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School Choice: It Makes All The Difference

  At high school graduations across the city, seniors have been talking about what's next – College? Career? And about the choices they made that got them where they are today.

Those choices, often made early, can influence the rest of their lives. And for some, the choices are surprisingly complicated. Take Angel Petty, for example. She had to scramble to find a public high school when she arrived in Baltimore from Georgia in ninth grade.

Her first choice was Baltimore Polytechnic Institute – one of the city's premier public high schools. But school had already started. It was too late to choose a high school in the usual way.

"So I actually had to enroll on the second day of high school," Angel said. "And I was rushing around trying to figure out what school I could get into, how do I have to do it..."

Instead of Poly, she ended up at NAF -- The National Academic Foundation School in East Baltimore. It’s a school where the average SAT score is hundreds of points lower than at Poly. Still, for Angel, it worked out. She graduated as president of her class and valedictorian and gave a graduation speech to a packed house at Morgan State. She plans to attend McDaniel College in Westminster this fall on a full scholarship.

Across town at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Devin Butler was preparing for graduation with his class from the prestigious Baltimore City College. City was his first choice.

"I wanted to go to City. My family went to City," he said. And everything Devin did, starting with high marks in elementary school, got him into City.

In Baltimore and a growing number of cities, including New York, students must apply to high schools, and sometimes even middle schools. It’s a process known as citywide choice and it’s very much like applying to college. Students choose where to apply, anywhere in the city, but there's no guarantee that they'll be admitted. Their choices are limited by their composite scores, based on standardized tests and middle school grades.

"The whole idea of a community high school is pretty much gone," said Karen Hodges, a City College department head.

All these years later, Devin remembers his own composite score. "You needed a 610," he said. "I went to Roland Park, which is a good middle school, and they prepared me a lot. So my composite score was a 737."

With his great elementary school scores, Devin had won a spot in the Advanced Academics Program at Roland Park Middle. That was the path that got him to City, where students are required to take the SAT and to apply to at least three colleges.

Sedrick Smith, a City grad who now teaches social studies there, says that education is the best way to change socio-economic paths. Ninety-nine percent of the Class of 2015 is headed to college.

"City puts them in a position where they can get into colleges that ultimately can change their lives," he said.

Some educators argue that school choice is a good thing, particularly for low-income students, because it means that where you live no longer dictates which school you attend. But Rob Helfenbein, associate dean of the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland, says it could also mean some students get left behind.

"The logic of a market-based model is that everybody has all the same information and then can make the best decision," he said. "But we know that that's not true."

The only way it works, he says, is if all parents and communities know what their options are and exactly what steps to take.

"It's deeply concerning to think of students being tracked at a very early age in a way that either creates or limits possibilities," Helfenbein said. "And of course it does both things by definition."

For Devin, choice meant graduating near the top of his class at a prestigious high school and going off to Trinity College in Connecticut in the fall with several scholarships and grants. But for others, it could mean having few options in high school -- and beyond -- because of decisions made years earlier, and circumstances that are beyond their control.