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School Choice: For Families In Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

Baltimore City

As we heard Wednesday in the first part of this series, thousands of Baltimore City eighth and fifth 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.  JonnaMcKone looks at school choice is working for families in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Renaissance Academy, a high school of just over 300 students, occupies an old brick building in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood. It’s a community school, where students and their families can tap into everything from a food pantry to college course offerings to free hygiene products.

It also was in the headlines last fall when one student was found with a loaded gun and later a student stabbed another.

Kiara Clark, who is about to graduate, says at first she didn’t want to come here after 8th grade. "If sit around people that I know all day I get distracted. I thought going to a different school you know would have changed me for real," she says. "And I chose Civitas. But when I found out they was getting shut down, I was like, 'alright.' I don’t like catching buses and all that." 

So she decided on Renaissance, which is close to where her younger brother goes to school and her mother, who doesn’t have a car.  

"I got real bad asthma and stuff so if something was to go on with me, my mother would have to catch several buses just to get me. Now she can just walk around the corner and that’s easier for me and my family."

While Kiara plans to eventually go to college, many Renaissance students come from violent neighborhoods or have had their own run-ins with the law. They may not be thinking about what they’ll be doing after graduation. And for middle schoolers, high school academics or vocational offerings may not be as important as something like transportation or school discipline.

"The poor families I’ve spent time with rarely engage in a calculated, pre-meditated school choice process," says Stefanie DeLuca a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who studies the way peers, neighborhoods and families affect young people. She says most parents want what’s best for their children, but not all of them have the same information when it comes to choosing a high school.

"And when you have these families exposed to exclusively to  high poverty,  high crime neighborhoods and under-performing schools, the metrics and trade-offs, the things you look for to make sure your children are safe and in a place that’s a good fit for them are really different in many ways," she says.  

For Bernard, a 9th grader at Renaissance who walks to school because of a near-stabbing by another student while riding the bus: "A good school is a school about learning no fighting, no kids getting hurt or killed -- a quiet place to learn and to try to get good grades and stuff."   

"I always tell the students you live in the neighborhood but you want to LEAVE and go out and experience what’s in the world," says Pamela Perkins, the high school choice liaison and guidance counselor at Booker T. Washington, which shares the same building as Renaissance. She says a big chunk of her students move a lot or stay with relatives, which makes it hard to decide on high schools and know whether schools will be easy to get to.    

"Most kids don’t even think about that next step," she explains. 

And of her students who are late or have responsibilities outside of school: "Can I say there’s no one at home for them to really talk about high school and say this where I want to go;  this is what I want to do."  

She says she often plays an important role in her students’ school choices. But the school system can only do so much: Ms. Perkins splits her time with another school so she limited in how often she can meet with students.

Still many students make heroic efforts to get into selective or specialized schools. Plus there are strong schools in both low and high income neighborhoods in the city.

Several were quick to point out that what often makes a school successful is active involvement and cooperation of parents, teachers, police and students.

Jonna is a radio producer, documentarian, and media artist. Her feature stories and audio documentaries have aired on WAMU, Marketplace, The World, Living on Earth, and Virginia Public Radio, among others. She also produces nonfiction films and installations using ethnography, archival research, and collaboration as part of her process. A Maryland native, Jonna is a graduate of Bowdoin College and holds an MFA from Duke University.