Taking a Chance on Choice
Giving parents a choice of public schools looks clear-cut on paper. On the ground, however, a murkier picture emerges.
The idea seems simple enough in the abstract: Poor children stuck in schools that aren't working should be given a better alternative. But matters quickly become complicated when that concept is put into practice. Just consider the case of Conchita Robinson.
By last summer, the 40-year-old former IBM executive was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Camp Creek Middle School, the 988-student school her elder son Chaz attended in this small city on the outskirts of Atlanta. It wasn't so much that the school was virtually all-black, although as a believer in integration, she didn't necessarily consider that a plus. Nor was it just that the school drew many of its students from a corridor of working-class apartment complexes that seem worlds apart from her subdivision of half-million-dollar houses filled with prosperous African-American families like her own.
What worried her were the signals she was getting that the school's academic atmosphere—or lack thereof—was making Chaz uncomfortable. In many of his classes, as he put it, "the kids were more in control than the adults." Even though he was an honor-roll student, he had asked his mother if there were some way he could go elsewhere for his last year of middle school.
"I actually had some of the teachers tell me that if I had an opportunity to get my son out of that school, I should take it," Robinson recalls.
So when she got a form letter from the Fulton County school district in July saying that Camp Creek Middle School had been placed on a list of schools "needing improvement," she felt her concerns had been confirmed. The letter said that under the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, her son was entitled to be bused out of Camp Creek to another school not on the list.
Without a second thought, Robinson seized the chance. Chaz became one of five dozen students to leave Camp Creek under the No Child Left Behind law, the largest exodus because of that statute from any single school in Georgia's 71,000-student Fulton County district. He now rides a bus 28 miles each way to a school with greater racial diversity, a much lower poverty rate, and considerably higher test scores.
On the surface, the Robinsons' situation may seem a textbook case of the power of school choice, the kind that the architects of the new law had in mind when they were drafting it in Washington. The reality, though, is hardly so straightforward.
As she looks back on the process after the start of the new school year, Conchita Robinson realizes what she didn't know about her options outweighed what she did. When it comes to deciding where her son ended up, she now sees that chance played as big a role as choice.
For starters, Robinson had never noticed when she signed up in July that the transfer form listed Paul D. West Middle School—another South Fulton school with a higher poverty rate and lower test scores than Camp Creek's—as her only alternative. If she had read that relatively small print, she may never have even applied.
In the end, her oversight didn't matter. Once Fulton County school officials saw how many Camp Creek students applied to leave, they hastily scrapped their plan to send them all to Paul D. West. Instead, three-fourths of them were assigned to two other schools in the northern, more affluent section of the county.
So at the 11th hour and by the luck of the draw, Chaz became one of 32 Camp Creek students initially assigned to Sandy Springs Middle School, which has the lowest poverty rate and highest test scores of the three schools tapped to take Camp Creek students. When Robinson got a second letter from the district informing her of that assignment two weeks before the start of school, the college-educated businesswoman never even realized that things could have turned out very differently.
"This fell into my lap," she now acknowledges. "I didn't know anything about the school, but I was comfortable with the area."
That kind of scenario is not exactly what President Bush or his congressional allies were imagining as they haggled over the fine points of the No Child Left Behind Act, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that aims to impose greater accountability on states and districts for student performance. Debating the public-school-choice provisions of that sea change in federal policy, they foresaw mostly poor but empowered parents making fully informed decisions about where to find the best education for their children.
What that vision omitted was the rush-rush nature of the new law's implementation—which left little time for local school administrators to react to the choice policy or for parents to understand it. It also failed to account for the idiosyncrasies of local education landscapes and how they constrain the actions of individual parents and schools.
The upshot is that as the school choice provisions of the new law have made their debut, they have influenced people's lives in ways that those in Washington neither expected nor intended. And while that has left some parents such as Robinson feeling as if they've won the lottery, it has left others staring at snake eyes.
In the Camp Creek community, it's easy to find examples of both extremes.
Shakeed Magee, for one, is thrilled that her son Diallo Burke is starting 6th grade not at Camp Creek but at Ridgeview Middle School, a higher- scoring school a few miles north of the Atlanta city line.
A mail carrier married to a lawn-care worker, Magee lives in a townhouse complex where toddlers playing in the parking lot must shout to be heard above X-rated rap music. To shield her own five children from unsavory influences, Magee tries to keep them busy inside their cramped apartment—playing video games, doing homework, or watching the family TV, which is topped with twin trophies that Diallo won by earning the highest grade point average and best reading test score in his 5th grade class. So she is happy to have her eldest son board a school bus at 6:30 a.m. and not return until dinnertime.
"I wanted him to be around different people," she says. "A lot of the kids from the neighborhood go to Camp Creek. I saw how they are, and I didn't want him there."
