When we policy wonks talk about school choice, mostly we talk about big-picture ways to make choice more available, like creating charter schools or offering vouchers or tax-credit scholarships to give parents the money to choose private schools. The assumption behind this is that parents know best about which schools will most benefit their children.
But new research suggests that we need to complement this conversation with a different dialogue—one focused on how to help parents find and choose the schools that will make the biggest difference for their children’s future aspirations. That requires making it easier for parents to know which schools are helping kids learn and encouraging them to let their kids apply to schools that are outside their comfort zones.
In New York City, a new study suggests parents prefer schools that enroll lots of high-achieving students to schools that actually appear to be helping kids learn more, or at least score better on tests. At the same time, research from New Orleans shows that while many parents are not prioritizing academics to the extent one might have expected, parents from low-income families may be even more inclined to choose schools based on other factors, like being close to home and having after-school activities like football and band.
Discussions of both sets of research note that parents aren’t often getting much help navigating how to choose a school. Changing that requires zooming in from those big-picture conversations down to a much closer-in level.
Here’s What Real School Choice Looks Like
I recently got a live demonstration of how important those small-scale interactions are to ensure families take full advantage of school choice. I visited the annual high school fair and mock interview day run by the Chicago nonprofit High Jump, where students practice talking with volunteers who ask questions they’d be expected to field in a high school admissions interview.
High Jump has been doing that work for the last 28 years. It’s a small, intensive program that currently serves 360 academically-talented, low-income seventh- and eighth-graders from all over the city. Students spend two years taking challenging academic classes after school and during the summer, and receive intensive support for their high school application process.
High Jump kids and their families take education very seriously. They are willing to give up a ton of weekends and two summers to make sure these young people—who are bright but haven’t grown up with all the advantages that more-affluent families can access—aren’t behind academically just because their schools may not have held them to the highest standards.
Teaching assistants in the summer and weekend classes are high school alumni of the program who attend some of the best-regarded high schools in the Chicago area, both public and private. Other High Jump alumni travel far out of state to attend well-known prep schools like Phillips Andover and Exeter.
Thanks to High Jump’s savvy and strong relationships with independent private schools, scholarship money is available to offset high sticker prices, even of the most elite boarding schools.
Now, that’s real school choice.
Over those 28 years, nearly 1,000 Chicago kids have had their educational and life trajectories changed. And High Jump is now in a period of growth and expansion. This year High Jump received a record number of applications from sixth-graders.
“We don’t have very many opportunities to ensure our kids are on the right path educationally,” says parent Mary Famakinwa. “High Jump is a great tool in the toolbox.”
“High Jump opened a lot of options for me,” says Juan Angel Contreras, a High Jump alum now attending the University of Chicago Lab School. “I understood the process a lot better than I would have just from elementary school.
Contreras’ parents helped his older sister apply to attend Lane Tech High School, a selective-enrollment public high school in Chicago. But just doing that was plenty. Without High Jump, Contreras likely never would have applied to a highly-regarded independent school like Lab.
“Unlike many other cities, we don’t have a common enrollment system,” Contreras notes. “People said it’s harder to apply to high school here than it is to apply to college.” Without personalized support, young people “go where they feel comfortable, not necessarily where will help them excel.”
It Takes More than Just a Common Application
Chicago is just launching an effort to make applying to high school easier. This fall, GoCPS will allow eighth-graders to apply to the city’s six selective-enrollment high schools and up to 20 other public schools and programs via a single online application. Though GoCPS includes most of the city’s charters, a few still require separate applications. And independent schools near and far are still off most district families’ radar.
“If you have time and money, you can give your student access to academic enrichment and ensure that you find the right fit for high school so that your child can thrive,” says Nathan Pietrini, High Jump’s executive director.
“If you operate without these things, as a vast majority of Chicago students do, you are more likely to be left behind.”
With just one counselor usually assigned to each elementary school, and that counselor often responsible for managing testing and paperwork for special education, there aren’t enough people around to offer intensive support.
“Being a former CPS principal, I know the local school has so much happening within its walls each day that they can’t possibly divert as much attention to supporting their families in this process as they would like to,” Pietrini says.
Alongside the district’s commitment to simplify its high school admissions process, Chicago would benefit from a civic commitment to increase supports for families making those crucial high school decisions.
“If people are willing to invest more in middle grades programs like High Jump, we can expand our reach and come closer to leveling the playing field in this one area.”