School choice: Weighing the options

The 2015–2016 school year is well under way, and more than half of the students in Miami-Dade County are attending a school of their choice, instead of their traditional neighborhood school. Of the 355,913 students enrolled in the county’s public schools, 200,388 have selected to attend a magnet school, career academy, international program, charter school, or another alternate school.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools LogoOptions are open to students across the Miami-Dade school district, and they’ve created opportunities for an education beyond a traditional curriculum.  Students are no longer required to attend a school just because it’s in their neighborhood.

Greater flexibility in school choice has blurred the geographic boundary lines of the past, and created a system where parents can choose a school with a program tailored to their child’s interests and learning styles.

“It’s like a menu of options because no one program is right for every child, and no one way of delivering a program is right for every child,” said Robert Strickland, Administrative Director of Miami-Dade County Public Schools School Choice & Parental Options.

Despite the many, sometimes overwhelming, number of options available, oftentimes, obstacles like space availability, transportation and parental involvement can stunt the liberty that comes with so many options, which have been steadily increasing in the district over the last few years. There are more than 500 choice programs available for students of all ages, with 16 new magnet programs for the 2015-16 school year.

Miami Central HighMagnet schools were introduced in 1973 and have existed throughout Miami-Dade’s history. In 2007, the district made a concentrated effort to expand choices and options, offering magnet, non-magnet, Cambridge programs, K-8 centers, and AP/Capstone programs. Some of this year’s newest programs include an international studies Italian program at George Washington Carver Elementary, a forensic science academy at Palmetto Middle School, a visual arts magnet at Jose De Diego Middle, a trade and logistics program at Miami Central High School, and a digital media technology & entrepreneurship academy at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High.

“Children respond very strongly to something that interests them,” Strickland said. “Therefore they are able to really grasp the content differently and better because they’re able to relate it to their lives and interests.”

District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is a strong proponent of school choice, according to Virna Kaufman, who works with magnet selection in the School Choice and Parental Options Department.

Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho speaking at the White House. (Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Schools) Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho speaking at the White House. (Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Schools)

After he took office in 2007, the district changed its processes for choice school applications. In the past, parents had to visit each school and fill out a separate application form at each. In 2008, the district changed its board policy to centralize the process and allow parents to submit one application for up to five schools online. This, coupled with a marketing campaign, doubled the number of applicants from 17,000 to 34,000 in a single year. It has increased every year since, with 66,000 applying for the current school year, according to Kaufman. “It gives students a chance to think they may like something, and then realize they do want to continue and study and go to college in that field — or not. It gives them a taste for the different themes before they have to make a choice in college,” Kaufman said.

Those looking into choice schools for their students are often seeking better programming for their students that translates into higher achievement. According to Strickland, research has shown that if a child is in a program of interest of his or her choice that attendance tends to go up. “When attendance goes up and they’re in school more, then it’s easy to see why their achievement goes up,” he said. “We have seen that here, that attendance goes up in these schools, these schools have high attendance percentages, so these schools traditionally do very well with achievement.”

However, with an emphasis on specialized programming, there is the concern of creating an unequal system where specialized programs are seen as superior to traditional neighborhood schools.

“We’re not trying to make the magnet programs so much more appealing than a neighborhood school,” said Diaz said. “A magnet school may not have some of the other stuff that a regular neighborhood school might have.”

One of the differences among the school options lie in what the various programs have to offer, especially when it comes to extracurricular activities. A program may be specialized in art or science, but could be lacking traditional high school favorites, like football teams, marching bands, or music programs.

It’s important not to make an assumption that students receive a higher quality education at a magnet or charter school than they would receive at a traditional public school in their neighborhood, said Samantha Hoare, executive director of Teach For America in Miami-Dade.

“Every school is unique and can offer strong academics,” she said. “We have the opportunity to partner with neighborhood schools that offer innovative choices to their own students.”

According to Hoare, a systemic lack of equity for kids in low-income communities has already created a system in the country where only 9 percent of the 16 million children growing up in poverty will receive a bachelor’s degree. It’s important to be mindful of the inequalities that already exist in the educational system, and be mindful of combatting that with opportunities for all students. “It will certainly take all of us to get there and this isn’t a simple problem to fix, but I think it’s very encouraging to see our city come together to create new approaches to education in Miami and to equip students themselves with the power to make choices about their own education,” she said.

