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The dilemma of school choice

Bryan and Robin are married and often have very distinct views on the future of education, especially for their children, ages 18, 12, 4 and not quite 2. However, as researcher and education professor Michael Fullan so smartly put it, “Being right is not a strategy for change,” nor for staying married. In this monthly column, Robin and Bryan will share insights as they debate key issues in education and arrive at solutions on behalf of their children, clients, and friends in the industry. The views expressed in this column are their own, and do not reflect those of 2Revolutions nor North Carolina New Schools.

In 2011, our family very intentionally moved to a socio-economically, racially, and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the Triangle with a new elementary school literally a hundred yards from our back porch. We were confident that the proximity to Research Triangle Park and the burgeoning neighborhood growth would easily elevate the school’s performance, despite the failing report card the school had posted over the previous years since the school opened. 

Then we went to the community pool and playground.

Parent after parent shared hostile feelings toward “that school.” They were adamant about exploring any and all alternative options – the district’s magnet program, the numerous charter schools in the region, and local private schools. One neighbor was going so far as to rent a small, unoccupied apartment to provide an address in another school district for her daughters to attend school there. Bottom line, they were not sending their child to a failing school. This wasn’t the scenario we had envisioned.

Robin:  The dilemma of choice

For our first three years in the neighborhood, I responded to parents at the pool and playground with the persistent refrain, “Our children will do fine wherever they go, and if families in this community send their children to our neighborhood school, that alone will improve its performance. With our advocacy and support, the school can make real changes to benefit all students.”

Now the older of our two preschool-aged boys is ready to start kindergarten this fall. Like many boys, he’s full of energy and loves to run, jump, climb, play fight, and smash things. He’s inherited his father’s charismatic, outgoing personality. While he also shares our curiosity and love of learning, his needs to move and talk are irrepressible – or at least, I don’t want to repress them.

All of sudden, it became real to me that while he may “do fine” academically anywhere, he may not thrive.

My fears for his relationship with school began at the start of this school year. He moved up to the younger of two pre-K classrooms, with a teacher new to the school who had come from many years of teaching kindergarten. Her blog the first week mentioned that the children were learning to follow classroom procedures, “like share with others, work in silence and finish on time.” I was beside myself. Work in silence? Why on Earth? I think it’s senseless to demand of high school students. These are four year olds!

In a meeting with the school’s director and co-director, as well as the company’s regional manager, I explained that while I may think of the setting as daycare, my son refers to it as “school,” and it is therefore shaping his first impressions and understandings about school. I didn’t want him to come to view school as defined by strict rules and getting in trouble. I didn’t want him to come to view himself as “bad.” I wanted, and continue to want, him to experience learning as fun, through play and interaction.

All of sudden, it became real to me that while he may “do fine” academically anywhere, he may not thrive. The wrong environment might do harm. At a birthday party this fall, a friend recounted her experience at our neighborhood school. Her oldest daughter had “done fine,” but in some years, her teacher expected students to sit still and be quiet much of the day, and at times, she really didn’t want to go to school. She described students being forced to spend the first 15 minutes of a 20-minute lunch period eating in silence and losing their recess for misbehavior. This mother explained to me that while her daughter had “survived,” it broke her heart to think about sending her youngest, a boy, to the school; her heart ached for the little boys she observed sitting sadly in the corners of the classroom each afternoon, admonished. Her four children now attend a charter school.

So what’s the dilemma? There are limited seats, and the more appealing the option, the less likely the chance of being selected in the lottery, and the more white and affluent the student population.

There are a wide range of charter school options in the region, many that feature educational approaches that appeal to us – project-based learning, out-of-classroom learning experiences, portfolios instead of standard graded assignments, community-based service learning, performance assessment, cultivation of student agency. Magnet options include Montessori programs, language academies, curricular themes, year-round school calendars. So what’s the dilemma? There are limited seats, and the more appealing the option, the less likely the chance of being selected in the lottery, and the more white and affluent the student population. I strongly value diversity, of all kinds, and the only options that meet my diversity criterion are a few of the magnet schools, each with a high ratio of applicants to seats.

But what’s really causing me angst is feeling the tug of the moral imperative to send our children to a district-run public school, and more specifically, to our neighborhood school. While charter schools are tuition-free for parents, they draw money from the local school district. Since they generally serve a more affluent population, they leave local school districts with less money to serve higher-need students. If my husband and I rallied parents in the community to send their children to our neighborhood school, to actively participate in the school’s PTA, to advocate for policy changes, to support engaging classroom instruction and extracurricular learning opportunities, the school experience and learning outcomes for all students would improve. Given our work in and passion for education, I feel that responsibility. 

Bryan:  Choice is good, but is it real?

My wife’s a better researcher, often more thoughtful, and certainly more liberal in her beliefs about what is possible in terms of community organizing. She grew up in one of the nation’s first planned communities with aspirations of diversity and equity. Thus, her perspective is often colored through the lens of her best memories of this veritable utopia. Mine is a different perspective. That said, I was probably more closely aligned with the folks at the pool in terms of “seek the best possible opportunity for our kids.”

