How Some Chicagoans Are Unlocking the 'School Choice' Puzzle

column | Nonprofits

How Some Chicagoans Are Unlocking the 'School Choice' Puzzle

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Jan 10, 2017

How Some Chicagoans Are Unlocking the 'School Choice' Puzzle

Choice can be a powerful thing —provided you can evaluate, and act on, the options available to you. For decades, Chicago parents have been able to apply to send their kids to their school of choice—and they can put as many as 20 schools on their wish list.

Unfortunately, only about 25 percent of Chicago parents wind up sending their children to better schools than their neighborhood option. Even worse: there are thousands of empty seats in high-performing Chicago public schools.

So where does “choice” go wrong?

When parents are bewildered or overwhelmed by their possible choices, they are unable to make an informed decision, says Daniel Anello, CEO of New Schools for Chicago. While wealthy families from the North Shore of Chicago are known to pay up to $150 per hour for consultants to help figure out the best schools, many more families wind up playing what Anello dubs a game of “school choice roulette,” making picks based on word-of-mouth recommendations or very little information.

This autumn, Anello and his team at New Schools led a charge to fight back by building out a website with clear information around the school choices for parents—and then taking to the streets and setting up individual consulting sessions with parents. Here’s what happened.

Creating a Platform to Help Parents Navigate

New Schools for Chicago wasn’t always focused on school choice. When it first opened its doors in 2004 as a part of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the organization took a leading role in opening charter schools across the city—130 of them, to be exact. But after the organization closed in 2013 and was eventually reopened in 2015 with Anello at the helm, working with parents became a new focus.

For Anello, the knowledge that different schools have the unmistakable power to put kids on very different paths hits close to home. The New York state native saw firsthand the varying effects that a “struggling” public school system had on both him and his brother. While Anello was lucky enough to make it to Williams College, where “someone took a chance on a mixed kid from upstate New York,” his brother went to school in Phoenix—one that didn’t have the same resources and support. Both Anello and his brother felt immensely unprepared for college and struggled significantly, but when Anello was near that point of “slipping through the cracks,” Williams was there to catch him. His brother, on the other hand, didn’t have that same safety net, setting him on a different course—and today, his brother is incarcerated.

Anello and his team at New Schools for Chicago saw this same issue in the Chicago Public School system, and Anello asked them, “How do we help those parents through the process? There are thousands of seats available at high-performing schools that aren’t filled.”

First off, New Schools produced the free “Kids First Chicago” platform and Chicago School Guide, a resource to aid parents in answering the following three questions:

  • What are my options for a school?
  • How do I find a good school?
  • How do I enroll?

At the heart of the platform is the school search database, which can be viewed in both map and table form. Users can search schools by criteria like enrollment type (from non-selective to selective, where students have to test at a certain level), neighborhood, student population specifics, and the school quality rating (SQRP).

The Chicago Public School (CPS) system awards every school a SQRP score as a measure of students’ achievement and growth. Because that score will vary throughout the years at many schools, the School Guide records a school’s three most recent SQRP scores. “What’s helpful is you can see consistent high performance,” says Anello, noting that some schools are more consistent in their annual SQRP scores than others.

While it might seem tempting to pick schools primarily based on the SQRP score, the Kids First Chicago platform promotes a more holistic approach to decision-making process. A collection of PDF checklists encourages parents to consider available extracurricular activities, safety, social-emotional learning and academic rigor when assessing a school’s quality. Additionally, a “family fit” PDF helps parents think about which school will fit a family’s needs—such as support with transportation or after-school care.

Technology Doesn’t Replace A Personal Navigator

While the Kids First Chicago platform is free and available to the public, New Schools is quite familiar with the reality that online sites do have limitations with it comes to supporting parents. In late 2015, when New Schools commissioned a focus-group research study of Chicago Public School parents, several participants expressed frustration at the sheer amount of school information there was to sort through on the Chicago Public Schools website. “You can’t really tell from the website—every school has a different approach,” observed one study participant. “All that takes a toll on a parent… It’s a lot. It’s like buying a car.”

As such, Anello is quick to add that New School for Chicago’s school choice website doesn’t replace a second crucial part of his team’s process—in-person, one-on-one workshops for parents.

“We want to build relationships with families, help them advocate for change,” Anello explains. “We decided to send a team of ‘navigators’ out to Chicago neighborhoods and sit down with families where it’s convenient to them to walk through this process.”

As an example, in one piece of video footage taken by New Schools, a navigator walks an elementary school mother through a series of questions about what’s important in a school. Does she want parent activities? What kind of curriculum are you looking for? “I do want at least art and music, so he can get those components,” the mother shares at one point during the video.

December 9, 2016 was a big CPS application deadline this year, when students entering kindergarten through 8th grade could apply for open seats at schools across the city. So, prior to that big deadline, New Schools held one-on-one’s with 250 parents over a six-week period. Rasha Myers, a Galewood resident and parent of a 5th grader and a 2nd grader, came to an Austin workshop searching for a school that offered more in academic and afterschool programming than her neighborhood option.

“I was hoping to be able to talk to someone that would help me look through different criteria, someone who was familiar with the schools and could help me through the process, rather than looking at a computer screen,” she says.

And that’s exactly what Myers found—in the form of a New Schools navigator who had a background in teaching and NWEA testing. “The online part is just a snapshot of the school, but [the navigator] was able to provide me with more information,” Myers says.

The Move Forward: Vouchers and School Choice Across the Nation

With the presidential inauguration looming on the horizon, proposed Secretary of Education and school voucher advocate Betsy Devos has suggested that she will make school choice a central component of her efforts at the Department of Education. The nomination drew both support and critiques—“She’s too supportive of private schools and charters!” “What about the public school systems?” “Vouchers will solve all of education’s problems!”

New Schools for Chicago’s Anello is no stranger to these arguments, but cautions that the debate over choice is often “a flawed argument that is used for political football.” And if Chicago is any example, effort shouldn’t go into fighting over the validity of school choice, but rather into educating parents about how best to handle the process.

“Arguments that eradicate charters altogether seem very political. At the end of the day, public schools—both charter and district—are educating kids and preparing them for college and life. That’s what we should be talking about,” he says.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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