This article, written by Larry Nagengast, originally featured in DelawareToday
The pros and cons of choice
In theory, you can send your kids to almost any public school you—and they—want. In reality, choosing a school outside the traditional feeder requires some research and planning.
It sounds like it’s too good to be true. Just fill out a form online and you can send your child to any public school in Delaware.
Filling out the form is the easy part. Figuring out which school is best for your child is the challenge.
“It’s project management. I’d compare it to selecting a college. I’m seeing parents with six binders” filled with information, says Tatiana Poladko, founder and CEO of TeenSHARP, a nonprofit that helps high school students of color prepare for top colleges.
“It’s a shame that we had to go through this process,” says Jeanne Kanse, a mother of three whose oldest child had to make her middle school selection a year ago. “For a 10-year-old, it’s very stressful—not knowing where to go, where your friends are going, whether you’re going to get in.”
But she expects to do it again—twice more, in fact, with her younger children—and agrees that it’s good to have the opportunity to try to find the school that is the best fit for your child.
Delaware’s school choice law has been in effect since the start of the 1996-97 school year and, with the growth of charter schools—public entities that don’t have to follow all the rules that apply to traditional public schools—the available options have increased almost every year.
During the 2016-17 school year, 21,807 students used the choice program to enroll in one of 190 public schools outside their feeder pattern. Another 15,030 students were enrolled in 27 charter schools. Together these groups account for nearly 27 percent of the state’s 137,217 public school students.
It’s a far cry from the days some parents remember when all the children in the neighborhood would walk to school together.
“Last year, we had about 20 kids on the street going to five different elementary schools,” says Erin Lacey, a parent in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The two youngest of her four attended Heritage Elementary. The neighbors’ children attended Red Clay’s Brandywine Springs or North Star elementary, the Odyssey Charter School or nearby St. John the Beloved Catholic School.
“Choice is universal. It makes school district boundaries irrelevant, but the walls can be really high,” says Elizabeth Lockman, a Wilmington parent advocate and vice chair of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.
“It’s great to be in Red Clay if you want access to a Red Clay school,” she says, because the choice process gives preference to applicants to schools in their home district. “But crossing boundaries can be problematic,” not only because of in-district preferences but also because of the logistical challenge of getting your child to a bus stop within the choice school’s district.
Under the choice regulations, applicants are not ensured of admission to the school they apply to. If there are more applicants than seats, preferences come into play first. They vary. Preferences include the siblings of other kids in the school and children of employees. Preferences at charter schools may include children who live within a five-mile radius or being the children of school founders. Then comes the crucial lottery, with a computer spitting out numbers randomly assigned to each applicant to determine who gets in and who gets put on the waiting list.
On top of that, most schools require applicants to supply additional information, sometimes including report cards and references from teachers. A few require additional steps before entering the lottery. For example, the Charter School of Wilmington uses a math and language arts aptitude test and an essay as part of a pre-screening to determine a student’s strength in math and science, the school’s key areas of focus. Red Clay’s Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet school that shares the old Wilmington High building with Wilmington Charter, requires students to participate in two audition-like “assessments” of their ability in performing or creative arts.
A December 2015 report by the Enrollment Preferences Task Force, a study group created by the General Assembly and former Gov. Jack Markell, noted that members discussed whether some of these preferences and supplemental requirements create barriers that impede access through choice for all children to all public schools. “We need to ensure there are no barriers in place when our families apply to any of our public schools or programs,” state Rep. Kim Williams wrote in her introduction to the report. Her representative district includes a portion of Red Clay.
Williams and Sen. Dave Sokola, who represent portions of the Red Clay and Christina districts, have introduced legislation, expected to be considered this year, that would smooth out some of the inconsistencies in the application and selection process among traditional district, charter and vo-tech schools. (Their proposal would also clarify procedures for allocating funds in cases when students leave their choice schools in the middle of a school year.)
Historically, one of the underlying premises of choice was that parents weren’t satisfied with the schools their children were attending—a recurring theme in northern New Castle County (much less so downstate) from the late 1970s into the 1990s, as many students were bused between city and suburbs to comply with a court-ordered desegregation plan. The lifting of the court order, the enactment of the choice legislation and the creation of charter schools have contributed to the endurance of a the-grass-is-greener perspective among parents.
