Sunday, January 8, 2012

School choice: what makes schools popular in Boston

One of the benefits of a strategy-proof school choice mechanism is that it yields meaningful data on parent preferences.  The Boston Globe has a story describing some of those preferences, as revealed through the rankings of schools submitted for the school choice algorithm. (The reporter, Akilah Johnson, thinks that some good schools are being missed, and that the poorest families often fail to participate in the school choice system.)

Popularity matters in school lottery: The district’s hidden gems struggle to gain attention from parents.

""The principal of Higginson-Lewis K-8 School and one of her first-grade teachers stood amid a swirl of school-shopping families at the Showcase of Schools, waiting to deliver their sales pitch.
"It’s like being a Hilton Hotel in between two Ritzes,’’ Simmons, the first-grade teacher, said of the schools to her right and left, Hernandez K-8 and Kilmer K-8, both with more applicants than prekindergarten seats. The inverse is true at Higginson-Lewis, making it one of the least sought-after schools in Boston - at least according to a school district tally akin to a judge’s score sheet.

"The city uses a lottery system that was intended to give all students access to high-achieving classrooms, regardless of neighborhood or life circumstance. But families fixate on a collection of well-known, fiercely sought-after schools, largely ignoring those with lesser reputations. And over the past two decades, popularity has often become a proxy for quality, making it even harder for schools to get off that second rung.

"Popularity is driven by parents with time, inclination, and sometimes the means to enter the school lottery early, armed with information and expectations. Their preferences create a system of prized schools, and those in low demand - schools whose reputations have suffered because they are in higher-crime neighborhoods, serve predominantly poor students, and have, in some cases, test scores lower than average.
"Each year, the district creates a “demand report’’ to help inform parents’ decisions. It shows how many parents listed a school among their top three picks. Parents look at the list and seize on schools they like, but also immediately see the schools they want to avoid, schools they often know little about.
"The answer lies in who is, and who is not, choosing a school and when they choose. Popular schools have become synonymous with the choices of white middle-class families, principals and families say. And the demand report reflects the choices of families who choose early.

"Oliver said parents of color and those in low-income communities “don’t always go in to make choices when the lottery starts. We have a lot of people who can’t make a commitment until June or even Labor Day.’’
"The lottery system was created in the name of giving parents more choice. Still, Boston’s dreams of equal access to quality remain deferred, with many of the least-selected schools lacking racial and economic diversity. The Higginson-Lewis has only 10 white students in a school of about 425, and Marshall has just eight white students in a school of 713.

“People will come to visit and they will say: ‘How many white students are in the class? I don’t want my child to be the only one,’ ’’ said Oliver, the Higginson principal.
"Middle-class parents often aren’t willing to send their children to a school next to Malcolm X Park in Roxbury or on a street sandwiched between Geneva Avenue and Bowdoin Street in Dorchester, where neighborhood violence has, at times, landed on the school’s doorstep.
"School choice is “pretty complicated stuff, and people are always eager to come up with pretty simple solutions,’’ said Curt Dudley-Marling, a Boston College professor who studies patterns of school failure and success. “It always seems to me that it’s rigged for parents who have the most resources.’’

"Not all families have the benefit of active parent groups that organize school tours to help families vet their options, which in Boston could mean as many as 20 public school options, not including charters. Single parents, families new to the country, parents of disabled children, or families struggling with the demands of life often are unable to investigate every option.

“I can’t imagine they have time, much less the resources, to go to fairs and all these things,’’ Dudley-Marling said. Instead, they, like most people, default to what they have heard within their circle of influence."

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