster until literally days before school started. If his new schedule hadn't jibed with her work needs or her husband's, she'd have been left scrambling to work something out. To hear veteran educators tell it, there is a silver lining behind all the cloudy and difficult details. The process of choice, they say, tends to cement families to schools--after doing the work and building the relationships involved in picking this program or that, parents are much likelier to dig in and do still more work to justify that choice. Yet at a certain point, the kind of choice I've just exercised--picking a public school within my home district--is bound to run headlong into that other kind of school choice, the kind being promoted by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and George Bush and their ideological bedfellows, which is defined by a retreat from traditional public schools toward charters and vouchers and schools run by for-profit corporations. As more families flee the public system for these alternatives (in much the same way a prior generation fled the city itself), public funding will shrink still further. And more parents will conclude that "school choice" in the public system is a paltry thing when practically every option on the table means a classroom so fiscally starved that its basic fabric is eroding.

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