In a neighborhood of well-kept ranch houses 11 miles away, Theresa Sayers-Nelson is equally relieved that her daughter, Trudy, has entered middle school at Ridgeview rather than Camp Creek. A native of Trinidad who was schooled in London, Sayers-Nelson was always uneasy with the quality of Trudy's local elementary school and disliked the prospect of her daughter's continuing on with the pupils she knew there.
Since Trudy has been at Ridgeview, her mother has noticed that "she's actually struggling to keep her A's. And that's interesting because she made very little effort to keep an A before. I know she got comfortable around poor students."
Yet it rankles Sayers-Nelson, a registered nurse, that she didn't have greater say in where Trudy wound up. She would have liked to choose Sandy Springs, even though it's farther from home, because she looked up its test scores on the Internet and saw that they were better than Ridgeview's.
"It's like you're patronizing me: 'I'll give you a step up, but I'm not going to give you the very best,' " she says of the district's approach to offering her a choice.
When Erica Kinsey applied for a transfer for her 6th grader, she was also hoping to leave behind her daughter's classmates from elementary school, largely because of social considerations.
A 32-year-old single mother who drives people to nearby Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport for a living, Kinsey said that she herself had "a conflict" with another parent that ended up in court after the woman tried to get Kinsey's daughter kicked out of school.
For those reasons, both Kinsey and her daughter, Kelley, were excited about having her transfer from Camp Creek to Paul D. West Middle School, as the district originally suggested she could do. So after Kinsey got a letter saying that Kelley had been assigned to Ridgeview, a school they both considered too far away, Kinsey sent Kelley to Paul D. West anyway.
When the girl got a glimpse of the brand-new school, she was delighted, Kinsey remembers. The girl was crushed when a school staff member, given that Kelley was in effect a stowaway at Paul D. West, ordered her back to Camp Creek after a few days of school.
"My daughter, she broke down and cried, but the lady didn't have no sympathy," Kinsey recalls. "Where is the choice? She didn't get a fair chance to go to the school where she wanted to go."
Six weeks into the school year, Jasmine and Jeffery Woods were still feeling the same way. Instead of heading off to Camp Creek each morning with most of their friends, the 7th grade girl and her 6th grade brother catch the bus at 7 a.m. for the six-mile ride from their apartment complex to Paul D. West.
They are there because their mother somehow got the impression from the letter offering her a transfer that she had no choice because Camp Creek was actually closing down.
Pamela Woods, a high school dropout who recently lost her job as an office-building janitor, didn't find out otherwise until a month after school opened. At that point, her two children started begging her to send them from Paul D. West back to Camp Creek, a move she says she's considering.
"Isn't that pitiful?" says Minnie H. Jenkins-Miller, Camp Creek's longtime principal, when told of the Woodses' situation. "That really is pitiful."
The cinderblocks of Jenkins-Miller's comfortably furnished office at Camp Creek Middle School are pink—matching her eyeshadow, manicure, and well-tailored suit—and her voice is soft as she speaks of her hurt at seeing her school labeled as needing improvement. But she takes on a harder edge while discussing her determination to get Camp Creek off that list.
"I'm very focused on improving student achievement, because you don't want to be in the paper," she says. "Nobody wants to be labeled a failing school."
Before the No Child Left Behind law delivered such a blow to Camp Creek's reputation, Jenkins-Miller had been accustomed to seeing her school as a cut above its counterparts.
Even though two-thirds of its students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches, the school sponsors an annual student trip to Europe. Youngsters in its gifted program earn A's in high- school-level classes. And while its test scores aren't sterling, they outshone those of the other four middle schools in the southern half of their unusually shaped school district, which is bisected by the city of Atlanta.
As the principal of a school receiving money from the federal Title I program, Jenkins-Miller knew her school had been placed on the needs-improvement list. But she says it didn't really register until she saw the headline of an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the state released the list in March: "Schools Flunk, But Students Get an Out."
"It was on a Friday, and that was my weekend," she remembers. "My parents and leadership people were starting to call me and ask, 'How could this happen?' "
The answer hasn't been easy for her to explain. Under the new law, districts are required to offer public school choice to students from schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress"—as defined by their states—for two consecutive years. The requirement applies to schools receiving federal aid under Title I, which is intended to help offset the disadvantages of students who are growing up in poverty.
According to the criteria Georgia has set for middle schools—that they reduce the proportion of 8th graders failing the state's math and reading assessments by 5 percent each year—Camp Creek fell short.
"I have the highest test scores of all five of the middle schools in South Fulton, but I didn't move the 5 percent," says Jenkins-Miller, who has been Camp Creek's principal since 1989. Moving that 5 percent has now become her lodestar—and she expects it to be her teachers' as well.