To ensure two separate, unequal systems aren’t created, the district has taken steps to monitor the way resources are provided, and keep an eye on the staffing, satisfaction and achievement levels.

“Certainly that’s not the end task to create two different systems for kids here. It’s about giving people options,” said Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent of Innovation and School Choice. “If you’re not vigilant about keeping your eye on all of these indicators for all schools, then perhaps, but we really as a district, we’re looking at all of our schools.”

Keeping academic requirements equal has also been a top priority, as all students must meet the same requirements for graduation. While they may study with a maritime theme or take many arts electives, the core content needed to be successful at post-secondary levels is constant throughout the district.

“These are all programs parents elect, they choose — the same standard core curriculum is in every school,” Strickland said. “Thematic programs take the place of their electives. This gets the interests to stay in the schools, to go to the schools where they’re getting high rigorous content in all the other core subjects.”

While the district makes every attempt to level the playing field when it comes to academics, obstacles like transportation, space availability and parental involvement are very real barriers faced by students, parents and teachers.

“There are times transportation is a barrier,” Diaz said. “We work with parents who may choose a magnet that doesn’t have transportation from their area, so we can find other buses for the kids to ride that have space available that get them close to that school, a neighboring school.”

The district is working to use its resources to get kids where they need to go, including coordinating with parents to send their children on existing routes near their school of choice, reevaluating bus routes and playing with the idea of flex hubs, where children will go to a central location and from there, get on buses to multiple schools.

Another solution has been replicating popular programming to allow greater access for kids in different parts of town. This year, the district will start to look at the zip codes and key quadrants that are not participating in the schools at all and how to address that.

Courtesy of Danielajimenez/Wikimedia Commons

An example of a program that has been replicated is MAST, whose flagship location in Key Biscayne consistently received more than a thousand applications with no way to accept all those students.

So, the district set out to duplicate the program with a twist, with four high science and high math programs throughout the county with locations that are easier to access than Key Biscayne from some parts of the county.  Recently, MAST @ Homestead was named in Newsweek’s Top 50 “Beating the Odds” schools, which looks at whether low-income students do as well as their higher-income peers.

“We know this is not a one answer type of situation that we’re looking at, we’re looking at different things,” Strickland said. “It is something that we’re mindful of and we’re trying to maximize our resources to be able to give that option.”

A critical component for providing students these opportunities is cooperation among the district, schools and parents. With the degree of parental involvement needed to successfully maneuver into and attend a choice school, the system may seem tipped in the favor or students whose parents are more involved. 

“Today, every parent is busy,” said Samantha Hoare,  executive director of Teach For America in Miami-Dade. “Of course there are families that have more privileges and access to support and help than many of the families we work with each day. That just means that the parents we partner with are working even harder to be involved, making greater sacrifices, and seeking new ways to engage with us and we need to meet them where they are.”

The key is listening to what community members and parents want and need from the school district. As a result, there are now more than 500 choice programs. This includes an expansion from 16 to more than 80 Cambridge Programs, which partners with the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Students can graduate with an international diploma as well, through several International Studies programs like the one recently added into George Washington Carver Elementary. The school will introduce a new international studies magnet program in Italian and Spanish, which will immerse students in a multicultural curriculum with an emphasis on learning a second language. “Parents, students, and the community had a positive reception of adding this aspect to little Carver,” said Principal Cheryl E. Johnson. “The advantage is that parents have the opportunities to choose the schools that fit the needs of their students — the interest as well as the academic needs of their student, because the options are available for all students.”

Though the district offers information through its website and a parent academy, Strickland claims that in any situation it’s always been the case that when parents are more involved in their children’s education, the child does better. One way the district is being proactive in bridging that gap is by looking at areas where parents aren’t applying to school choice programs, doing a better job of reaching out to them directly.

“If they don’t use it, if they don’t apply to magnets, that’s fine. That’s their choice. They may love their boundary school, but you want them to know about it,” Strickland said. “If they don’t know about their options, then maybe their child would have done something else, but that’s been true forever.”