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."

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