One application opens up choice

Cincinnati parents camped out to enroll their children in a popular magnet school.

In Waiting For Kindergarten, a Cincinnati parent told the story of the 16 days he spent camping out in a tent to get his child into an elite magnet school.  Eventually, tents in front of Fairview-Clifton German Language School “filled the entire hillside each night.”

There’s a better way to manage school choice, writes Alexander Russo in the Washington Monthly.  Most magnets and charters hold lotteries to decide who gets in.  Often parents have to attend meetings, fill out multiple applications on paper and meet “a dazzling array of deadlines.”

Savvy parents have an edge.

Unified Enrollment is making it easier for parents to apply.  “All schools — district, magnet, and charter — operate under one timeline, one form (or website) and one lottery.”

A handful of cities already have it: Denver, DC, Newark, and New Orleans. NYC has it for high schools only. A handful more like Baltimore and LA have streamlined their process but stopped short of a fully unified system.  I’m told it’s being contemplated in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Oakland, Camden, and Detroit.

The benefits of a streamlined system are obvious. Before it created the unified system in 2011, there were 62 different forms and application deadlines in Denver. Now there’s one form, one date, and parents rank their preferences so that schools don’t have to go through an extended waiting period while parents figure out what they’re going to do.

However, it’s hard to get everyone on board, writes Russo. “Chicago and Philly both tried and failed to get it done, blocked by a variety of factors including angry parents and reluctant charters.”

Only one good school?

West Philadelphia parents are demanding spots in their neighborhood’s K-8 school, which now uses a lottery instead of first come, first enrolled. Penn Alexander, which is supported by Penn, is an excellent school, writes the Philadelphia Daily News. “Why hasn’t the district done more to replicate . . . success?

“In a large system, your shining examples cannot just be islands unto themselves,” said Mark Gleason, executive director of Philadelphia School Partnership. “They need to be part of the effort to create more schools like their own.”

Since it opened in September 2001, PAS has attracted middle-class families to West Philadelphia, helped to increase home prices in its catchment area by tens of thousands of dollars and established a strong community in an area once plagued by crime.

Other popular schools in the city typically have strong parental involvement and partnerships with outside cultural organizations and businesses.

Penn Alexander caps class size at 18 children in kindergarten and 24 in other grade levels. It receives $1,330 extra per student, up to $700,000, from the university. The Graduate School of Education supplies student teachers and offers training to experienced teachers. “But the money alone does not make it a great school,” Gleason said. “It helps. By itself, it doesn’t change anything.”

Education-minded families have been moving to the Spruce Hill neighborhood to send their kids to Penn Alexander, sending property values soaring, reports the Daily News. Plan Philly estimates a house inside the school’s boundaries fetches $50,000 to $100,000 more than one a block away.

Study: School choice prevents crime

Low-income black males admitted by lottery to better schools were more likely to stay in school and less likely to be arrested compared to similar students who lost the transfer lottery. So concludes a study in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina by David Deming, a Harvard education professor, in Education Next.

In general, high-risk students commit about 50 percent less crime as a result of winning a school choice lottery.  Among male high school students at high risk of criminal activity, winning admission to a first-choice school reduced felony arrests from 77 to 43 per 100 students over the study period (2002-2009).  The attendant social cost of crimes committed decreased by more than 35 percent.  Among high-risk middle school students, admittance by lottery to a preferred school reduced the average social cost of crimes committed by 63 percent (due chiefly to a reduction in violent crime), and reduced the total expected sentence of crimes committed by 31 months (64 percent).

The highest risk group was identified based on test scores, demographics, behavior, and neighborhood characteristics.

The study finds that the overall reductions in criminal activity are concentrated among the top 20 percent of high-risk students, who are disproportionately African American, eligible for free lunch, with more days of absence and suspensions than the average student.

All students had applied to transfer from their low-performing neighborhood school. Lottery winners moved to schools of average quality as measured by test scores, teacher experience and other factors.


Finally, Superman

I finally got around to seeing Waiting for Superman.  The scenes of parents and children waiting for the lottery results were tear jerkers, but the movie was very simplistic in its depiction of education problems and solutions.  It assumed that the children of involved parents would be doomed by going to neighborhood schools but saved by going to charters. Maybe so, but reciting the statistics for all students doesn’t make that case. I wanted to see a lot more on how successful schools teach: What’s replicable? What depends on finding brilliant principals or young teachers willing to work  insanely long hours?

