English-Language Learners Opinion

Toward Equity in Access to School Choice

By Urban Education Contributor — February 15, 2018 3 min read
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This post is by Leah Binkovitz (@leahbink), senior editor for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (@RiceKinderInst), who talked with the Houston Independent School District (@HoustonISD).

Today’s post presents the practitioner perspective on Monday’s post: Exercising Choice: English-Language Learners and School Choice.

Exploring The Problem Of Practice Through Research

Almost a third of the Houston Independent School District‘s (HISD) student body, the largest in Texas, is classified as English language learners. Outcomes for these students vary widely. For example, many of the district’s high school valedictorians were once English learners. At the same time, though, there are significant gaps on standardized state tests between students currently classified as English language learners and their peers, particularly in social studies, science, and writing.

As a district of choice, HISD offers a variety of bilingual programming, but meeting the needs of such a diverse group of students remains a challenge. The district wanted to better understand how the school choice system was serving its English language learners, the majority of whom are Latino. In conjunction with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Education Research Consortium, Madeline Mavrogordato and Julie Harris, researchers from Michigan State University, looked at data from the 2012-2013 school year to compare how many former, current, and never English learners enrolled in schools outside their designated school zone.

The district also wanted to learn the reasons behind any discrepancies between the three groups’ enrollment in non-zoned schools. And indeed, the research found significant variations, including the fact that while roughly a third of elementary students classified as English learners enrolled in schools outside their zone, almost half of both former English learners and students who had never been designated English learners did the same. The gaps were similar in middle school and much larger in high school (see Monday’s post for more findings).

The report cited “language barriers, cultural differences, and [English learner] students living in neighborhoods with uninformed social networks,” as possible reasons, according to the district.

Use Of Research Findings In Practice

In response, the district said it has held “recruitment for District School Choice Fairs for the past two years” at “schools in the neighborhoods in each area of the district in order to be more accessible to parents.” It also sent out mailers with information about school choice in both English and Spanish. The district said it also reached out to Spanish-language news outlets to share information about school choice and that it offered support to parents every weekday through its Office of School Choice.

One of the recommendations from the researchers was that outreach could also be supplemented by specific policy changes.

To that end, the district said English language learner students “are also given an additional eight points on the District Matrix used for qualification to secondary magnet programs.”

Future Work

As the district contemplates the impacts of upcoming budget cuts and considers drastically changing how it funds schools as well as temporarily closing several low-performing schools, questions of equity for all students are more urgent than ever.

Though the data from Mavrogordato and Harris’ research predates the current conversation, the findings are important to keep in mind as the proposals move forward.

“The new recommendations that have not yet been approved by the board would eliminate qualifications in elementary [and] middle school,” according to a statement from the district. “There would not be any restrictions for any student to qualify [for] an elementary or middle school magnet program.” That along with other recommendations on the table would, said the district, “make programs more accessible to all families.”

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