The district’s free-for-all system of school choice may be on its way out, but there’s no guarantee that families will be better able to navigate through the maze of options.

James Dispensa, director of school demographics and planning for CPS, is researching how best to set up a central admissions system, which would dramatically simplify choice by allowing families to fill out just one application and then rank their school choices. New York, Seattle, Boston and Miami-Dade County are among the districts that already have such systems.

But Dan Kramer, director of education at ACE Tech Charter, worries that kids may check off specialized schools like his on a whim, without any knowledge of or commitment to the school’s overall mission. ACE offers classes in the building trades, along with a focus on character development in a small school setting, and Kramer says it’s critical to counsel students on appropriate choices.

Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, is neutral on centralized admissions. Families still have to be savvy enough to make wise choices about ranking their preferences, she notes, since in the end, they get just one school assignment.

If you pick the wrong school as your top preference, Lake notes, you’re stuck.

Paul Teske, an expert on school choice at the University of Colorado at Denver, says it’s important to get information to parents, especially lower-income families who might not have access to the same information networks as middle-class parents. Making schools more open is also crucial.
“Parents clearly want to visit schools. Making that more friendly and easier is important,” Teske adds.

Districts can level the playing field by taking aggressive steps to inform people through on-the-ground information campaigns. Teske points to Washington, D.C., as an example: There, the district pays “trusted advocates,” such as social workers, to spread the word about choice—in this case, private school vouchers—by talking directly to families.

Phyllis Lockett, president and chief executive officer of the private Renaissance Schools Fund, says a student assignment system would “force engagement” by parents. She also favors streamlining admissions—for instance, with one deadline for all charter applications.

Chicago’s Parents for School Choice campaign, paid for by Lockett’s group, fits Teske’s recommended model neatly. But the group is small, with just two part-time staff members, and relies on a cadre of parents who volunteer at special events like the New Schools Expo. Last year, nearly 70 parents helped out at the event, which introduced about 750 people to Renaissance schools.

The fund hopes to attract 1,000 people to an indoor venue at Soldier Field on January 31 next year.

Kim Ambrose, one of the organizers, says she hands out fliers and visits churches, laundromats, beauty shops, community meetings and other public venues in communities that have been underserved by traditional schools.

Ambrose says the volunteers talk to parents about the need to understand their children, and to recognize that “every child can learn, but they might learn differently.”

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