WORK WITH PARENTS & THE COMMUNITY
Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Support Schools

While choice is administered as a district program, parents experience it at the school level. Districts create the conditions so that all schools can meet standards and so that all students attend good schools that work for them. In any choice program, it is important to focus on what schools need to know and do. Under NCLB, this means two things: bringing schools into the communication loop and helping schools respond to accountability demands.

Because schools are critical to effective communication with parents, districts want to be sure that school staff can represent NCLB clearly. To parents, the face of the education system is the teacher or principal they know. New immigrant parents, who constitute an important part of the parent group that NCLB choice needs to reach, may have very little knowledge of the school district and understand only their child's school building and the people they see there. Even with the kinds of district outreach roles described earlier, the school is an essential communication link.

First Steps

Communicate to Schools About Choice

To assist with NCLB communication, schools first need to know about NCLB and their and the district's role in it. Many districts implemented communication plans to inform principals and faculty about their roles and responsibilities under the NCLB act. One district held a full-day, in-service meeting with the principals to explain thelaw, how their schools were affected, issues they should focus on in formulating required site improvement plans, and talking points they should use to communicate with others.

Milwaukee makes sure teachers are educated about school choice. Communication paths lead to schools and to teachers directly. Teachers learn about NCLB in a variety of ways:

  • Through the principal. The primary vehicle for communication from the district office to the schools is a weekly administrators' bulletin. The district also communicates with principals during monthly meetings.

  • Through literacy coaches. In each school, these school staff members lead the school's learning teams. District administrators communicate with the literacy coaches during their twice-a-month training at the district level. The literacy coaches are able to supplement the NCLB information provided by principals.

  • Through meetings. Communication about NCLB is included in teacher meetings.

  • Through workgroups. Teachers are members of workgroups that address specific reform issues requiring focused attention. Workgroup topics have included attracting highly qualified teachers, report cards, school transfers, parental involvement, and school safety. Workgroups meet periodically to discuss best practices, to understand how to follow state and federal laws, and to address compliance issues.

Prepare Schools to Communicate with Parents

Many of the districts prepare sample letters for the schools to send to parents, both about their school improvement efforts and about choice options.

In Milwaukee, each school on the "schools identified for improvement" list handled itself differently. The district worked with the schools to help them reach out to parents and include parents in the reform process. Improvement schools were notified two days before they were identified in a state press release, and in some of these schools teachers organized a telephone chain to notify parents about the designation before they read it in the newspaper.

A particularly difficult issue is helping schools provide balanced information to parents, as discussed earlier. Of course, school staff want to communicate to parents about the positive steps they are taking to make the school better, and they should do so. That's an important part of the school improvement process that NCLB is promoting. At the same time, parents may naturally turn to the familiar school site for information about their options to transfer, and schools need to be evenhanded in providing this information. Districts should equip schools with clear and specific information and encourage them to help parents understand their choice options.

In Mesa, school staff understand that choosing a school is an emotional as well as an academic decision. As part of their ongoing choice program, principals and teachers are trained to help parents decide which program would be right for a child. For example, they are knowledgeable about which schools provide the most structure, and they can describe schools that feature programs that allow students to spend two years with the same teacher.

Going Deeper

Make all Schools "Schools of Choice"

The superintendent of a mainstream school district once commented that each of his schools needed to be a "school of choice"-a school that parents wanted their child to attend. Rather than bemoan competition or hold parents at arms length with "professional expertise," he saw the value of proactive communication from each school about its strengths and distinctive programs. The reporting requirements of NCLB further encourage communicating this kind of comprehensive and meaningful information.

The districts in this study have developed an array of options, including alternative schools, magnet schools, and charter schools. Miami-Dade, for example, has 31 charter schools and 71 different magnet programs or schools, which have special emphases in careers and professions, communications and humanities, international education, math/science/technology, visual and performing arts, and Montessori methods. The district makes these choices available within each of six transportation zones.

Earlier sections of this guide provide additional examples and suggestions about expanding school choices.

Support Receiving Schools

Schools that take in students transferred under NCLB may need support to deal with associated responsibilities. Often, the students they receive, especially students from high-poverty environments, need extra help that their new schools will have to provide. Receiving schools worry that their own test scores, high enough to meet AYP, will be brought down by lower-performing students. Both moral support and strategic assistance from the district are called for.

Desert Sands, with its magnet program, provides an example of how to support schools that take on a new student base. Principals in high-achieving schools, the Voluntary Public School Choice schools, felt threatened by school choice because they received students who they thought would bring test scores down. When the students arrived, attitudes changed. Principals saw educating these new students as a challenge, and they hired tutors. The schools' test scores did not decrease but have actually increased over the last four years.

The full-time site coordinators in Desert Sands magnet schools are key to their progress. Site coordinators, who are often teachers who have switched into the role, follow up with transfer students at regular intervals to make sure they are transitioning smoothly and adjusting to their new schools. Site coordinators are also responsible for related budgeting and administration, and for peer coaching. Some report feeling underprepared for such a range of roles, even though the district provides training and professional development.

Help Schools Market Their Programs to Parents

For many school administrators, marketing their programs to parents is a new challenge. This is another area where the district can provide assistance.

The Cambridge district's Schools at a Glance publication, a slick 20-page brochure that can also be found on the district Web site [http://www.cpsd.us/], has a feature on each school and also clearly outlines registration requirements and choice options, along with district policies for transportation and food services.

Recent school consolidation in Cambridge has delayed plans to hire a marketing professional to work with underchosen schools, but in at least one instance, parents themselves have become active in marketing the school. When the school made program changes, some parents were upset and left the school, but others remained involved and helpful. In 2002, parent volunteers created a brochure to attract prospective students. Also, a school psychologist and a third-grade teacher started an international parent group. And a parent liaison meets with prospective parents to provide tours of the school and introduce parents to the principal. Parents have also created a school Web site to promote the school's vision and activities.

Desert Sands has also worked on marketing. In 1996, when the district first considered magnet schools, some teachers and principals were concerned about how competition might affect schools in low-income areas. The first magnet school was not built in a low-income neighborhood, but marketing for the school targeted high-achieving, low-income students. The principal of a primarily low-income school worried that the loss of these high-achieving children would ruin his school. In response, the district, including the marketing team, worked with his school to create a program that increased its attractiveness to affluent, high-achieving students. According to a district representative, competition has been good, raising the bar for everyone-in-cluding the district administration.

Summary for Support Schools

First Steps Going Deeper
  • Communicate to schools about choice.
  • Prepare schools to communicate with parents.
  • Make all schools "schools of choice."
  • Support receiving schools.
  • Help schools market their programs to parents.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009