Five weeks into the school year, Jenkins-Miller couldn't seem to escape the fallout from No Child Left Behind. First thing on a Monday morning, a mother came in to re-enroll her two boys after tiring of getting them to the bus stop by 6:43 a.m. for the trip to Sandy Springs. They weren't the first: While the parents of 83 students initially applied for transfers out of Camp Creek, only 64 reported to their assigned schools when classes resumed on Aug. 12; by Aug. 21, the total had fallen to 59.
With the extra money she got through Title I this year, Jenkins-Miller set up an after-school tutoring program for low-scoring students. She stepped up professional development for teachers and redoubled her efforts to successfully implement a program aimed at shoring up test- taking skills. Still, she knows the earliest she'll be able to get off the list is two years down the road. And that hurts.
"I live in this attendance zone. I grocery shop with my parents and students. I worship with them," Jenkins-Miller says. "I'm getting through it, but it's only because of the support from the parents."
One of those parents is Willie Green, a publications manager at Georgia Power Co. in Atlanta and the immediate past president of the school's PTA. He shares Jenkins-Miller's view that the criteria the state uses for labeling schools are too narrow and that Camp Creek's programs are sound.
Green's son is an 8th grader in the school's talented-and-gifted, or TAG, program, and as a frequent volunteer at the school, Green never considered accepting the offer of a transfer. For one thing, he feels doing so would harm his son's friendships with neighborhood schoolmates. "They play together. They talk about school and can help each other with homework," Green says. "That interaction there is really great."
Now Green is defending the school to his son's circle of friends. "I talk to all the boys in my neighborhood and say that, no, we're not a failing school," he says. "This is why we're on the list, and this is what we're doing."
Sandra Bell has also been defending why she is keeping her children at Camp Creek. "If there's an article in the newspaper that the school is failing, and everyone you work with knows that you go there, that becomes a problem," says Bell, a business- resource specialist at the Center for Trade and Technology Transfer at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Bell's son Vince, an 8th grader in the TAG program, is traveling a college-prep trajectory that landed him in algebra in 7th grade and geometry in 8th. He is gearing up for his second trip to Europe with the school's foreign-language program, this time to France and Spain. His sister, Victoria, entered the school this fall.
Many parents in the Bells' upper-middle-class neighborhood send their children to private schools. Others take advantage of a long-standing busing program that lets children from high- minority schools such as Camp Creek go to those where a majority of students are white.
But to Bell, taking those routes is tantamount to running away. "They'll come back as leaders, but they'll confront the same people they left behind," she says of such students. "The option that I'm interested in is getting more parents involved in working with the schools we have, so that truly no child is left behind."
Principal Ann B. Ferrell of Sandy Springs Middle School is heartened by such views. While she stresses that receiving almost two dozen transfers from Camp Creek was no strain for her brand-new, 793-student school, she doubts that those students' best interests are being served.
"I don't think it's a good idea to move kids from their home schools," says Ferrell. "I think Camp Creek is a good school. The money being spent to transport the students here could be used to reinforce the good things that are happening there so that they could stay at their own school."
Ferrell is part of a districtwide committee charged with responding to the No Child Left Behind Act. The panel has been poring over the new law with the district's lawyer, she says, trying to figure out what to do if the relative trickle of transfer requests becomes a flood once more parents become aware of the law.
"If we're still looking at just three middle schools, and you triple the numbers, that's going to put a hardship on the schools," Ferrell says.
As they prepare for the future, district leaders must avoid undue upheaval "to keep the stress level low for children," says Donnella B. Cranford, Fulton County's Title I coordinator. She says that perspective guided the district's decision this year to initially pair each of its 10 schools on the Title I needs-improvement list with just one school not on the list, and then give parents that single school as an alternative.
Whatever policy decisions are made for next year, Cranford vows that at least one thing will be be different: Parents will know more about their choices. Still, she doesn't expect all parents to be satisfied with the options before them. "I'm not making decisions for parents," she says. "I'm making decisions for the school system."
But while Cranford sees her responsibility as protecting children's interests by minimizing disruption, Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, the man charged with overseeing the U.S. Department of Education's implementation of the law, says he's trying to make parental choice a far higher priority for districts than it has been in the past.
"What we're trying to introduce is a dynamic that says, if the system isn't working for your children, you should be able to do something about it," Hickok says. "That's a very different dynamic for American public education: The system doesn't come first."
"Districts ought to go out of their way to educate parents and to provide adequate choices," he adds. "The first year, that's a little bit tough. But I don't think we'll have that excuse in succeeding years."
In the meantime, he says, he is not bothered by the kinks in making the law work this school year. The fact that parents are making choices is a positive first step, he says, "even if they're not fully informed choices, and even if people are not completely satisfied with the results."
"With changes this transformative and complex, they play out differently in every local district," Hickok says. "You're going to have to recognize that you walk before you run, and you stumble a bit at first. But I see steps being taken, and that's a good sign."
Vol. 22, Issue 8, Pages 24-29Published in Print: October 23, 2002, as Taking a Chance on Choice