Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Build District Infrastructure

Being ready to communicate effectively requires a great deal of behind-the-scenes preparation. Staff across many departments are involved in gathering information and making decisions about space, assignment options, transportation, and the like. Establishing effective procedures and integrating NCLB choice into existing operations come first. Then, as districts expand choice options, new programs and structures may be called for.

First Steps

Assign and Coordinate Responsibilities

The sheer logistics of NCLB choice can themselves be daunting. In Miami-Dade, for example, 12 different departments coordinate aspects of the district's NCLB plan. The district's plan is more than 40 pages long, with an implementation timeline that takes up four pages alone (see figure 11).

NCLB operations in Miami-Dade are the responsibility of the School Choice and Parental Options (SCPO) unit in the central office. First organized in 1997 by the Miami-Dade County Public School Board as the Division of Schools of Choice, this umbrella office provided oversight and implementation of the various school choice programs. NCLB choice was naturally housed there as well.

Of course, the vast majority of districts do not operate on the same scale as Miami-Dade, and many will be scrambling to find staff who can assume responsibility for NCLB. While there is a risk that a specialized new division may take on a life of its own, the more common challenge will be to decide how to assign the new responsibilities to current staff. Districts often turn NCLB over to their Title I personnel. Yet if choice, or any other new assignment, is added to a long list of responsibilities, staff may become overloaded. They may manage immediate compliance requirements but then have limited capacity to plan for broader possibilities or to orchestrate new systems that would facilitate going deeper.

Deciding how to assign new responsibilities for NCLB and how to restructure other duties should be predicated upon fully developed plans that identify the tasks that need to be accomplished. It may be a small comfort, but recognizing the trade-offs of different assignment decisions can help administrators and their staffs cope with them.

Wherever NCLB coordination responsibility is housed, it is important to inform all district staff of where that is. Parents may contact the district at different entry points. They need to be directed efficiently to the NCLB authority.

Figure 11. Miami-Dade NCLB Implementation Timeline (page 1 of 4)

Miami-Dade County Public Schools

(on or about)
Task/ Assignment Responsible Office Contact Person
First Week of December Identify personnel to monitor and implement NCLB as needed.
  • Education
Ms. Toural
  • Information Technology Services (ITS)
Ms. Karcher
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce
First Week of February Identify new issues to be addressed in the district's NCLB Implementation
Plan and incorporate these changes into the NCLB Implementation Timeline
  • SCPO
Mr. Bell & Mrs. Zarraluqui
  • School Board Attorney
Mr. Brown
Ms. Bass
First Week of February Update schools (elementary, middle, and senior high) that will be assigned to each NCLB geographic zone.
  • SCPO
Mr. Bell & Mrs. Zarraluqui
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce
Mid February Conduct an analysis of the NCLB zones and make any adjustments as warranted.
  • School Board Attorney
Mr. Brown
Ms. Bass
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce
First Week of March Seek appropriate approval of any adjustments to the NCLB geographic zones.
  • SCPO
Mr. Bell & Mrs. Zarraluqui
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce
First Week of April Update plan to distribute NCLB information to potential eligible parents and other community stakeholders.    
  • Prepare parent letter and postcard
  • SCPO
Mr. Bell & Mrs. Zarraluqui
  • Prepare purchase order for printing and mailing
  • Prepare press packet
  • Public Information
Mr. Villafaña
  • Prepare mailing data disks
  • ITS
Ms. Karcher
  • Notify affected ACCESS Center Superintendents and Principals
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce
First Week of April Revise NCLB student application/admission process as needed. Include criteria for student assignment.
  • Attendance Services
Dr. Leyva
  • Instructional Operations
Dr. Koonce

Determine Space and Transportation Options

Where to put the children eligible to move is a major question for everyone involved in a transfer. While some of the districts studied have space because of declining enrollments, others have growing enrollment or are already crowded. And the most desirable schools are most often at capacity.

Lack of capacity at the district level can't be used as a reason to deny transfers. Every student enrolled in a Title I school in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring who wishes to transfer to a school meeting standards must have that opportunity. Districts have to establish for each family two or more choices that have enough capacity overall to handle the anticipated transfers.19

The inability to move children into the highest-achieving schools because of facilities limitations has been a challenge for Milwaukee Public Schools. In order to create options and communicate them accurately to parents, the district created a team that involves facilities and maintenance staff; administrative specialists (who evaluate principals and are knowledgeable about how schools run); the database supervisor; and the administrator responsible for staffing, enrollment, and strategic planning related to school capacity. The team spent two months determining exactly how many students each school could take.

Several of the districts give priority within their existing choice arrangements to students transferring under NCLB choice, either in initial placement decisions or on waiting lists.

