Last month we started to talk about the choices faced by many students and their families during the summer months as they consider school options for the fall by focusing on one of those choice options: charter schools. While charter schools are one of the major providers of public school choice in our state, in many districts, there are even more public options. Because there are different types of public schools that fall under the umbrella of within-district choice, we will refer to these schools as “district choice schools.”
District choice schools
While many public school students are assigned schools based on their neighborhood or residential school zone and others opt to attend charters, some students apply for a seat in a public school outside of their residential school zone. These district choice schools serve students within residential school zones but also allow students outside of the schools’ boundaries to attend through an application process. We can classify most of these district choice schools into several broad categories, but the types and combinations of offerings in each district with public choice options often are unique to those districts.
This month’s map shows the proportion of all schools in a district that are characterized as district choice schools, including traditional public schools that accept students outside of their attendance zones, magnet schools (schools with special areas of focus or themes), early colleges (schools that offer for credit college coursework), and cooperative innovative schools (schools that “target students who are at risk of dropping out of high school, first generation college students, and/or students who would benefit from accelerated learning opportunities.”)1 It is important to note that there are within-school choice programs as well, meaning that the entire school is not application-based. For the purposes of this month’s article, we are only focusing on district (choice) schools and not individual choice programs.
You might notice that there are many districts that do not offer public choice options at all, and that there are no defined regions or clusters of districts where there are more district choice schools. You probably also notice one district that is providing choice options above and beyond all of the others: the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system, where 91% of all public schools are considered district choice schools. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.
The bar chart below the map filters based on the county selected. It is worth noting that population numbers of district choice school students are estimates, as some students automatically enroll in their default neighborhood option and others may apply to attend.
A special case
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) offer a special case in district choice options. In this school system, families have three school options: attend the school within their neighborhood’s designated zone; choose and apply to another school within their residential zone; or apply to a magnet school anywhere in the entire district. Students are guaranteed spots at their residential school or in one of their top three choices within their zone.
The WSFCS system started to implement their “Schools of Choice” Plan in the mid-1990s to address issues with school diversity and quality. The decision to infuse more choice in this school system tracks all the way back to the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which declared segregated educational facilities inherently unequal. As a result of this ruling and many that followed, WSFCS aimed to create an education system that provided all students with quality education opportunities while also supporting integration. Their Schools of Choice Plan, now in operation for over 20 years, offers parents and students the opportunity to choose the schools they feel will provide the best education. About 30 to 40 percent of students exercise their choice option each year.
A new traditional public school choice concept
Another unique district choice option is the regional school. There are 12 partnership school options in North Carolina, mostly characterized as early colleges, operating across districts and/or within counties. The second map this month shows these partnership schools, cross-district reach by school, and the number of students in each school. Hovering over each district further reveals if there are other district choice options in any of the districts with a partnership school. In some districts, the partnership schools provide the only district choice option for students.
Though all of these schools operate across districts, the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience in eastern North Carolina is a special case worth mentioning because it is characterized as the state’s first regional school, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The institution partners with local school districts to draw students from five counties — Beaufort, Martin, Pitt, Tyrrell, and Washington. The school also partners with institutes of higher education and state agencies to enhance its STEM-focused curriculum. A short profile of the Northeast Regional School can be found here (profile runs from the 0:57 mark to the 8:37 mark).
The regional model allows districts to pool limited resources and develop partnerships with institutes of higher education and the private sector over a broad area, often allowing for a more targeted focus on regional workforce needs.
As we talk about providing parents and students with the ability to choose what they feel are the best educational options for their children, the same considerations from last month’s article about charters apply:
How much choice can and should a public system accommodate?
Perhaps data from districts like Winston-Salem/Forsyth and regional schools like Northeast Regional can help leaders further define how public choice schools should operate statewide. If you have thoughts you’d like to share about the effectiveness of the public choice system in your school district, please reach out to us in the comments section below.