false choice

Early school choice deadlines mean affluent parents often get first shot at coveted schools, new study shows

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Charity, a Boston mother, had a number of schools in mind for her young daughter. But there was a problem: by the time she registered for the city’s admissions system, the spots in every one of them were taken.

The school she ended up with, she said, was “just a huge headache because it doesn’t coincide with my time. I’m late for work every day.” When she complained to district officials, she said, “It was like, ‘There’s nothing that we can do.’”

Because her daughter had recently moved from out of state, Charity started the registration process in the summer, several months after the deadline for the first round of admissions.

Her story is not a one-off, according to new research.

It finds that early registration deadlines for Boston’s school choice program tended to trip up black, Hispanic, and low-income families. That’s in part because they move more frequently; that in turn means they apply later and get less of a chance to pick from the most coveted and high-achieving district schools.

The result ends up undermining one goal of these choice systems, which have been promoted across the country as a way to ensure disadvantaged students aren’t trapped in struggling schools.  

“The families who may stand to benefit most from school choice also likely experience the greatest challenges in taking full advantage of it,” conclude study authors Kelley Fong of Harvard and Sarah Faude of Northeastern University.

The research, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Sociology of Education, focuses on Boston Public Schools, which has an extensive system of school choice. Families rank their preferences, and an algorithm assigns students to schools. There are no default neighborhood schools, so all students who want seats in district schools must participate. (Most charter schools are not included.)

Ideally, families looking for a seat at a school in the fall register in January, allowing them to participate in the choice system’s first round. Those students get the initial shot at the city’s most popular schools.

The school system then runs a second, third, and fourth round of that system. Students who register in the summer, after the process is formally complete, get assigned last based on what schools have seats available.

For kindergarteners, less than two-thirds of families go through the first round, and 12 percent register in the summer, the study finds, using data from 2014 to 2016. But those numbers vary substantially by student group.

Source: “Timing Is Everything: Late Registration and Stratified Access to School Choice.” Graphic: Sam Park

Eighty-three percent of white students went through round one, compared to just 60 percent of Hispanic students and 53 percent of black students. Similar disparities existed between students coming from wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

Those gaps mean that some students miss their shot at schools that are highly rated or in demand. Of 72 schools offering general education kindergarten, 50 were filled up after the first round in the most recent school year. Those also tended to be higher-achieving schools.

“Of the schools without waitlists by the summer-time, none were in the top test score quartile of district schools,” according to the study.

Why do families participate in the choice system late? To find out, researchers surveyed well over 1,000 late-registering families and interviewed about 30 of them. (An important caveat: those who responded to the survey and an interview request may not be representative of all families who registered late.)

In the survey, most said they were late because of a recent move into the city, making it difficult or impossible to meet the registration deadline.

A notable share of families in this study also said they weren’t aware of the registration gap or didn’t know it mattered; were counting on or considering alternatives to the district schools; or simply had too much going on. A small share — around 5 percent of families — said it was because they didn’t feel strongly about choosing a school.

There’s also some evidence that the multiple systems of enrollment among the city’s district and charter schools lead to confusion. (Although a number of districts have a common enrollment system, Boston doesn’t, despite a recent effort to put one in place.)

One parent described applying for a charter school lottery early because she understood that there were hard deadlines for entering a charter school. But she didn’t apply to the district schools until after the first round had ended, thinking one she wanted would be available when she needed it.

“Parents often oriented their choice efforts around other school timelines, looking to BPS only later when other options were unavailable or no longer desired,” the researchers write. “Unfortunately, by then, the BPS schools they wanted often had no seats remaining.”

This research can’t quantify what these disparities mean for student learning. But another recent study found the type of students who stood to gain the most from Boston’s high-performing charter schools were also the least likely to enroll. (Interestingly, the same phenomenon has been observed in the Head Start pre-kindergarten program.)

Other cities have tried to deal with this enrollment problem. After a 2013 report showed that late-registering students were being concentrated in struggling New York City high schools, district officials set aside additional seats in other schools. In Denver, the district has taken similar approach and recently increased the number of seats it holds for late-arriving students.

“The Boston Public Schools appreciates the research on this important topic, as we have made some shifts to support increased outreach to our most marginalized families,” a spokesperson for the district said in a statement. “We are carefully evaluating the study’s findings to determine if there are additional ways we can improve our registration process to make it more accessible to families.”

The researchers said they worked closely with Boston Public Schools administrators, who first raised the concern about late registrants to the study’s authors and provided data to make the analysis possible. Since 2016, the district has made some modest steps to improve the process, like creating “pop-up” registration centers in neighborhoods with high rates of late entry.

But the study notes one reason the school system might be discouraged from changing its system: Boston advertises that 77 percent of kindergarteners who go through the first application round get one of their first three school choices.

“Late registrant families registering earlier in substantial numbers would compromise this high ‘success’ rate,” the research says.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”