Decisions about which school choices to offer to which students depend not only on space but also on transportation. Several of the districts have established transportation zones to facilitate shorter bus routes and provide choices within the zones. During the last few years, for example, Milwaukee has divided the city into three regions (north, central, and south) for the programs for which they provide transportation: Chapter 220 and citywide specialty schools. The intent is to reduce costs by limiting the distance students travel. The district transports students only to contiguous zones, so students in the north and south zones can choose schools within their own zones and the central zone, and students in the central zone can choose from all three zones.

Miami-Dade has six transportation zones, but the district created a new set of three larger zones for NCLB choice. Several factors were considered in defining zones that would provide a complementary set of schools (see figure 12).

Other transportation strategies were also reported by the study districts:
  • compensation to parents for transportation when their child is geographically isolated, has special needs, or may be the only student transferring to a specific school,

  • tokens for students using city or county buses,

  • small vans in addition to larger buses, and

  • staggered start times for schools.

In some districts, students choose to travel to a more distant school if the bus stop is closer to their home than is the bus stop of the nearest school, or if walking to school takes students through what parents consider an unsafe neighborhood.

Figure 12. Miami-Dade NCLB Transfer Factors and Zones (page 1 of 4)


Students have the inherent right to be afforded equal access to quality educational experiences, regardless of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, as part of the district’s plan, three geographic zones have been established. The map delineating the No Child Left Behind choice zones is included as Appendix B. In the development of the three zones, the following factors were taken into consideration:

  1. proximity of schools that have met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) objectives;
  2. length of student transportation times;
  3. sufficient numbers of alternate public school choices with available space;
  4. feeder pattern integrity; and
  5. diverse demographics.

For purposes of the No Child Left Behind Public School Choice Implementation Plan, schools within each zone will participate in the transfer process based on their AYP status and their capacity. That is, students from designated Title I schools that fail to meet AYP for two consecutive years will be provided the opportunity to transfer to public schools within their zone that have met AYP objectives and have a percentage of utilization of permanent and relocatable capacity of 115% or less.

A. No Child Left Behind Choice Zones are:

  • North Choice Zone
  • Central Choice Zone
  • South Choice Zone

The following table reflects the socioeconomic student distribution by No Child Left Behind Choice Zone as of June 2003:

Choice Zones Free/Reduced Lunch

Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Build Information-Processing Capacity

In Desert Sands, the district has recently moved to build its capacity to manage student records and track student progress. In addition to having developed a sophisticated database of student demographics and test scores, the district is working to improve its ability to monitor the progress of students who transfer into and out of the district's magnet programs.

An integrated student database that includes charter schools affords Miami-Dade the opportunity to closely track its students and use patterns and trends in student movement to inform charter-authorizing and program-creation decisions. Transfers are also facilitated by having an integrated system; when a student is registered at a charter school, he or she is immediately dropped from the roll of the traditional school.

Going Deeper

Expand Space and Transportation Options

With time, districts need to take up the challenge to find more space for popular programs or to use space differently. According to NCLB, lack of capacity can't be used to deny choice, but beyond this requirement, maximizing the use of space is a logical response to what parents value and seek for their children. For example, high-demand schools may re-purpose some of their rooms or get more portable classrooms.

Miami-Dade has made extensive use of portables. Denver created seven additional classrooms for incoming students in its two most-chosen schools by opening teacher lounges and resource rooms as classrooms.

Districts also continue to explore effective transportation strategies. The transportation patterns described earlier often evolve over time to better accommodate the districtwide choice and enrollment patterns.

Desert Sands, for example, continues to explore transportation solutions to its problem of major congestion because only two major thoroughfares serve the cities in its valley. The district recently purchased two vans to supplement its yellow buses. Federal funds can be used for this purpose. To develop additional solutions, the district is studying transportation strategies adopted by Hillsborough County (Tampa, Fla.) and is considering other options.

Currently, Desert Sands accommodates student transfers on an individual basis, which results in some busing routes that are not cost-effective. The district would like to move to a system of districtwide pick-up points, as Hillsborough does. Discussions are under way to determine the best way to implement this change, including parent notification of the new policy, for the 2004-05 school year.

As they work through transportation challenges, districts recognize that it is worth the effort since the result is to enable parents to take advantage of the choices that have been carefully crafted for them.

Start New Schools and Programs

NCLB choice patterns are but one source of information about parent preferences that can drive the creation of new schools or programs. Ultimately, a district can create a diverse set of schools to address different needs and interests, making each school a "school of choice." District-authorized charter schools, magnet schools, specialized schools within a school, alternative schools, or new community schools all offer an opportunity to increase the supply of quality schools and the options available to parents. Charter schools that operate independently from the district can also help increase capacity.

Mesa is one district that has responded to parent preferences and created new schools, in part due to pressure from local charter schools. An initial Benjamin Franklin back-to-basics school, itself created because of parent interest, was so popular that over time three more were established. Natural indicators, like the number of requests or the size of a waiting list, and special measures, like a parent survey, are used to gauge areas of interest.

