Advice About School Choice From an Expert: A Student Herself

Imani Thornton, a graduate of Chicago’s Southland College Prep charter school and a student at Princeton University, has a few words of advice this morning for Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf as he juggles demands of parents for scarce charter school seats, anti-charter catcalls from the Newark Teachers Union, and Mayor Ras Baraka’s Chief Education Officer’s recent call for a moratorium on all charter school expansion.

Counsels Imani (wise beyond her years), school choice isn’t a “threat," attending a great public school shouldn’t come down to “luck,” and all schoolchildren in poor neighborhoods should have access to the same choices her parents made for her. Listen, she says. Listen to parents and students.

Imani describes how she attended one of Chicago’s poorly-performing traditional elementary schools and then circled back between a private parochial school and her neighborhood schools. Ready to attend high school at what she describes as “one of the lowest-performing schools inside and outside of the city of Chicago,” her parents, despite the financial strain, contemplated religious school. However, at the last moment they entered their daughter in a lottery for a new charter high school called Southland College Prep. There were only 125 seats and far more applicants. Imani, as she says, got lucky.

According to the Chicago Tribune:
Students at Southland College Prep do not have to qualify for the high school through academic achievement. They are not chosen by race or economic need. The school is open to any eighth-grade graduate who resides within the Rich Township High School District 227 attendance boundaries. A lottery is held each year to determine which of the students who apply will get chosen.
There is no creaming. There are no quotas. Yet Southland sends every one of its high school graduates to college on a full scholarship.

Imani writes, “My educational experience exemplifies the concept of school choice. My school choices, marked by my parents’ constant search for the perfect school, were not readily available to many students across the country.”

Luck, according to Imani, shouldn’t determine academic outcomes. But as long as politicians and union lobbyists silence parent voices, luck will remain the primary factor in the effectiveness of a child’s education.

And, she tells us, Chicago isn’t that much different than Newark.
What these two metropolitan areas have in common is perhaps what many cities across the country share: lack of choices and a public-school district that fails to understand the desires of the parents and students desperate for a chance at a quality K-12 education. While the creation of charter schools and efforts like the OneNewark Plan are admirable, they do not excuse the interminable problem that exists. How can parents truly have choices when a charter-school class has only 125 spots? How can parents truly have choices when their school has neither the resources nor the funds to support their students? How can parents truly have choices when the only quality school is across town? 
As Chris Cerf steps in, I implore him to consider the parents and students. Truly engage with the community to refocus on quality educational options, regardless of what they are called. Give all students—not just the lucky ones—true opportunities at a quality education, and take luck out of the education reform vocabulary.
So how do we omit “luck” from the “education reform vocabulary”? What would it take to create an educational landscape in Newark (or anywhere) where, as Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has it, “all schools rise”? How do we omit arbitrariness from the equation of school enrollment?

I believe that we’re all searching for these answers, whether you cheer for school choice or not. Certainly, strategies would include reinventing traditional schools, rewriting bargaining contracts to allow more flexibility (one of the draws of charters), and paying teachers more to teach in low-income areas. It means listening less to politicians and more to parents. It means breaking the circuit of antipathy between education reform groups and traditional-school-only proponents, focusing less on talking points and more on nuance.  It means not portraying the growth of choice as a zero sum game, where charters win and traditional schools lose.

Because, as Imani tells us, it doesn't matter “what they are called.”

But you wouldn’t know that to peek at the website for the Newark Teachers Union.  Tom Moran, in an excellent editorial yesterday in the Star-Ledger called “Halting Charter Growth Isn’t the Answer,” warns that “the debate over charter schools may be ready to explode again in Newark.”

Where’s the fire? Right at City Hall at 5pm on Monday—when the Newark Teachers Union will protest the opening of a new KIPP charter school. (KIPP, by the way, is so popular among Newark parents that there are 10,000 children on waiting lists.)

From NTU’s website:
For every tax dollar disappeared at the expense of reform for profit--light a candle. For every full time aide, security or cafeteria worker now unemployed--light a candle; and light one for their children this Christmas. For every teacher forced out of their job to another district--light a candle. For every student separated from his lifelong classmates by OneNewark--light a candle. For every child whose heart was set on learning a musical instrument--light a candle. 
Let this not come easy for these corporate parasites. On Monday, October 19 we must set the Newark twilight afire with our outrage!
NTU’s threat of conflagration ignores parent voices. (For more on how parents feel about school choice, check out Education Post’s recent poll, which shows that 72% of African-American parents support school choice.) N.J. legislators and Mayor Baraka’s office ignores parent voices.

All of us—status quo supporters, unionists, education reformers—need to listen to parents like the Thorntons and students like Imani. Their voices are clear.

Labels: , , , ,