When it comes to school choice, opportunity in theory isn’t enough. We must ensure that families have the know-how to exercise choice wisely and that students in every elementary school leave fully prepared to win acceptance to the middle and high schools of their choice later in life.
That’s what more than 400 parents told Baltimore’s Fund for Educational Excellence in focus group findings shared in their recent report, Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools.
They want their children to have more access to advanced academic offerings. They also want teachers and counselors to give them more information and guidance when looking for the right middle and high schools for their children.
For Baltimore kids, middle school is the inflection point that can change the course of their academic careers. High school admissions are determined by how well kids do in middle school. The academic quality of middle schools is key. Moreover, middle-schoolers in advanced academic programs earn weighted grades that boost their GPAs. This increases the composite scores that determine their high school admissions prospects. Students in less-advanced programs miss out on this advantage.
But of the city’s 24 middle schools that offer gifted and advanced programs, only six are open to students who live outside affluent neighborhoods. As the report says:
Low-income students and families do not have the same level of access to special academic programs—and the leg up on admission to the high schools that are best preparing City Schools students for college—as higher-income students.
Parents Demand Guidance and Better Choices
Baltimore is not alone among large urban districts in essentially having two tiers of high schools: a handful of selective enrollment high schools and a larger group of lottery-admission or neighborhood schools where fewer graduates go on to college. When a student doesn’t earn a composite score high enough for admission to Baltimore’s top high schools, many families turn to parochial schools or the suburbs.
In focus groups, parents demanded more high-quality, public choices. As one parent said, “If there’s 20,000 students who want to go to Poly, make another school like Poly. Make another school that excels in math and science. Don’t give them only one option and make it really hard to get into because so many people want to go there.”
Parents also spoke to the need for more help navigating choice. Because Baltimore has both K-5 and K-8 elementary schools, parents can be very confused about whether and how their children can apply to middle school. Parents also didn’t understand how to take best advantage of the high school matching lottery. Not all parents in focus groups even realized they needed to rank their choices in order of preference.
While some parents had good experiences getting help from their school counselors, many others needed more help than they got from school staff. Many parents said they found dealing with district offices difficult, especially if they needed to transfer their child from one school to another.
Based on parent feedback, Fund for Excellence offers concrete recommendations to solve these problems:
- Start talking high school early—as young as fifth and sixth grade.
- Bring teachers into the high school selection process.
- Create a centrally-managed system to allow students to visit high schools on Shadow Days, where they can go through a student schedule and get a feel for the place.
- Offer on-demand workshops for parents about how to apply to high school.
Taking steps like these could help level the playing field and help parents navigate school choice more effectively. However, school choice alone won’t solve the problem of inequitable education. For that, we need more great school choices. As Fund for Excellence CEO Roger Shulman noted in a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed, that takes resources.