“Many people I know think that getting into a charter is akin to being accepted at a private school,” Lockman says. “There’s a sense that you’ve got this generic product [your neighborhood school] versus something that’s elite in a certain way, even if that’s not true.”
Parents should look carefully at the school in their feeder pattern to see how it compares with the others, she advises.
Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, agrees. She believes that taking an “anything but [my feeder school]” approach to choice is a mistake. “Choice should be about running to something, not running away from something,” she says.
Sometimes the decisions parents make are a combination of both factors.
Downes Elementary School in Newark has long been a popular choice destination because of its high scores on statewide academic assessments and, more recently, because it offers a dual-language immersion program in Chinese. Principal Patricia Prettyman says, however, that Downes loses small numbers of kindergarten and first-grade applicants each year to the Newark Charter School. The reason, she says, is “middle school.”
In this scenario, acceptance at Newark Charter is much like winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Newark Charter is a K-12 program, so once you’re in, satisfactory performance ensures a seat through high school. That eliminates any future need to deal with choice, especially at the middle school level, when families typically become more concerned with a school’s reputation for safety and discipline. Should a family’s firstborn win a lottery seat at Newark Charter—or any other school—the prize is even more valuable: sibling preference enables younger brothers and sisters to follow the same path. Again, no more need for choice.
Indeed, several Red Clay parents cited middle school safety and discipline issues as a contributing factor, though not necessarily the decisive one, in choosing to send their sixth-graders to Stanton Middle School, Cab Calloway School of the Arts or the middle years International Baccalaureate program at Dickinson High School.
“We went to open houses at three schools. We talked with other parents about where their kids were going. We looked at clubs, sports and activities, and we checked with friends who had older siblings,” one parent says. She found the suspension numbers at her daughter’s feeder middle school “alarming,” though she recognized that a zero-tolerance discipline policy could skew those numbers upward.
Because parents care about their children’s educational development—and their futures—it is important that they do careful research in choosing which school their child should attend, says Ankur Arya, who counsels minority-group middle schoolers and their parents on how to gain admission to the area’s best high schools through his nonprofit, LYTE (Leading Youth Through Empowerment), and as director of college and careers at the Charter School of New Castle, the former Family Foundations Academy and the East Side Charter School.
“Parents have to get out, meet the principals and know the right questions to ask,” Arya says. And, he says, schools must do a better job of outreach, especially to minority and low-income families.
And what are those questions?
Poladko breaks them down into six key areas.
Start with academic achievement, reviewing the school report cards posted on the state Department of Education website. Determine whether the school will ensure your child reaches proficiency in math, in writing, in literacy. Then move on to rigor—whether the school will challenge your child, then move on to more difficult areas as mastery is achieved. At the high school level, this means looking at opportunities to take Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment classes that earn college credit.
Next, check out opportunities for support—what the school will do if your child is struggling. Is remediation offered, or will your child just be pushed along?
Ask about feedback, how teachers track each student’s performance, and how they communicate their assessments (and how often) to both students and parents.
Look for examples of cultural exposure. It is important that schools do more than reflect a traditional majority-white culture. African-American and Latino students should be able to read about heroes who share their heritages, and all students should develop an appreciation for the richness of the nation’s diverse cultures.
Finally, Poladko says, see what expectations a school projects. In a high school, for example, are the walls filled with posters for local schools, or is there a vision of students applying to Ivy League schools? At the high school level, she suggests asking counselors where the school’s low-income and minority students attend college. The answer, she says, can give important clues to the level of expectation.
Massett and Lockman remind parents to dig deeper than the benefits promoted in a school’s brochures and on its website. “Marketing is not always honest,” Lockman says. “You can make something look good on paper, but the concept and the reality don’t always merge.”
Poladko is among those who believe that economically disadvantaged children are at a disadvantage in choice, even if the disadvantages aren’t always obvious. In theory they have the same access, but their parents may not have the time or the resources (including access to computers at home) to do all the research needed to make the most informed choice, she says.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, my cousins went to X school, so that’s where I’ll go.’ Or, ‘My neighbor said this was a good school, so that’s what I’ll choose,’” she says.
