Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Help Parents Make Informed Choices

At its heart, public school choice is about giving parents a choice. Parents can ask themselves which school their child should attend with the expectation that their child can attend the school they choose. Under NCLB, districts are required to allow parents to move their child from a Title I school "in need of improvement" to a school that is meeting standards. In districts with choice programs, parents may regularly have a choice among schools with distinctive instructional programs, either within or outside their neighborhoods.

For choice to be effective, parents need information about the schools that are available to them, the characteristics of those schools, how the enrollment process works, and the transportation available. Ultimately, parents will want to think about which school would be best for their child, given a range of educational and personal considerations.

Districts have a responsibility to communicate with parents clearly and fully about school options and to help them make informed choices.

First Steps

Communicate Clearly About NCLB Choice Options

Mailing a letter home to parents is the most common way to let them know about public school choice under NCLB. Such a letter is a legal requirement of NCLB, and its purpose is to be user-friendly and help parents consider their options based on clear information. This is easier said than done.

Districts naturally face a conflict in communicating about schools in need of improvement. They want to support the schools to improve; in fact, schools must have improvement plans and tell parents about them. On the other hand, districts need to clearly set out parents' option to transfer their child to a school that is already meeting standards. Direct and specific information should explain what the school is doing to improve and what's available in other schools. In the end, it's up to the parents either to give the current school another chance or to transfer to a school that they believe will better meet their child's needs.

Some districts, like Milwaukee, have learned the advantage of breaking the information up into multiple communications and sequencing their release in digestible, user-friendly parcels (see figure 5). This strategy, recommended for communication with the media, can also support clear communication with parents. Notice how Milwaukee's steps are sequenced:

Figure 5. NCLB Communication Steps in Milwaukee

Over the year, the district communicates information about NCLB to parents in a variety of ways, first by being clear about the difference between enrollment for choice options independent of NCLB and enrollment related to NCLB. The district also communicates parents’ rights under NCLB and the district’s obligation to parents. These communications occasion three separate letters:

  1. The superintendent sends a letter out before the end of the school year to all families in the district. The page-and-a-half letter tells about the district’s efforts to improve achievement and describes what it means to be a "school identified for improvement" (SIFI). The letter alerts parents that the district will publish a list of schools identified for improvement and that parents should check to see whether their child's school is on it. The letter encourages parents to be active partners, become engaged in their schools, and help make a difference. The letter states the district goal that all children be successful.

  2. The district distributes a template letter about NCLB that all schools customize and send to their families. In the letter, schools that have already been identified for improvement outline the steps they are taking to improve.

  3. When the final list of SIFI for the year is available, parents who send children to those schools are notified and given the option to transfer to another school. Elimination from the SIFI list requires two years of improvement, so schools that have improved are noted but remain on the list. The district provides parents with four to 16 alternative schools from which they choose three as possible choices for their child to attend.

Source: Information from district interviews.

  1. General communication about NCLB and accountability,
  2. School communications about improvement plans, and
  3. Notification of "needs improvement" status and choice options.

Knowledge about NCLB has begun to spread in districts and communities around the country. Media reports as well as district communiqués and the school report cards required by NCLB itself have all funneled information to parents. But it is a complex law, with new terminology and options for parents, so diligent communication is important. Surveys suggest that parents may not know if their child's school has been identified as "in need of improvement."9 And it is low-income parents, those most targeted to benefit from NCLB's accountability provisions, who most depend on communication from the school or district, along with informal networks.10 Fortunately, parent-friendly resources about NCLB, along with resources about school choice in general, are increasingly available (see appendix C).

To make it easy for parents to understand their NCLB choice options, Milwaukee, for example, provides a frequently-asked-questions document, "My School & the Title I Enrollment Option," in addition to the letter and enrollment form they send to parents whose children attend schools required to provide choice under NCLB (see figures 6 and 7 for excerpts from these documents). Because Milwaukee has a variety of choice options, the district makes an extra effort to clarify how the NCLB choice options fit with others.