The depiction of Woodside High in California, the alternative for the girl who gets into Summit Preparatory Charter School, implies that the school serves middle-class and upper-middle-class whites, some of whom are tracked into low-level classes that don’t prepare them to go college.  A majority of Woodside High students are Hispanic or black; 43 percent qualify for a subsidized lunch.  All non-disabled students are placed in college-prep classes, says the principal.  The movie’s statistics on the number of students who go to college include only California state universities, not private or out-of-state colleges or universities or community colleges.

A life-changing lottery

With six applicants for every space, Democracy Prep‘s lottery is a life changer for Harlem children, writes Marcus A. Winters in City Journal. Winners attend the highest-scoring middle school in Harlem, ranked eighth citywide. Most losers are zoned to attend the Academy of Collaborative Education, the city’s worst middle school based on test scores and school safety. ACE, labeled “persistently dangerous,” is across the street from Democracy Prep.

In the New York City Department of Education’s annual survey last year, when asked to evaluate the statement “I feel safe in my school,” 79 percent of ACE’s teachers “strongly disagreed,” while the remaining 21 percent just plain disagreed.

All of Democracy Prep’s teachers said they felt safe at school.

About half of ACE’s students entered the Democracy Prep lottery and lost, estimates the charter’s founder, Seth Andrew.

Lottery winners typically start sixth grade at the charter school reading at the fifth-grade level and finish the year at the eighth-grade level, according to an outside test the school administered.

Democracy Prep doesn’t boast a special curriculum, fancy classroom-management techniques, or smaller-than-average class sizes. Its success—like that of many good charter schools—has three primary ingredients: efficient use of funds, a culture of high expectations, and a “no excuses” approach to school discipline.

The charter doesn’t spend any more money per student, but is able to pay its young teachers 10 percent more than the district’s pay scale and add a variety of enrichment activities.

. . . great teachers often jump at the chance to work in a school that pushes excellence. Last year, 4,000 teachers applied for about 20 openings at Democracy Prep.

The school enforces a strict discipline policy, teach students to sit at their desks and concentrate on their work.

On the day I visited Democracy Prep, the school took the uncommon step of requiring the sixth-graders to eat lunch in absolute silence because they had been “mean” to one another recently.

The United Federation of Teachers, which wants the city shut down low-performing charter schools, filed a lawsuit to keep the district from closing ACE and 18 other low-performing district-run schools.

Superman’s not coming

Americans are taking the education crisis seriously, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in a huge plug for Waiting for Superman, which opens Sept. 24.

“Waiting for Superman” follows five kids and their parents who aspire to obtain a decent public education but have to enter a bingo-like lottery to get into a good charter school, because their home schools are miserable failures.

The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who recounts his grief when his mother told him Superman wasn’t real. “And I was crying because there was no one … coming with enough power to save us.”

Harlem kids win big in school lottery

Winning the lottery to get into the Harlem Success Academy charter school is a very big win indeed, concludes a University of Pennsylvania study by Jonathan Supovitz and Sam Rikoon, education professors.

Students who won the first-grade lottery were compared to students who applied but lost out and stayed in district-run schools. By third grade, the HSA students performed 48 points higher in math and 35 points higher in reading than the lottery losers. That’s roughly 13 percent higher.

HSA students scored 19 percent higher than similar third graders in neighborhood schools.

Harlem Success Academy is featured in two new documentaries, The Lottery and Waiting for Superman, notes Education News.

Both films view the enrollment lottery from the eyes of parents who believe that winning a spot in the high performing public charter school is the key to their child’s future.

Which may be true.

Last year, 7,000 students applied for 1,100 spaces at Success Academy schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. That means there are a lot of motivated parents whose children lost the lottery.

Charters can’t meet demand

Only 20 percent of students who applied to a New York City charter school won a place, reports the New York Daily News. Students are chosen by lottery. Carl C. Icahn Charter School, a high-scoring K-8 in the Bronx,  had room for less than three percent of  applicants.  Fifteen charter schools had space for less than 10 percent of applicants.

Maybe New York needs to let charter schools expand to meet the demand.

Getting into a good charter schools is a matter of chance, not choice, writes Catherine Cullen on The Quick and the Ed. She helped a Washington, D.C. charter choose new students. Because few students leave and siblings get priority, there was only 14 places for 154 applicants.

When I drew the last name for an official Pre-K berth, a woman in the crowd drew a sharp breath. I had drawn her son’s best friend. She sat quietly as I started to draw the waiting list. When I hit #20, tears began to run down her face. Sometime after #50, she left the room.

Charter Schools Achievement: What We Know summarizes the research on charter school effectiveness.