I have two older children from a previous marriage – a daughter who is a freshman at Appalachian State University and a son in seventh grade in Albemarle County, Virginia. They both were exposed to suburban, soccer-culture infused, high-performing, mostly white schools with very little socio-economic diversity. And they’ve both done better than fine. However, I now find myself torn as a father of two biracial children in terms of “what we were teaching them.” Furthermore, both younger boys attend a Spanish immersion preschool in the Triangle, and we are hopeful to continue their bilingual education.

Simply put, our family is like many families out there. We are a compilation of a lot of different experiences and backgrounds, and we are certain that education is a path for understanding, appreciation, and opportunity. Thus, the stakes are high for our first school experience, and our options at present seem more like a forced choice than a deliberate selection process. 

I draw this conclusion because, initially, I wanted to apply to all international or language immersion options, multiple charters, and even evaluate a few private options.

Then came the façade behind school choice.

Then came the façade behind school choice. Our district’s magnet lottery statistics suggest you have absolutely no shot1 at getting your second choice, about a 1% chance at a Montessori seat, and about a 15% chance of getting our current first choice. Charter schools, and even some magnet schools, do not provide transportation. Many charter schools do not offer extended school care either. Throw in the travel and inconvenience of a super commuter family (I travel about 50% of my time, and my wife works in the opposite direction of district schools), and you have one choice – your neighborhood school.

While some of my wife’s friends and colleagues encourage her role as a lead activist in turning around our neighborhood’s failing school, my experiences as a principal at two separate schools and now as an advisor to systems in over 20 states across the country, paint a very different picture of what is possible in the short-term.

One strong family or several can bother a school principal, teachers, or a school board member or two, but change is a very slow process. Multiple tactics exist for school staff and school leaders to delay, stonewall, or show mixed progress towards parent pressures or supports. At the end of the day, you’re at year’s end to the “experiment” and your kid has lost a year of quality instruction, socialization, and personal growth. I’m agitated by the lack of “choice” and “options” in an environment that claims to promote it.

So how do we create better options and choices?

Many families are fleeing from what they see as constant interventions, pseudo-psychologist and social worker roles, as well as lock-step standardization in instruction and assessment practices so that test scores are raised at all costs. Throw in curious, rambunctious boys who require a lot of movement, and you have a recipe for disaster when the failing school employs counterproductive measures like taking away recess.

But wait, the parents in our neighborhood will change all of that, right? Give me a break. How? If educators laughed at a pediatric occupational therapist’s invited recommendations, why would we expect them to respect and implement ours?

Yes, I’m skeptical of the influence a community and/or a family can exert on a school culture. Is it possible to turn around the conditions of fear, apathy, and overextended staff in a failing school? Yes, but I’m not convinced the parents are the catalyst to do it. That takes a great school leader who empowers teachers to inspire and support the learning needs of all the school’s children, regardless of their backgrounds.

Common ground 

After our initial reactions, we did what we always do – return at the end of the day to pillow talk and a promise to not go to bed angry. We shared our concerns with each other, had a few laughs, and returned in prayer to the issues of the day. We made a final commitment to carve out some time the next day to sit and talk about our options.

We have agreed to apply to two schools: one truly exceptional charter and one magnet school. We also agreed that if we had to rank them, school culture, approach to teaching and learning, and fit for our children trumped proximity and transportation. The neighborhood school ranks last out of the three options, but is statistically where we will most likely land. We will not apply to additional charter schools to increase our chances of securing a seat elsewhere, nor will we consider any private schools. At least that’s the plan for the short term.

We’ll roll up our sleeves in service to the school’s educators and students.

If the lotteries leave us at the neighborhood school, we will organize immediately. We have a social network in our neighborhood, and we will actively recruit families to participate in Parents for Engagement, Action, Community, Excellence, and Equity (PEACE). We’ll schedule early meetings with the school administration to understand their vision and plans for recruiting and retaining families in this community. We’ll coordinate with PTA leaders to identify areas for focus and collaboration. We’ll roll up our sleeves in service to the school’s educators and students.

We still have different views on school choice. Robin believes that until choice is universal, it creates excuses to leave some behind. Bryan believes that the current choice model can be vastly improved. Reconfiguring time, talent, and technology, or put differently, “un-thinking school to rethink learning,” will be critical to ensure all of our families have the best choices available. In addition, he’s working to provide kindergarten through ninth grade options to the state of North Carolina for its first virtual charter school.

There is one choice, however, on which we both agree. Wherever our children land, we will demand and support an education that cultivates curiosity and provides a mix of authentic learning experiences to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to succeed in tomorrow’s world. A cells and bells environment focused solely on passing standardized tests will not suffice. Our children – all children – deserve better.

Show 1 footnote

  1. For each school, an initial lottery is run based on various priorities (e.g., zones or regions, sibling attending, sibling applying, linked schools). If any seats remain, another lottery is run based on applications listing the school as a first choice. If any seats remain (which never happens), then another lottery would be run based on applications listing the school as a second choice. So while you’re allowed to indicate three ranked choices, the second and third choices are irrelevant because all the seats are always filled with first choices.
Robin Marcus and Bryan Setser

Robin Marcus is a senior director for research and development at North Carolina New Schools. For three years prior to joining NC New Schools, Robin served as a mathematics instructional coach and teacher in an innovation high school in Baltimore, where she collaborated on a proposal for a new STEM school for girls, which opened in the fall of 2009.

Bryan Setser is a partner at 2Revolutions. He is a former teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent.