In DC's confusing thicket of school choice, there's a guide for those who need help the most
Families in DC have an abundance of school options. But many low-income families don't have access to the information they need to make good choices.
Some argue that school choice will ultimately result in a better education system, as families gravitate to schools that perform well. The best schools will flourish, according to this view, and competition will force the lower-performing schools to improve. But for that system to work fairly, all families need the same opportunity to make an informed choice.
With DC's school lottery opening this week, many parents are beginning to consider their options for next school year. And there's no shortage of them: nearly half of DC students opt to attend a DC Public School other than the one they're assigned to, and 45% of DC students are enrolled in a charter school.
There's plenty of information about all of these options available online: DC Public Schools offers profiles for each of its schools, and the Public Charter School Board uses an evaluation system to place charter schools in one of three tiers.
In addition, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education publishes equity reports that allow people to compare DCPS and charter schools on a variety of measures. And the lottery website, MySchoolDC, consolidates information about schools and how to apply to them.
Wealthier parents often hire private consultants to help them navigate the thicket of choices. Many middle-class families at least consult a website like GreatSchools.org, which rates schools in various cities and displays comments from parents.
Parents with few resources face obstacles
Parents with fewer resources and limited access to the Internet may be just as overwhelmed, but they're less likely to have help. In fact, they're often not even aware they have choices. If they do, they may not know where to begin in evaluating them. They may not realize they can visit a school and ask questions, and they may not have the time for that in any event.
And for parents coming to DC from places where kids just go to their neighborhood schools, it can be particularly confusing. "People were talking about the lottery, charter versus [traditional] public, out-of-boundary versus in-boundary," says Dominique Small, who moved to the District from North Carolina a couple of years ago. "I was like, what?"
Help for low-income parents
For parents like Small, an organization called DC School Reform Now can be a godsend. For the past three years, DCSRN has targeted its efforts on low-income parents in Wards 7 and 8. Its staff guides them through the school choice process from beginning to end, helping them find a school that matches their needs and priorities.
DCSRN recruits families at several DCPS and charter schools, where it focuses on transitions from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. The staff also finds parents through preschools, homeless shelters, and community organizations.
The organization holds "movie nights" at these partner organizations, when it screens some of its 15 videos showing what various schools are like. These Virtual School Tours, which are also available on DCSRN's website, include interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and students. There are also scenes of classrooms, arrival and dismissal, lunch periods and recess, and transitions between classrooms.
DCSRN uses other kinds of outreach as well. Its executive director, David Pickens, personally knocks on doors in public housing projects where low-income families live.
Once a family signs up, they're assigned to one of DCSRN's Parent Advocates, who begin by asking what the family's priorities are. Usually, says Parent Advocate Erika Harrell, the top considerations are academics and transportation. Amenities like before- and after-care can also be important.
Parent Advocates then help families come up with a list of schools and fill out applications, usually over the phone. They remind them of deadlines, and DCSRN staff even transports parents to schools when it comes time to enroll. DC requires that parents complete the enrollment process in person.
Still, it's not always easy to connect students with high-quality schools. Families who sign up for DCSRN sometimes slip away, often because the phone number they gave was non-working or got disconnected. Harrell says last year she started with a caseload of 130 families and was able to get 85 to enter the lottery.
Overall, DSCRN recruited 769 families last year, but the number of students who actually enrolled in what it defines as a quality school was only 115. That's not just because of attrition; some students simply didn't get matched with a school they wanted.
And many families didn't get matched with a Parent Advocate in the first place, because DCSRN doesn't have enough funds to hire more than two or three, each of whom has a caseload of about 100 families.
School choice is here to stay, so we need to make it fair
Opponents of a school system based on choice argue that competition won't actually make all schools better. When families leave their struggling neighborhood schools, they drain resources and make it harder for those schools to improve. From that perspective, DCSRN is part of the problem.
While Pickens acknowledges that argument has some validity, he says DCSRN's focus is on getting each individual child the best possible education. And sometimes, he says, DCSRN is able to tell families their neighborhood school is actually better than it used to be and urge them to consider it. Generally, DCSRN doesn't favor charter schools over DCPS schools, or vice versa.
In the abstract, it may be debatable whether school choice is the best way to improve education. But the fact is, in DC, a system of choice is here to stay. And the only way to ensure that it's equitable is to try to provide busy families who have limited resources the same information that wealthier parents have.
If it hadn't been for DCSRN, says Dominique Small, "I probably would still be at my neighborhood school, and very disappointed." Instead, her two kids are at J.O. Wilson Elementary, which she says is "everything I was looking for, and then some."
Parent Advocate Erika Harrell's only frustration is that she can't reach more parents who need her help. "When I tell people what I do," she says, "they always say the same thing: Where were you when my kids were in school, because I would have loved to have had some help with this."