Thousands of Baltimore City eighth graders found out last week whether they got into the high school they hoped to attend, or whether they’re going somewhere else next year. Same thing for fifth graders applying to middle schools. The policy is called school choice. In the first of a two-part series, we look at what is and isn’t working with school choice.
The theory behind school choice is that where you live shouldn’t dictate where you go to school. Just because you’re growing up in a poor area, you shouldn’t be limited to a badly performing neighborhood school.
Baltimore’s schools started their choice program in 2002 and during that same period began closing troubled schools and creating smaller high schools with specialized focuses. The idea is to allow students and families to select the school that best fits them.
"I started looking at high schools over to the summer and I basically made a list of the like 5 to 6 of the schools I wanted to look at." says, Celia Katz-Zogby is an 8th grader at City Neighbors Hamilton, a small charter school in Northeast Baltimore. "And I’m very organized so I made a pro/con list. I looked at the schools website, and I did research. In the fall I shadowed at the different schools and went to the open houses and then I applied."
She has been very deliberate in her application process. "I didn’t know a lot about the different options so I felt like: I’m gonna spend 4 years of my life at this place I really want to love it." she says. "And I wanted to feel welcomed and part of the community."
So, after carefully weighing her options, she made her choices: a few private schools, traditional public schools and a charter school: "I applied to Institute of Notre Dame which is a Catholic School, Baltimore School for the Arts - I’m in their TWIGS program, City College, Bryn Mawr and Park.
The most popular high schools for 8th graders at her middle school are Bard Early College, a new school where students can earn college credits, City Neighbors High School and the criteria-based Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, called Poly, and Baltimore City College which most people just call City.
The city has 9 criteria schools—those that choose students by evaluating a combination of grades, attendance and standardized tests (or composite) scores. Collectively they have about 3,100 seats available each year for a little more than half the city’s rising ninth graders. They stand out because their graduation rates are higher on average than the city’s other high schools—all above 80 percent, except for Mergenthaler Vo-Tech. These schools also have significantly higher rates of college enrollment. And they’re hard to get into: City College, for example accepted just 21 percent of applicants.
"To say it is school choice is a bit misleading if the highest quality options are selective admission," says Stefanie DeLuca, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. She co-authored a study on how low–income youth in Baltimore choose high schools.
"What it looked like when the youth in our study were entering 8th grade, starting to enter high school: there were a couple of the good schools which were the top ones - Poly and City and so on - and they realized that at a certain point those aren’t part of your choice set because your grades weren’t good enough," she says.
That means that schools with the best performing students are out of reach for the kids who need it the most. School choice looks different in the cities that have it. One of the challenges in a high-poverty system like Baltimore’s is to get students thinking about high school and their aspirations before it’s too late to get on an academic track.
At City Neighbors, where there’s just one class per grade, guidance counselor Trinisa Brown says the school starts building relationships with families from the moment a child enrolls. "We’re teaching them about setting goals and looking towards the future. And steps to where they want to be in life," she explains. "And a lot of what we do here is about critical thinking. In middle schools that’s where you’re really starting to figure out who you are. Setting a foundation for tools you may use later and things you may wanna do".
Building these relationships early helps Brown figure out what disadvantaged families might need: "And we let them know it’s gonna change. I promise it’s gonna change. But start to develop an idea. "
To help students make those decisions, there’s a “choice liaison,” someone in Trinisa’s position, in every school where students have the option to apply. The city also has a high school fair that draws thousands of students, and middle schoolers can shadow at various high schools.
Ernest Miles, of the school system’s office of Enrollment and Attendance, says he thinks families have a good sense of their options, but before they make any decisions, he would like more students to practice their route to school and know specifics like the bell schedule and extra-curricular offerings.
"There are some families that treat it just like a college process and put it all of that effort and research and looking at the details," says Miles. "There are some of the families that are very focused on one particular thing for their particular kid whether it’s a particular program or a particular teacher or a particular athletic program."
It’s a complex system with a ton of factors for families and students to take into account starting as early as 7th grade. Nonetheless, nearly all the families that were eligible signed and submitted their school choice forms. And more than half of ninth graders got their first choice high school. Another 20 percent were assigned their second choice.
13-year-old, Alayah Mason, also goes to City Neighbors. She chose the school after attending Glenmount Elementary. Her story shows how school choice, even at a younger age, can help students achieve.
"At Glenmount I had a lot of friends that weren’t good influences on me. I was a little too focused on my friends and doing other things than just work," says Alayah. And the teachers, she says, didn’t help her to buckle down. "So when I my mom told me about City Neighbors I decided to transfer because my grades were low at Glenmount."
Now Alayah is looking at City College for high school. And she says she wouldn’t have had the grades or test scores to apply if she had stayed at her neighborhood school.
While graduation rates have increased by nearly 10 percent in the last few years and there are more specialized options for students, Miles of City Schools says it will only work if all students are going to strong schools from day one.
"That’s our task to make sure that the kid who may not have qualified for City if his second choice is Ben Franklin to make sure that he’s just as satisfied with the course offerings, just as satisfied with the teacher support, and just as satisfied with the school climate and making sure they’re feeling safe and welcomed," he says.
But still, for children in Baltimore, where you end up for high school really matters. And by the way, Alayah Mason found out a few days ago that she did get into City College.