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

A couple of weeks ago my oldest boy and I loaded a brand-new backpack with classroom supplies the state is too cheap to pay for, walked to the corner, and waited for a yellow bus to whisk him off to his first day of kindergarten. When I asked whether he was scared to take the bus by himself, he gave me the kind of guileless, parent-mollifying look only a five-year-old can muster. "No, Mom," he said, "that's your worry."

He's right. In the whole panoply of parental fears, though, I face one my mother never had to worry about: whether she was packing the kids off to the right school. She had virtually no say in the matter. When I went to kindergarten, it was on foot, and the school she now admits tailing me to was the neighborhood elementary school.

When it was time to pick my son's school, my husband and I spent a fretful season awash in research and swept up in the sort of whirlwind courtship once reserved for families trying to pick a private prep school. In Minneapolis, where we live, families choose from a menu of public schools with specialties in the environment, in Spanish, in fine arts; Montessori schools, open schools, and old-fashioned neighborhood schools. Choice is the lynchpin holding together the district's efforts to keep families like mine in the fold--middle-class household with the means to pick up and move to a suburb with schools that are ostensibly better.

The process starts in the fall, with an information fair where parents walk from booth to booth hearing about their options. That's followed by tours of the various schools, open houses, coffee and cookie nights, and a blizzard of government-mandated statistics on who's in each school building--kids and teachers--and how well they perform. In January, you rank your choices on a postcard, send it in, and hunker down until the placement letters arrive in late March or early April. For me and for most of the other families I know with kindergarteners-to-be, those were a long three months.

It wasn't that we faced an all-or-nothing outcome--a bright future at hard-to-get-into School A, or Dickensian warehouse School B. We looked at a bunch of schools and, because we live in an opportune spot on the district's attendance map, they were pretty great, staffed by energetic teachers and populated by happy, engaged students. We picked one, we got in, we went shopping for a backpack. Did we make the right call? Ask me in a year, or six.

By the end, I came to wonder whether Minneapolis's version of public school choice is all it's cracked up to be. For the people who really need alternatives, choice doesn't seem very meaningful. Families who live in low-income neighborhoods where schools are struggling are the ones who are least likely to work the system, and whose kids are most likely to end up in struggling schools. In addition, there is solid and abundant evidence that unrestricted choice, here and throughout the country, has helped to reverse the tenuous gains of decades' work to integrate public schools.

For the rest of us--who have the means to leave work, get in our cars, and go to open houses and school tours-- "choice" may actually foster more anxiety than it resolves. And I wonder whether it really helps anyone distinguish the schools that excel from the ones that don't. The competition and salesmanship fostered by choice make marketing integral to a school's mission, a shift that has transformed the playing field so fundamentally that even great schools suddenly find themselves in danger of being judged harshly, and for all the wrong reasons.

 

Travel back the better part of a year to November, the start of what Tim Cadotte, principal of Burroughs Community School, refers to as "touring season." We've already been to the district information fair, where we had our arms squeezed by a bevy of exuberant PTA volunteers. We have gathered literature from a dozen schools that serve our southwestern quadrant of the city. Now we're part of a pack of parents trailing Cadotte through the halls of Burroughs, which is so new some of the trim still bears painters' tape.

Located at the corner of 50th Street and Minnehaha Parkway, the building is gorgeous--all russet brick and blond wood and enormous windows looking out onto Minnehaha Creek. We visit gleaming computer labs, a sun-drenched lunchroom, and the library, appointed with vast amounts of glass and wood, and again, an incomparable view of the creek. There are 500 kids within these walls, but it's calm and quiet even when columns of pupils move from one activity to another.

As we walk, Cadotte points out architectural fillips saved from Burroughs's old building, and fields questions from parents who are, if anything, over-prepared. They want to know about instructional methods, and they're not shy about pushing the principal. At one point an arcane discussion about the future of cursive handwriting starts up. Burroughs students score off the charts on standardized tests--as everyone on the tour already seems to know. Everyone wants to know about gifted and talented services. These are so universally in demand they're spread throughout the classrooms, Cadotte explains.

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."

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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