Public school choice offers students a chance to follow their interests, but it comes at a price, chipping away at the sense of community once common among neighbors.
The teenager’s sales pitch I was hearing in my kitchen made me realize just how much public education has changed.
Matt Ragghianti, 17—his 6-foot-3 frame towering over me, my wife, and my 5th grade son, Devin—was telling us why Devin should eventually choose to attend Gar-Field, our local high school. Matt had a litany of selling points: The 2,800-student school is not as rough as its reputation; the International Baccalaureate program it offers is great for college-bound teenagers; the swim team was fun; and he had an opportunity to play lacrosse (Devin’s favorite sport).
Matt, who sometimes baby-sits my three sons, had his reasons for making the pitch. And one of them was that he was simply defending his choice to stick with Gar-Field. After all, the 10 high school students on my quarter-mile street attend no fewer than four different public high schools, a startling exercise of educational choice even in our option-oriented culture.
“It’s a lower version of picking a college,” Matt says about the public-school-choice program in Prince William County. “For students who care about school, it’s really a good thing to have.”
| Matt Ragghianti decided to stick with the neighborhood school, Gar-Field High School, because of its International Baccalaureate program. Matt, who played lacrosse there, will attend the College of William and Mary. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard
It’s worth noting, too, that this level of educational freedom did not come about as a response to racial or economic inequities, to provide an escape hatch from failing schools, or in response to competition from private or charter schools. The countywide school district serving our suburb simply believes that students who choose their own schools will be more motivated, and families will feel more invested if they have actively chosen a school.
Even for students like Matt, who chose to attend his local school, the act of choosing itself, district officials reason, gives teenagers more of a stake in proving that their decisions were right.
Yet it’s mind-boggling to me, someone who had no choice. I lived in South Burlington, Vt., so I had to attend South Burlington High School. Devin, on the other hand, is already weighing the options of three or four public high schools he might attend. One of them has an information-technology specialty that interests him as well as a good lacrosse team. As it is, though, he seems primarily inclined toward schools that his neighborhood friends might attend.
“It’s kids and their parents voting with their feet,” says Bryan C. Hassel, the co-author of the Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence. “They’re making that cost-benefit tradeoff by themselves.”
But what are the benefits and drawbacks of offering so much choice? What do teenagers in the same neighborhood gain, and what do they lose, from attending different schools? The answer, it seems, is that there is much to gain and much to lose.
It’s 5:45 a.m. on a May day on my street, that time between darkness and light, when a dull-blue sky is just beginning to glow. Lights are on in a few houses in this neighborhood of single-family homes and Washington-area commuters. A pickup truck starts up and heads down the street, the rumbling of its engine gradually replaced by a chorus of chirping birds.
A slight 40-degree breeze blows an American flag hanging on the Graveen family’s front porch. Inside, Mike, a freshman at 2,700-student Osbourn Park High School, bounds down the stairs and into the kitchen, wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt. He flips a box of Reese’s Puffs in the air and catches it, checking his early-morning coordination. As he fills a bowl and begins to eat, his mother, Cheryl, nurses a cup of coffee with both hands. A few minutes later, his father, John, dressed in a gray suit, sits at the table and scans The Washington Post.
Mike chose to attend “O.P.,” as the students call it, because it has a specialty program in biotechnology. His mother says he has been interested in marine biology since elementary school.
But the school is in Manassas, about a 20- to 25-minute drive from the neighborhood, compared with the five- to 10-minute drive to Gar-Field. Mike has to wake up about 30 minutes earlier than the Gar-Field students in our neighborhood. A little after 6 a.m., his mother or father drives him to an elementary school about two miles away, where he picks up a bus for O.P. students who live outside the school’s regular boundaries.
While Mike heads off to the bus stop, his brother Wes, a senior at the 2,500-student Forest Park Senior High School, is still asleep. Wes doesn’t have to wake up until 6:30, one of the benefits of being old enough to drive himself to school. He chose Forest Park over Gar-Field because of its information-technology specialty, and has been accepted to attend Virginia Tech University.
| Brothers Wes, standing, and Mike Graveen attend Forest Park and Osbourn Park high schools, respectively. Wes’ program focuses on information technology, while his brother studies biotechnology. The teenagers competed on opposing school swim teams. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard
The Graveen morning routine is a stark contrast to what I remember from high school. My brother, a year older than I, was usually the first one down to the breakfast table. I had no choice but to join him moments later. Sometimes, we never said a word, our views of each other blocked by cereal boxes; other times, we argued about who was not keeping his mouth shut when he was chewing. But every now and then, we talked about what was going on at school. Then we left the house, together, and walked to the bus stop.
At school, we didn’t cross paths often, but we ran into each other at least a few times each day. Sometimes, we just nodded. Other times, we stopped to talk.
Yet in six years, when my two older sons—who, like the Graveen brothers, have different interests—are both in high school, it’s very possible that their morning routine will mirror the Graveen brothers’ more than the Bushweller brothers’ of the late 1970s.
“The logistics were probably the biggest problem” with sending the boys to two different high schools, says John Graveen, a former U.S. Navy submarine commander who now works as a civilian for the U.S. Department of Defense.
For instance, both Mike and Wes competed on their respective school swim teams. So, this swim season, John, who helps out the Forest Park team, rarely saw Mike compete, because the meets were usually on the same nights. And Cheryl rarely saw Wes swim.
This past winter, the two schools’ swim teams were supposed to compete against each other, but the meet was canceled because of a snowstorm. John says he was looking forward to finally being able to see Mike compete, but admits it would have been “kind of weird to have your kids on two different teams competing against each other.”
Looking back on four years of high school, Wes insists the benefits of choice outweigh its drawbacks: “It would have been all right if I had to go to Gar-Field, but I like things better the way they turned out.”
Still, his mother wonders about the effect that educational choice has had on our neighborhood and other communities in Prince William County.
“There’s not that camaraderie in the neighborhood that you would have if all the kids went to the same high school,” she says. “You lose something.”
The genesis of the Prince William choice program was in surveys of high school seniors in the 63,100-student district, the third-largest school system in Virginia. In the mid-1990s, Superintendent Edward L. Kelly became increasingly concerned by responses to a question that asked whether the teenagers felt they could have pushed themselves harder.
Prince William Co.
Osbourn Park High School
Thomas Jefferson High School
Gar-Field Senior High School
Forest Park Senior High School
Overwhelmingly, the students answered yes, remembers Gail Hubbard, the district’s supervisor of gifted education and specialty programs, who oversees the choice program.
In response to concerns about students not challenging themselves, she says, the superintendent suggested the district start specialty programs in high schools that teenagers could attend from anywhere in the county.
“If students are interested in what they are studying, they usually do better,” Hubbard says. “That’s what the research shows.”
Now, each of the eight public high schools in the county offers a specialty program, from a performing arts focus to language studies to an information-technology curriculum. Of the 18,500 public high school students in the county, 3,963 are in specialty programs, and 1,138 of those teenagers are attending schools outside their regular attendance boundaries.
Hubbard says the program is entirely “interest-based.” Students who want to attend a school other than their assigned schools must simply demonstrate they are interested. They are not picked based on achievement scores or grades.
Once students are in a specialty program, however, they must keep their grades up. If they don’t do the work and they drop out of the specialty program, they have to return to their assigned schools.
“This has been one of the most fascinating things I have ever done [in education],” says Hubbard, who started teaching in 1963. “And I’ve done some fascinating things all the way through.”
When Veronica Lewis was in 8th grade, her mother remembers, “it was almost like a recruiting environment” on our street and in her middle school. Matt Ragghianti, a Gar-Field freshman at the time, was pushing his school. Others were touting Osbourn Park. Still others were talking up Woodbridge High School.
But Veronica had her sights set on O.P. A year earlier, she had gone on a scuba-diving trip with her grandfather, an experience that sealed her interest in sciences, especially marine biology. She wanted to attend a high school with a strong science program, and O.P. fit the bill. She is now a junior at the school.
Her mother, Suzanne, a former college-admissions director, felt her daughter would be more motivated to learn if she was actively involved in choosing a high school. “As a parent, it gives you a wonderful array of options,” she says.
| Veronica Lewis set her sights on Osbourn Park High School’s science program after she got hooked on marine biology during a scuba-diving trip with her grandfather. She is a junior at the school. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard
There have been other benefits. One particularly enthusiastic O.P. science teacher, for instance, has sparked Veronica’s interest in astronomy.
“I don’t know how my life would be if I didn’t go to O.P,” says Veronica, who plans to study sciences in college. “I’d probably be a different person. I’m glad I went there.”
Still, she concedes there are downsides.
She is a member of the National Honor Society, and she played on the girls’ soccer team her freshman and sophomore years. She says she would have been involved in more extracurricular activities if she had attended a school that was closer to home. But getting rides home from after-school activities is a challenge, she says.
Beyond that, she believes the atmosphere among the teenagers in our neighborhood is probably different from what it would have been if they weren’t going in different directions for school. “If we all went to the same high school, we would have probably given each other rides, talked about things going on at school,” Veronica says. “It would have been more of a street experience.”
Some experts say that is why districts should take a hard look at how public school choice affects neighborhoods.
“This is a culture that worships choice [in everything],” says Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a book published this year that suggests that having too many choices sets people up for disappointment.
He believes school choice programs, specifically, can “undermine the sense of community—and that is a bad thing.”
“There are lots of tensions in our lives,” says Benjamin R. Barber, the author of Jihad vs. McWorld, who writes frequently about education and democracy. “The things we care about have a price.”
Plus, he says, in today’s America, “there is very little in the way of community, anyway. So the ability of students to choose [where they attend school] comes at a relatively low price.”
Gary Lawkowski lives a stone’s throw across the street from Veronica Lewis. When he was in 8th grade, he also chose not to attend Gar-Field. Rather, he was accepted into the most selective public high school in Northern Virginia: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
But “T.J,” as the students call it, isn’t even in our county. A regional magnet school that draws students from all over Northern Virginia, it is in Fairfax County, a 30- to 40-minute drive or worse, depending on traffic, from our street.
| Gary Lawkowski enrolled in the selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, located in neighboring Fairfax County. He loves the school’s intellectual challenge, but not his long commute there. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard
“I don’t know if I would say [the commute] is necessarily difficult,” says Gary, a junior who rides a school bus to and from classes each day. “I would say it is annoying.”
The school’s highly motivated student body, and science and technology focus, initially drew Gary. But in his three years at the 1,680-student school, his academic interests have changed. He is now leaning more toward political issues and history than science and technology.
Still, he says, if he had to make the choice again, he probably still would attend T.J., largely because of its vibrant intellectual atmosphere.
But his choice to attend T.J. did force him to forgo some things he would have loved to do, such as play high school ice hockey. T.J. does not have its own ice hockey team. Even as a T.J. student, Gary would have been allowed to play on a local team that includes Gar-Field and another county high school, because he lives in the Gar-Field attendance district. But the practices were too early in the afternoon—he couldn’t get home in time from T.J. to make them.
Gary acknowledges that because he attends a school that is far from the neighborhood, it’s been hard to maintain connections with the other high school students on the street, who all attended Woodbridge Middle School together. “Between schedules and such, I don’t see a lot of the people around here,” he says. “It takes more of a conscious effort to talk to people on the street, as opposed to just running into them.”
Yet in the same breath, he points out that T.J. “sort of creates its own community.”
Recently, I was driving Devin and four 6th grade boys on our youth lacrosse team home from practice. They all live within the Gar-Field High School enrollment boundaries.
I posed the question to the rowdy, sweaty group: Where do you guys plan to go to high school?
“O.P.,” responds Dylan Lewis, Veronica’s little brother, “because that’s where my sister goes to school.”
Devin echoes O.P., probably because it has one of the better lacrosse teams at the moment. One boy says his father wants him to try to get into T.J. Another says Hylton High School, maybe. Just one says Gar-Field—that’s where his older brother goes.
It struck me that, when I was growing up, I did not engage in a conversation about where I planned to go to school until my junior year in high school, when I started checking out colleges. Yet these boys are already eyeing potential choices like consumers picking a product.
And even my high school alma mater in Vermont has started a school choice program with two other high schools.
This is not my generation’s education system anymore.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Different Directions