Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Desert Sands Unified School District

District Demographics
Enrollment 25,714
Enrollment Trend Up
Number of Schools 27
Population Type Collection of small cities/towns
Subsidized Meals 58%
English Learners 27%
Special Needs 9%

The Desert Sands district, on the outskirts of the resort city of Palm Springs, Calif., has been growing at a rate of 4 percent of year for the last 10 years. The district currently has 10 new schools on the drawing boards. In considering whether to make these neighborhood schools or magnet schools, the school board listened to stakeholders and evaluated its recent experience developing school choice options.

Of the district's 27 current schools, eight are magnets and one is a district charter school on long standing. The magnet schools were developed to address disparities in student achievement between schools located in the district's mostly Hispanic and low-income town of Indio and schools located in the district's five other, mostly white and more affluent towns. Desert Sands draws its students from migrant camps as well as from middle-class towns and wealthy enclaves surrounded by private country clubs.

In 2000, the district decided to create a K-12 International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) program for its first set of magnet schools (an elementary, a middle, and a high school). It located the schools in the geographic and socioeconomic center of the district and marketed them to high-achieving students in Indio. The result has been that these magnet schools are the district's most economically and culturally diverse, as well as its highest achieving.

The decision to draw the highest-achieving students out of the Indio schools did not go unnoticed there. Principals felt vulnerable that they would be losing their best students. The district is now creating a second set of K-12 magnet schools, this time in Indio. When surveys of parents and the community indicated a growing need for medical and legal professionals, the district decided to feature pre-medical and pre-law curricula at the new schools. The district hopes this focus will attract affluent students as well as boost opportunities for Indio residents.

In 2001, the district secured a Voluntary Public School Choice program grant to create five magnet schools with an environmental science, mathematics, and technology focus. This program has been very popular at the district's charter school, and the community is fortunate to have the participation of scientists from the nearby Living Desert park and the Joshua Tree National Monument in designing the magnet schools' curricula. These high-achieving schools are located in the district's affluent Palm Desert community. The district markets them in Indio, again to provide school choice options to students whose current schools are low-achieving.

Principals at the receiving schools were initially concerned that the low-income transferring students, including students making NCLB transfers, would bring down the schools' test scores. But this has not happened. In fact, scores at the schools have increased. At each of the magnet schools a site coordinator meets new parents as soon as their children enroll and regularly thereafter. The coordinator follows each child's progress, and if a student needs a tutor, the coordinator provides one. The role of the site coordinators, and their individual efforts to see each student as an opportunity, has been crucial to turning attitudes around at the receiving schools. As the assistant superintendent explains, "We do not want students to go bach to their old schools because they do not feel connected or because the parents do not know anyone."

The district credits communication among the magnet schools as another critical factor in their success. Site coordinators meet monthly with the magnet grant administrator to share experiences and seek input for ongoing problems. During each meeting, the group reviews the goals of the magnet project to be sure they are being met and identifies additional resources that may be needed.

Desert Sands is proud of its choice program and markets it heavily, especially to English learners and low-income students. A marketing team creates radio spots, movie theater ads, and television commercials in Spanish and English and goes to malls in indio during the enrollment period to meet prospective students. The district makes a big effort to enroll kindergarten students in its choice program and created a refrigerator magnet for Head Start parents that has a "to do" list that includes "learn more about voluntary school choice," "review the magnet school program," and "enroll my child in public kindergarten."

The district is intent on continuing to develop its choice program, as well as its neighborhood schools. The district feels optimistic that it has accomplished the hard work of winning employees and stakeholders over to the benefits of choice, and it plans to create magnet programs at each of its new schools. These will accept neighborhood students first, reserve seats for 1 percent of the students in the other attendance areas, and fill any remaining seats by lottery. In Desert Sands, the goal is to create a range of schools that parents will want their children to attend.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009