Miami-Dade is concentrating on bringing successful programs to schools with low enrollment through its federal Voluntary Public School Choice program grant. The underenrolled status of some of its schools gives the district an opportunity to address facility needs. In addition to refurbishing schools to make them more attractive to parents, the district will be able to change existing facilities into new and innovative centers of learning. For example, district curriculum supervisors will be assigned to schools designated as professional development laboratory schools, providing targeted, on-site expertise for teachers and students, while at the same time easing space demands in the crowded administration building.

When a new Miami-Dade school became available in 2003, it was projected to be severely underenrolled. At the same time it had a potentially attractive location just west of the downtown business corridor. The district gave the school an international education theme, attractive to many families in this cosmopolitan community, and eliminated attendance boundaries. Parents drop students off on their way to work, and students from outside the district are also welcome to attend Miami-Dade's first "commuter school."

Establish New Outreach Roles

The earlier sections on helping parents make informed decisions emphasized the importance of the personal element in outreach efforts. The local school is important in the communication process because parents often trust most their children's teachers, the staff they know personally. In addition, districts found it helpful to establish new roles or even new units that focused specifically on outreach.

The Cambridge district's Family Resource Center is the hub of all district communication with parents. In addition to providing school-related outreach and assistance, the center helps families with a range of social services (see figure 13). In Mesa, where students speak 59 different languages, district liaisons visit new families in their homes to help them transition into the school system.

Milwaukee has three parent resource centers, two funded from the district's Title I allocation and one from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allocation. Staff in these Title I parent centers help parents resolve complaints and concerns, linking them to appropriate district departments or to the school principals, as needed. The parent centers are also a resource for parents seeking school-choice or tutoring information. Last summer the centers mobilized to call, meet with, and advise all parents who mailed in inappropriate choice requests.

Miami-Dade recently transformed its six regional offices from administrative operational offices to public access centers. Each center has an advocacy director, whose job is to be responsive to student needs and act as an information clearinghouse. The regional offices also serve as a resource on school choice and transfers. The parent notification letters for NCLB choice direct parents to contact the public access centers.

Desert Sands locates its outreach role at individual school sites. Other districts also have school staff with responsibility for outreach, as will be discussed later.

Figure 13. Cambridge Family Resource Center

The Family Resource Center in Cambridge, Mass., is the hub of district communication with families. With a districtwide choice program, the center helps parents choose schools and make NCLB transfers. In addition, principals refer families to the center if they need housing assistance or help accessing social programs. Center staff take a holistic view of district families and assess their needs accordingly.

Everyone who registers for school comes through the doors of the resource center. Originally, it was simply a registration center, where students were assigned schools, but its mandate has grown. It serves at least 700 new families per year and provides information and support for those already enrolled. It facilitates all transfers, and staff counsel parents regarding their choice options. Center staff encourage parents to visit schools and provide them with printed guidelines to help them evaluate their school visits. Also, a brochure explaining NCLB is available at the center. To increase the number of parents who take advantage of the center, its director goes into the community and makes presentations. Targeting kindergarten admissions, the director visits Head Start programs and other daycare facilities, providing details about the different programs at different schools and informing parents about the choices available to them.

Source: Interviews with district staff.

Increase Community Involvement

Districts in this study have formalized ways for parents to be actively involved in community planning and direction-setting.

Desert Sands involves stakeholders in district planning through surveys and by inviting them to serve on two types of committees. The district's strategic planning committee draws about a third of its 35 members from the local business community. Schools' education specifications committees are responsible for developing programs and writing curricula. One such committee is already planning for the new pre-medical/pre-law high school the district will open in 2006. It was information gathered in a parent survey along with community dialogue, for example, that revealed interest in this specialized program.

For 20 years, the Miami-Dade school-board-sanctioned Schools of Choice Advisory Committee has supported the district. The committee plays a key role in promoting greater understanding of the district's goals for magnet programs and schools, encourages community involvement, analyzes special program needs, ensures equity and quality of education for all sectors of the diverse Miami-Dade community, and makes recommendations for program expansion to the superintendent. Recently, the committee's mandate was revised to incorporate a broader definition of "choice," one that includes charter schools and other initiatives.

Members of the advisory committee include representatives of the school board, the PTA, choice school principals, satellite learning center representatives, exceptional student education representatives, the teachers' union, colleges and universities, and a group that addresses biracial and tri-ethnic issues.

The advisory committee usually meets monthly and discusses a range of topics concerning choice in Miami-Dade, such as how the district is sharing best practices, the status of upcoming magnet fairs, and how to increase representation of Hispanic students in the magnet program.

Summary for Build District Infrastructure

First Steps Going Deeper
  • Assign and coordinate responsibilities.
  • Determine space and transportation options.
  • Build information-processing capacity.
  • Expand space and transportation options.
  • Start new schools and programs.
  • Establish new outreach roles.
  • Increase community involvement.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009