Tag Archives: eightcities

A Q&A With Five Parents of Color on What Matters When Choosing a School

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Policy conversations around school choice often center on “quality,” defined narrowly by academic measures found on school report cards. But families aren’t always drawn to a school because it’s effective at producing a test score or highly rated on a school performance tool. And for parents of color, there can be tough tradeoffs to make in any school decision.

In advance of the 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with nearly a dozen parents of color to understand their decisions, frustrations, and victories. We’ve compiled some of their responses here to provide perspectives on what motivates parents when evaluating multiple school options.

These conversations reveal some of the often unspoken factors that drive school choice. The truth is this process is complicated, and policymakers hoping to create more high-quality seats in cities across the country need to better understand what parents value alongside strong academics and student achievement outcomes.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Miguelina Zapata, a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), describes why a non-traditional school model was important for her and her children:

“Two of my three children are at [a Montessori charter school] here in D.C. I knew my older daughter wouldn’t thrive in a regular school where she would have to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. My daughter is very active and has always been more advanced than other kids her age. I like the Montessori model because they let kids go at their own pace with their own materials depending on what they want to do. She couldn’t get that kind of freedom in a regular school.

I learned about local Montessori schools at the DC bilingual education fair and the annual public school fair and found [two schools] I really liked. But the waitlist numbers were so high for both schools, there was no way we were going to get in. So I applied through the lottery and found my current school.” Continue reading

How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. 

However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.

Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

Continue reading

“I Didn’t Realize How Much Work It Takes to Find a School for Your Child”: Q&A With Shaniola Arowolaju of Washington, D.C

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.

As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.

Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.

quote card from DC parent Shaniola Arowolaju: I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?

When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute. Continue reading

What Do Toxic Charter School Politics Mean for Newark Students?

A few weeks ago, as National School Choice Week came to a close, Bellwether Co-founder and Partner Andy Rotherham wrote in the Hill about the toxic state of politics around charter schools, and the blind spots of both charter opponents and advocates: 

Any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Too often in the debates over charter schools, nuanced points about how to best create and sustain high-quality schools get buried by adversarial talking points from charter opponents and supporters. 

Right now, there’s no better place to watch those frustrating debates in action than Newark, NJ. Last month, in a surprisingly aggressive move against the city’s charter sector, Superintendent Roger Léon urged the state to halt to charter school expansion and close four charter schools up for renewal, citing the budgetary impact of charter schools on the district, mediocre test results, and low enrollment of English learners and students with disabilities at some of the schools up for renewal.  

school bus driving down the street in Newark, NJ

Via flickr user Paul Sableman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/13682552433

Charter parents, schools, and advocates struck back, with official public statements and refutations of Léon’s claims. At the same time, shady anonymous flyers attacking Léon sprang up across the city, warning parents “your school could be next!” 

As this latest district-versus-charter skirmish played out, a lot got lost in the noise.  Continue reading

“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden].  Continue reading