It is important, educators and parental choice veterans say, to recognize differences among children. “A parent may want her child to attend the Charter School of Wilmington,” Massett says, “but if she hates science and math, that’s not going to be a good fit.”
“A bunch of Danielle’s friends wanted to go to Cab Calloway,” Jeanne Kanse says, “but it wasn’t a good fit for her.” So they made Brandywine Springs the first choice on her choice application and the Dickinson IB program second. Danielle was accepted at Dickinson and wait-listed at Brandywine Springs. When she was offered a place at Brandywine Springs in late August, she turned it down.
“Dickinson is close to home, great if you have to get to school during the day or for sports and other activities,” Jeanne Kanse says. “And some of her friends who applied to Cab didn’t get in, had Dickinson as their second choice and were admitted.”
One potential long-term benefit for the family is the sibling preference. Danielle’s younger brother is in fourth grade now. He will test the waters of choice next year. If he’s interested in Dickinson, he should have no trouble getting in.
Erin Lacey is in a similar situation. With two children already at Cab Calloway, her younger children, now at Heritage Elementary, will have a leg up in the admissions process. “If Ellie and Maggie stay at Cab, we’ll always have one pulling the others through,” Lacey says.
Meanwhile, Jess Brown is struggling with high school selection for Emma, her fourth child, an eighth-grader at Stanton Middle School. Her two eldest children graduated from A.I. du Pont High School, the third is a senior at Cab Calloway and the youngest is in the middle years IB program at Dickinson.
For a variety of reasons, Brown has reservations about the three traditional high schools in Red Clay, and Emma doesn’t have a strong interest in following a sibling to Cab Calloway. In late September, they had made their decision. Conrad Schools of Science would be their first choice—and their only choice.
“If Emma isn’t accepted there, I’m afraid we’ll be looking at private schools,” Brown says.
Statewide, there may be 190 schools from which to choose, but sometimes the choice isn’t as broad as it seems.
A look at the numbers
What, exactly, do they mean?
When choosing a school for your child, it’s important to make visits, talk to the principal and staff, and get the opinions of parents and students who are more familiar with the schools you are considering.
You also have to look at the numbers. It helps to know how to decode them.
Delaware has compiled a massive amount of data on its public schools, and there are lots of numbers available on the state Department of Education’s school profile site. But navigating the site, figuring out what the numbers mean and making comparisons can be challenging, even to statheads and math nerds.
“The site isn’t easy to find. If you want to make comparisons, it’s not set up for that. And it doesn’t measure programs over time. It’s for one year only,” says Atnre Alleyne, executive director of Delaware CAN, an advocacy group that is pushing for an education system that “prioritizes what students need to succeed and thrive over adult convenience or special interests.”
Alleyne, formerly of the Department of Education, was part of the team that put the current report card system together.
Joseph Jones, director of assessment and accountability for the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District, was a district representative on the task force that worked on the report cards. He points out that “the challenge with any type of accountability system is knowing how it is going to be used.”
Those familiar with the report card effort say it was designed to meet federal mandates to develop a system that shows educators how schools are faring in meeting accountability goals, not to provide parents with a tool for comparing schools.
“Parents want something clear and easy, like rating schools from A to F,” Alleyne says, “but the state doesn’t think you should be treating schools like hotels.”
The report card system has four pages for each school. The first three are packed with statistics on school demographics, staffing and student performance. But the real meat in the report cards is found on the fourth page, the one labeled “accountability.” (For the first time this year, Delaware Today’s table of school statistics includes some of these accountability measures.)
The accountability pages do have a simple rating system. Schools are awarded a rating of one to five stars in each of four categories: academic achievement, growth, on track to graduation, and college and career readiness. But you have to dig deep into explanatory pages to find out, for example, if a three-star school was only one point better than a two-star school or one point short of earning a four-star rating.
So, if you’re a parent looking to make comparisons, you will have to look closely at the numbers, and they are not easy to understand.