Milwaukee's experience adjusting the language it uses to communicate withparentss is also instructive. The first year that the district sent parents a letter describing their NCLB choice options, the letter contained legalistic language. The next year it did not. Milwaukee revised the letter to parents to make it more readable, simplifying the language and increasing the type size. Other districts as well have worked to make their communications more parent-friendly. Many districts translate their communications into multiple languages. Miami-Dade, for example, reaches parents in Spanish, English, and Haitian Creole. In Mesa, the district provides schools with a two-column format: English on the left and Spanish on the right, for parallel communication to parents in both groups.

In these letters, one feature that might be emphasized clearly is which schools are eligible as receiving schools. Milwaukee found that parents frequently made invalid choices (selection of a private school, a school outside the transportation zone, or a school itself in need of improvement). Similarly, the Massachusetts survey found that parents expressed interest in a variety of public and private schools and that "a remarkably high percentage" selected other underperforming schools, which were higher-achieving than their own school and more demographically balanced but also in need of improvement.11

Other key features that might be included are details about the application process itself and the deadline by which applications must be received. A survey of 41 districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools indicates that parents generally are given at least three weeks to respond, often four or more.12 This was true for the five districts in this study as well. Liberal deadlines anticipate possible delays in parents receiving the information and the logistics of providing the help they may need in making a decision.

Many districts take extra steps to be sure that parents get the basic NCLB choice information they need. They send repeat mailings from the district or individual school site, and they give students follow-up notes to take home. Automated phone calls are another option districts have used to communicate with parents directly. Additional common communication tools include parent meetings, Web sites, and advertisements. (Other tools for reaching parents are described in the section on developing a multifaceted communications strategy, page 12.)

Provide Personalized Follow-Up

Even in the initial stages of reaching parents, the districts in this study added a personal component, having learned as Milwaukee did that "personal contact is the most effective means of communication." Several of the five districts took advantage of existing parent outreach centers. In Cambridge, parents who wanted to pursue choice were asked to call the Family Resource Center so the liaison could talk directly with them and explain their options more fully. Miami-Dade asked parents to come in to one of the six regional parent access offices.

Districts also reached out proactively. In Milwaukee, Parent Center representatives called or visited those parents who made choices that were not valid or who submitted incomplete forms. Parents were appreciative of the calls and visits, and the district's proactive approach generated greater parent involvement and buy-in.

Figure 6. Excerpt from Milwaukee Frequently Asked Questions

My School and the Title I Enrollment Option
Questions and Answers 2002-2003
The highest priority for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and your child’s school is to improve student achievement. We have a firm belief that all children can learn and will achieve. The school district is currently engaged in special efforts to improve performance in a group of federally funded Title I schools. Principals, teachers, parents, and staff are working hard to make Improvement for next year and to institute additional educational services and programs in these schools. If your child is enrolled in one of the schools identified for improvement by the state, you have the option of keeping your child enrolled in the current school or seeking enrollment in another public school for the 2002–2003 school year.

What is my child’s current school doing to improve?

MPS has invested significant resources in your child’s present school to help improve its academic programs and services. The programs and services now being offered at your child’s present school are included in a letter sent to you from the principal.

What is the Title I Enrollment Option, and what does it mean for me?

The Title I Enrollment Option is designed to comply with a provision of a new federal law, entitled the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law provides parents in certain federally funded Title I schools with the option of either keeping their children enrolled in their present school or seeking enrollment in other public schools. This option is only available where the child’s present school has been identified as a school in need of improvement by the state, which means that the school has not demonstrated two consecutive years of adequate progress in student academic performance. Almost all MPS schools are Title I funded schools.

Will my child’s current school always be in this program?

Not necessarily. The principal, teacher, parents, and staff at your child’s school are working hard to improve the academic performance of students. If the school demonstrates that its students are making adequate academic progress for two consecutive years, then it will be removed from the program.

How were we identified for this program?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction identified certain federally funded Title I schools on the basis of lack of adequate progress in student academic achievement, as evidenced by student scores on the Wisconsin Student Assessment System.

How do I apply to enroll my child in another school?

