I knew I’d go to North Salem High School, though truth be told I didn’t give it all that much thought. Before that I knew I’d attend Parrish Junior High, though that too was edged out in my sixth grade mind by my concerns about how well the Dodgers were doing in the pennant race.
All of us from Mary Eyre Elementary went to Parrish and all of us from Parrish literally crossed the railroad tracks to get to NHS. Choice wasn’t part of the picture; things just happened as they always had.
During the first half of my career in education, school choice didn’t enter my mind. I taught in single high school towns and worked with kids who’d known each other since at least middle school, often longer.
It all felt familiar to me. Comfortable. Something not really to pay much attention to at all.
Things changed when I moved to a new district a little more than a dozen years ago and to a high school in the Bay Area that needed to put on a bit of a campaign to compete with the private schools that dotted our affluent county. We had a good school with a dynamic principal, and we did well for ourselves by simply articulating the programs we had and the opportunities our school gave to kids. We didn’t get everybody, but we did get enough to keep anxiety at bay.
Existing programs aren’t necessarily enough any more, as a changing world ups expectations for innovation and relevancy. That school where I worked has added, since I left, an environmental program as a magnet for students. Put simply, it got stronger as a school because of the pressures put on it by choice.
I’m in a district now that grants families a great deal of choice, both at the middle school and the high school level. This isn’t because of struggling schools, as in some other districts; schools in our district are impressive academically and culturally across the board. Instead, it’s a commitment to giving families the opportunity to decide what offers the best fit for their students.
This leads to a perception of competition, competition itself not a dirty word.
At its best, a healthy competition can prompt schools to think as dynamic teachers do all the time, giving new ideas a chance and finding ways to help students take their on campus learning to a broader world. At its worst, high pressure competition leads to anxiety, jealousy, and diminished returns.
What then is the right recipe for school choice? If we seek to avoid the thoughtlessness of predestination (North Salem High never got better because it worried it would lose students to South Salem), and we hope to tip the scale of choice toward promoting improvement, not angst, then we need three things: a collegial spirit, a level playing field, and a way to tell our schools’ stories.
Programmatic equity allows schools to focus not on imitating one another, but on being their own best selves and developing cultures where students can to the same. Difference is beautiful and creates legitimate choice which can put students on campuses where they can flourish. Having an amazing arts program at one school and an dynamic environmental science program at another is good for kids, as long as students have music and science at both, and if students have an opportunity to attend either.
Along with opportunity, it’s also important for students and families to experience the positive promotion of all schools, free from tearing down the competition. Phrases like “there isn’t a bad choice” (providing that phrase is true, as in my district it is) go a long way in acknowledging that the differences between schools are the proverbial frosting; the cake is equally delicious. It’s up to site administrators and teachers to tell the truth, and all of us to make sure that we’re working together to ensure that analogy stays true.
Finally, it’s vital to tell our own school’s story. Each campus where I’ve worked has had its own personality and specific opportunities for students. At each school the students who thrived the most understood and contributed to that unique school culture. As we tell the story of our school in honest and real ways, students can make informed decisions about where they want to be.
The end result? If programatically equitable schools, comfortable enough with themselves to speak positively about each other, use the reality of school choice to reflect, innovate, and improve, then all students benefit.
More than just being swept in the tide toward one harbor or another, informed students can chart their own course, entering the school of their choice informed and excited about their own education.
This isn’t to say that the whole process doesn’t raise one’s heart rate a bit, but done right, school choice has the potential for great good for kids.