For example, a school’s academic achievement rating is the result of a complex calculation of its students’ scores on statewide assessments (currently the Smarter Balanced tests), giving more weight to scores in English language arts and math than to science and social studies.
Overall, the accountability scores are rolled into a 500-point scale, but academic achievement counts for 125 points for high schools and 150 points for elementary and middle schools. To earn five stars, a high school would have to register 100 points, an elementary or middle school 120.
If you’re confused, Alleyne understands. “This is what adults do when we don’t want accountability,” he says.
For parents making comparisons, the point is this: Look at the overall numerical rating in each category, not the number of stars.
The category given the most weight in the system is growth (200 for elementary and secondary schools and 225 for high schools), which measures how much students at a school have improved in English language arts and math over a three-year period. If you’re looking at two schools with similar scores for academic achievement, the one with the higher score for growth is doing better in helping low-performing students catch up or high-performing students move farther ahead, or both.
The remaining 150 points are divided between on track to graduation (100 points for high schools, 50 for elementary and middle) and college and career readiness (50 for high schools, 100 for elementary and middle). It’s hard to measure how elementary students are moving toward graduating from high school, so the school’s attendance rate is used for this metric. At the high school level, points are awarded based on four separate calculations: the percentage of ninth-grade students on track to graduate and percentages of students who are on track to graduate in four, five and six years. Using multiple variables that cover more than one year provides a better view of a school’s performance than merely looking at its graduation rate for a single year.
Though the complexities of the point system may be difficult to understand, reviewing the numbers carefully and tallying a school’s scores can be useful for parents making school decisions.
The metrics are a step above a pre-report card approach of making decisions based on scores on statewide assessments where, in most cases, schools with the highest proportions of low-income, minority and special-needs students would register the lowest test scores.
Even so, the profile pages and report cards do not measure some factors that can have a bearing on student achievement, such as teacher turnover and changes in school leadership.
Though high turnover can be a problem for schools, recent turnover may indicate that a school is being turned around. Even then, it sometimes takes several years for those changes to be reflected in improved test scores, Jones says.
And, because proficiency on the statewide assessments is reported only for the current year, it’s hard to tell whether a school is improving or regressing, says Deborah Stevens, director of instructional advocacy for the Delaware State Education Association. “At a minimum, profiles should include data over a three-year period. A multiyear view is preferable to a one-year snapshot.”
Leaders in the teachers union aren’t the only ones interested in seeing improvements.
“I’m not a fan of the profiles site. I hope they update it soon,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. “It’s not parent friendly.”
Help is on the way, even if you must, as fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers perennially lamented, “wait ’til next year.”
In October, Department of Education officials held five “community conversations,” public meetings aimed at getting input on how to make the school report cards more meaningful for those who would like to use them. Focus groups and online surveys are planned for early 2018, giving the state enough time to roll out an updated report card system by the Dec. 31 deadline mandated by the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re asking parents and community members what they would like to see” on the report cards, says Chantel Janiszewski, lead in the state department’s accountability and performance management section. New measurements of school climate are likely, along with more details on teacher retention and the ratio of specialists to students at a school, she says.
One certain change is the elimination of stars in school ratings. They will be replaced by “text-based descriptions,” but how those ratings will be phrased hasn’t been determined, she says.
One often-cited weakness in the current system is that it isn’t set up to facilitate school-by-school comparisons, similar to how a shopper might visit a retailer’s website to compare the specifications of computers or television sets.
“We’ve heard that’s an important functionality,” Janiszewski says. “We’ll consider that for sure.”
Also needed, Alleyne says, is a readily available printed version of the report card package for use by those who don’t have online access.
While those familiar with the process are optimistic that school profiles 2.0 will be better than the current iteration, Alleyne fears the state’s budget climate will keep the new system from becoming all that it might be.
“How important is this?” he asks. “You can make a really good system, but it will cost more money.”
Alternative paths to success
When traditional schooling isn’t the best option for your student, there are other ways to prepare for life.
For years, the preferred route for Delaware students who wanted to launch a career directly out of high school was to enroll in one of the state’s vocational-technical schools.