To request that your child be enrolled in another school, parents must complete a Title I Enrollment Option Request Form, which was recently mailed to parents. Additional copies are available at your child’s current school. Forms must be completed and returned to the Division of Student Services by September 27, 2002. Please note that no applications will be accepted after September 27, 2002.

If I complete the form, what school would my child attend?

Depending on space availability, even if you request to enroll your child in another school, your child may stay at the current school in the 2002-2003 school year. If you make a request and your request is granted, your child will attend a school in your transportation zone that has space available. You were sent a list of schools that may be available in your child’s transportation zone. If you request a transfer, there is no assurance that your child will be selected to attend one of these schools. This is the group of schools from which MPS will attempt to make seats available to meet transfer requests from your child’s current school.

Figure 7. Milwaukee Parent Letter and NCLB Transfer Request Form

Believe it - Achieve it! Milwaukee Public Schools logo.  Also on this image is the No Child Left Behind logo.

July 11, 2003

Dear Parent/Guardian:

Your child's school has been designated by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as a School Identified for Improvement. This designation alone does not indicate a failing school, but provides a focus on areas for school improvement by principals, teachers, and parents. Identified schools then become eligible for additional support from the district and state as they work to improve teaching and learning, attendance, graduation, or participation in testing.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, when a school is designated as a School Identified for Improvement by the state, parents have the options of:

  • remaining at the school and actively participating in the school improvement process,
  • remaining at the school and applying for after-school supplemental services, or
  • seeking enrollment in one of the designated schools listed below.

Based on your child's current grade level and address, the following are schools that may be available in your child's transportation area. While all parents will have the opportunity to indicate whether they want their children transported to other schools, there is no guarantee that all children will be able to attend other schools. Furthermore, if a school has entrance requirements, enrollment will be dependent on your child meeting these requirements. If you would like more information about any of these schools, you are encouraged to contact the principal at your child's current school, the Division of Student Services at 475-8448, or the Division of Teaching and Learning at 475-8346.

Holmes Elementary, 2643 North Buffum Street, 267-1300 Northern Star, 8135 West Florist Avenue, 393-6782
Keefe Avenue Elementary, 1618 West Keefe Avenue, 267-4400 Story, 3815 West Kilbourn Avenue, 934-4800
LaFollette Elementary, 3239 North Ninth Street, 267-5200 Victory, 2222 West Henry Avenue, 304-6700
Lee Elementary, 921 West Meinecke Avenue, 267-1700 Webster, 6850 North 53rd Street, 393-5900
Milwaukee Leadership Training Center, 1501 South Layton Blvd., 384-8081 Wings Academy, 1501 South Layton Boulevard, 437-1356

If your child's application to enroll in another school is approved, the school district will provide transportation services based on the district's transportation guidelines.

We have worked very hard to improve the academic achievement of all of our students, and are initiating a variety of changes at the district and school levels to support academic achievement. We have demonstrated that the classroom is the most important place in our district, and we are working hard to support our families, teachers, and principals as they improve teaching and learning for all children.

If you choose to apply for a transfer, detach the bottom portion of this letter and return it to MPS. The address is on the reverse side and postage is included. We must receive your response no later than July 25, 2003. If you need assistance or have questions, please call the Division of Student Services at 475-8448 or the Division of Teaching and Learning at 475-8346.

Chief of Pupil Services


Detach bottom portion and return to Milwaukee Public Schools. Address is listed on the reverse side. Postage is included.


PLEASE NOTE: There is no guarantee that your child will be able to enroll in another school if you submit this form. The number of seats at each receiving school is limited and applications will be approved only if space is available and students meet any entrance requirements that the school may have. Students who have low test scores and low income will have priority. Submitting this form indicates your preference to have your child enrolled in another school. Your response is due by July 25, 2003.

I request that my child be considered for transfer to the following school, based on space availability.

1st Choice: __________ Milwaukee Public Schools logo.

