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.

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.’ ”

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”