Armed with four years of intensive training and perhaps an industry certification, the graduate would be ready to step into an apprenticeship program and secure a paying job as an auto mechanic, a carpenter, a sheet metal worker or another kind of tradesman.
But Delaware’s six vo-tech high schools—four in New Castle County and one each in Kent and Sussex—don’t have the space to turn out all the prospective new workers the state’s employers seek, and some new career options aren’t an ideal fit for traditional vo-tech programming.
“We’re going to be replacing 30 percent of Delaware’s workforce by 2024,” says Michael Watson, chief academic officer at the state Department of Education. That’s 144,000 jobs. There are about 136,000 students in the state’s public school system.
To satisfy these changing needs, the state joined the national Pathways to Prosperity Network, a joint venture of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and launched its own Career Pathways program. The program provides new options in career and technical education in the state’s comprehensive high schools. The Rodel Foundation helped bring together public and private-sector partners from across Delaware—colleges and universities, large employers and the public education system—to create Delaware Pathways. Rodel also partnered with the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee and the state to provide the initial $100,000 investment to bring the national model to Delaware.
Piloted in 2014 and launched in 2015 by former Gov. Jack Markell, the program now offers 14 pathways at all 44 of the state’s public high schools, plus two schools for youths in detention facilities. Overall, about 9,000 students are enrolled in pathways programs this year, according to Luke Rhine, director of career and technical education for the state Department of Education.
“It’s all about choice,” Watson says.
It’s also about the changing requirements of the workplace.
In the 1970s, Rhine says, the focus of vocational education was on the skilled trades, the kinds of jobs often associated with organized labor—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders and the like. Now, he says, about 62 percent of all jobs in Delaware require more than a high school diploma, either a degree from a two-year or four-year college, a diploma from a trade school or some form of professional certification.
Pathways programs help address that need by enabling students to gain as many as 13 college credits in their area of specialization while still in high school and, in many cases, giving them the opportunity to take an exam to qualify for a national certification in their subject area. That combination gives graduates two immediate options: securing a job right out of high school or heading to a two-year college for an associate’s degree.
One attractive high-growth area is computer science, with starting pay for some information technology jobs as high as $85,000 a year, Watson says. Pathways designed to guide students from high school through two to three years of college can help them secure those jobs.
“There are thousands of new jobs in applications development and data management, hundreds of jobs in networking and coding,” Rhine says, which is why some 1,200 students are enrolled in either the computer science pathway offered at 21 schools or the Cisco networking pathway offered at four others.
“Information technology has an annual [employment] growth rate of about 13 percent, and the vo-techs aren’t going to be able to train enough students to satisfy the demand,” Watson says, making the case for pathways to make up the shortfall of qualified employees.
The objective of the pathways programs, as the name suggests, is to put students on the path to securing jobs in high-demand fields. Partnerships with businesses and Delaware Technical Community College are key factors in making the pathways work. Besides computer science, pathways fields include such in-demand areas as allied health, culinary and hospitality management, engineering, finance, nurse assisting and three manufacturing specialties. New this year, and offered at 15 schools, is a K-12 teacher academy, which enables students to take the first steps toward becoming classroom teachers. Six more pathways are in the works, including two that are agriculture-related and one to introduce students to work in early childhood education.
“What’s so exciting about pathways is that students gain real-world knowledge and experience that will guide them in their careers and postsecondary education before they’ve even graduated high school. Participating students get a feel for what they like—and don’t like—some real-world experience and opportunities to earn college credits,” says Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation. “By getting a head start in high school, they will be able to make smarter choices after high school. All Delawareans will eventually reap the rewards when this talented, well-trained local workforce comes of age and helps uplift Delaware’s economy.”
The development of the pathways hasn’t hurt the vo-tech schools. Rather, it has spawned some healthy competition between the vo-techs and the K-12 districts. As Vicki Gehrt, superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational-Technical District, notes, many of the pathways focus on careers in which the vo-tech schools have been offering training for years.
There are some important differences between the two approaches, and students (and their parents) should be aware of these differences if they are considering applying to a vo-tech school or using the choice option to apply to a school that offers a pathway that appeals to them.