2nd Choice: __________

– If you wish to have your child stay at his/her current school, NO RESPONSE IS NECESSARY. –

Parent/Guardian Name (please print)
Student Name (please print)
Parent/Guardian Signature
Telephone Number

In Desert Sands, the timeline was particularly difficult, as summer notification may have missed parents who left the desert to escape the heat. So, teachers called parents at the end of the summer to be sure they had received and understood the NCLB choice information.


The timelines for NCLB choice are driven by each state's release of accountability data-often in the summer, sometimes even later. 13 For regular choice programs, districts typically have winter or spring enrollment periods for the following fall. NCLB requires districts to set up additional, special enrollment periods later in the year.

As noted, to get ahead of the curve, Milwaukee established a series of communication steps, beginning with general information about NCLB (see figure 5). Cambridge uses a "nuts and bolts" pamphlet created by the Title I Dissemination Project from state information and also provides the U.S. Department of Education publication, No Child Left Behind: A Parents Guide.

In Miami-Dade, the district even notifies parents about the possibility that a school will miss AYP for two years in a row. The district sends a letter to parents in the spring that prepares them and asks them to make tentative plans for selecting another school. This early notification offers another opportunity to contact and work with parents, and it helps streamline the transfer process should parents want to transfer their child.

Among the districts surveyed by the Council of the Great City Schools, nine informed parents about their options for 2003-04 before the end of the previous school year, and all of them, including Miami-Dade, were districts that had an open enrollment or "controlled choice" plan in place and made an educated guess about who would be eligible to transfer to a different school.14

Going Deeper

Develop a Multifaceted Communications Strategy

  • advertisements in the Yellow Pages of the
  • phone book,
  • articles and ads in local newspapers,
  • ads on billboards and buses,
  • public service announcements on radio and TV,
  • a brochure that profiles the district's schools,
  • individual school newsletters or brochures,
  • a pamphlet that describes the enrollment options,
  • movie theater advertisements,
  • refrigerator magnets,
  • community or townhall meetings,
  • school open houses,
  • booths at local malls,
  • an exposition sponsored by local businesses,
  • a choice fair, and
  • participation in ethnic fairs.

The New York City Department of Education has posted first-class mail and placed automated phone calls in 10 languages, sent flyers home, convened regional information sessions, involved some 20 community-based organizations in reaching parents, provided materials at local PTA meetings, established a hotline, set up a special Web site, and placed ads in community newspapers.15

Marketing is an important adjunct to the magnet program being implemented in Desert Sands. The district recruits students for its three new magnet schools, paying special attention to achieving racial and economic diversity. The marketing creates radio spots, movie theater and television commercials, brochures, and other items in both Spanish and English (see figure 8). Every other Saturday during the enrollment period, staff go to malls in the district's primarily Hispanic neighborhood to meet prospective students. Other marketing events include activities at designated receiving schools, school tours, parent-to-parent communication, and sessions at designated sending sites, which help parents understand that the programs offered to their children are free as is the transportation to attend them. People with the necessary language skills are on hand to respond to parent questions at every event. The marketing team also participates in the area's two business expositions. Business leaders help by communicating about the magnet program to their employees and to the community as a whole.

Figure 8. Desert Sands Movie Theater Advertisement

Image of a Spanish and English version of a ticket handed out at movie theaters. The tickets have information about school choice printed on them.


Community-based organizations are essential partners in communicating with parents about the school choices available to them. People often receive and trust information more readily when it comes from their networks and those they know. Faith-based organizations, civic groups, business partners, local education funds, affinity groups, and the like can all help get the word out. Not only district partnerships but also individual school partnerships should be tapped.

Figure 9. Community-Based Support for NCLB

Several organizations received federal grants to enhance their support of communication about NCLB, especially the choice and supplemental educational services provisions. These and other organizations network to increase information flow:

Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) –

Project Clarion, a communications and media campaign, is designed to educate parents about NCLB, especially in cities with high concentrations of low-income black families and schools in need of improvement as identified by the state education agency (Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Dallas).

Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO) –

Project CREO is designed to reach out to five urban communities in three states with high concentrations of Hispanic students (Miami; Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio; and Camden, N.J.). The project will establish parent, community, and school resource operations, and will develop Spanish-language communications tools and disseminate the information through Spanish-language communications outlets.

Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation (GEO) –

GEO assists with parent outreach and communication about NCLB, especially in Colorado and Indiana.

In Milwaukee, for example, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) sponsored radio ads and operated a telephone hotline when NCLB choice was first introduced. (See figure 9 for more about such community resources.)

In Miami-Dade, a coalition of private companies funded a parent guide about the district's various programs and choice options. Printed in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, 500,000 copies of the 72-page guide have been delivered to almost every household in the district.16


As challenging as it is to get basic choice information to parents, it's an even greater challenge to help them think through what the choices mean to them and how to evaluate what's best for their child.

As noted, both Cambridge and Miami-Dade ask parents to contact the district resource center if they are interested in exercising their NCLB choice option. The districts reason that if parents can talk over their questions with someone knowledgeable, they will make better choices for their children.

It is important to balance support for more deliberate decision-making with ease of access. If parents have to go somewhere or do something that they see as a burden, then these steps can become a barrier to exercising choice. Districts should work to build parents' familiarity with and trust in these assistance providers and monitor parents' reactions to the resources that are provided. Sometimes a simple and direct approach is most effective.

As part of its regular choice enrollment process, Cambridge goes deeper, and encourages parents to take tours of the schools, observe carefully, and ask questions. For parents of prospective kindergarten students who may not know what to look for, the Family Resource Center has created a checklist of things to observe and questions to ask (see figure 10). These questions are intended to be parent-friendly and are specific to visiting Cambridge kindergarten classes. Other information about school achievement, teacher quality, and the research basis for instructional programs would also be of interest to parents.

Parents considering school options may find help in a booklet from the U.S. Department of Education, Choosing a School for Your Child. This planner includes brief descriptions of different types of schools and a checklist of questions to guide the search, school visit, and decision-making process. This booklet will be available beginning in June 2004 from ED Pubs, the U.S. Department of Education's distribution center. See page ii for contact information.

Educators understand that parents make school choices based on a number of factors. Studies confirm that all parents want an environment in which their children can learn well.17 They consider academics and then factors like size, safety, location, and the desire to keep siblings together while meeting their individual needs. Many parents prefer to keep their children close by; others may find greater safety in sending them out of a dangerous neighborhood. Parents may be influenced by both their individual experiences with the present school and the choices they are offered. A study of early NCLB choice in Montgomery County, Maryland,18 found that the number and demographics of receiving schools were important factors.

For some parents, the NCLB remedy of supplemental educational services (SES), such as free tutoring, makes it more attractive to keep their child at a school in need of improvement than to choose a new school. (Given the isolation of some rural schools, SES may be the only feasible option.) [Supplemental educational services is the subject of another forthcoming guide in this series, Creating Strong Supplemental Educational Services (SES) Programs.]

Summary for Help Parents Make Informed Choices

First Steps Going Deeper
  • Communicate clearly about NCLB choice options.
  • Provide personalized follow-up.
  • Get ahead of the deadlines with NCLB information.
  • Develop a multifaceted communications strategy.
  • Partner with community organizations.
  • Help parents understand their choices more fully.


Figure 10. Cambridge Kindergarten Tour Checklist

What to Look for/Hear about Check off if answered
In the classrooms:  
Were children engaged in learning activities, discussions with teachers, or each other?  
Did you see examples of printed text around the room?  
Was artwork displayed in and outside of the classroom?  
Were Math manipulatives (blocks, patterns) out for the children to use?  
Does the school participate in the Literacy Program?  
Did you see evidence of the Workboard and was the concept explained to you?  
Were play areas established around the room?  
Did you feel the children were happy?  
Around the building:  
Did you feel welcome in the building?  
Before you began the tour, was what you were going to see explained to you?  
Did you meet with an administrator?  
Did you get all your questions answered, and if not, were you encouraged to call the school?  
Did you see the gym, library, art room, auditorium, music room, computer lab, and cafeteria?  
Did you hear about the Breakfast/Lunch program?  
Were the after school programs discussed and material given to you about them?  
Additional questions you may have:  

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009