In a vo-tech school, students typically spend their first year learning about career options before devoting the next three years to their chosen field. In those three years, students will earn 10 college credits in their specialty area while splitting their time roughly 50-50 between vocational classes and the standard core subjects of English language arts, math, science and social studies.
In a comprehensive high school, the pathways program is an elective sequence that stretches over three years, with students taking one class per semester in their pathway. The type and number of pathways offered varies from school to school, and course selections in two schools offering the same pathway need not be the same.
Compared with the comprehensive schools, the vo-techs “give more in-depth content,” Gehrt says.
Both vo-tech and pathways programs offer students the opportunity to gain hands-on work experience. In vo-tech programs, many seniors will spend part of their school day in a co-op job with a sponsoring employer. In the pathways programs, students may work with a participating employer during the summer between their junior and senior years.
Companies like Agilent, AstraZeneca, Bloom Energy, FMC, PPG, Siemens, Nemours and Delmarva Power, as well as members of the Delaware Restaurant Association, have been involved in developing the pathways curriculum in their areas of expertise and have offered students 200-plus hour summer internships.
Broadly speaking, “the fundamental difference is the comprehensive high schools have more [courses] to choose from” outside the career area, says Dusty Blakey, a former vo-tech teacher who is now superintendent of the Colonial School District. “You can take honors or Advanced Placement courses and many other things, even classes in a second pathway.”
“Students in our engineering shop—what used to be known as wood shop or metal shop—now take ‘Fundamentals of Engineering,’ and the pathway can include AP physics,” says Jeff Menzer, Colonial’s director of schools. “There’s a higher rigor to it.”
Gehrt counters that the vo-techs, like many comprehensive high schools, offer dual-enrollment classes, in which students earn college credit in addition to credit toward graduation. Virtually all colleges will give students credit toward a degree for completing dual-enrollment classes, but securing college credit for AP classes depends on the student’s final exam score and standards vary among colleges, Gehrt says. Dual enrollment means “those are college credits in hand” at graduation, she says.
The move toward pathways coincides with another trend in high schools, the creation of themed schools within schools that focus on particular content areas.
In the Appoquinimink School District, Superintendent Matt Burroughs says, Appoquinimink and Middletown high schools have been reorganized into nine “colleges,” with names like Agriscience and Business Finance Marketing, into which many pathways neatly fall.
In Colonial, the same approach has been taken at William Penn High School, which has three colleges – career and technical education, performing arts and social studies. Colonial has drilled down even further on specialization, with clearly identified themes at each of its three middle schools, Menzer says.
As pathways expand and vo-techs incorporate more college-level classes into their programming, opportunities for students will continue to grow.
William Penn students, for example, are now getting hands-on experience that wouldn’t have been possible four or five years ago.
Some students tend the fields at the adjacent Penn Farm, harvesting crops that are served in the school cafeteria, while others have worked in cafeterias at Christiana Care and interned with an environmental engineering business, Menzer says.
“We want students to have more options as they leave our schools,” Burroughs says. “Pathways give them more opportunities.”
To make the best school choice for their children, parents and guardians must learn all they can about all of their options. Here are some tips from parents and educators.
- Attend school expos and open houses to learn more about traditional public, magnet and charter schools in your area.
- For all the schools you are considering, review the data on the state Department of Education’s school profile site.
- Go to greatschools.org and read the articles on questions to ask when choosing an elementary, middle or high school.
- Ask your child’s current teacher for suggestions about which school might be the best fit for your child.
- Talk to other parents. Pay more attention to those who have children in the schools you are considering than to those who are getting most of their information through the grapevine.
- Visit as many schools as you can, and talk to the principal, counselor and teachers. If possible, have your child spend a day at the school, shadowing another student.
- Consider transportation issues. If you choose a school outside your neighborhood feeder pattern, you may have to drive your child to a bus stop that serves your child’s chosen school.
- Go to schoolchoicede.org and follow the instructions to complete online applications. The deadline for the 2018-19 school year is Jan. 11, but charter, magnet and vo-tech schools may accept applications after that date if they have space available. Parents will be notified of the status of applications by Feb. 28 and have until March 17 to decide which school their child will attend.