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Creating Effective Choice Programs

Despite an established school choice program, schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, either were wealthy and high performing or low-income and struggling. New efforts at school choice, however, are leading to shifting populations and improved performance. Included: A description of the district's most recent school choice initiatives.

Concerned about high concentrations of poverty in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school system, administrators there decided to alter the district's controlled school choice plan.

Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, Cambridge has enhanced its strategies to recruit students to specific schools, implemented improvement processes for schools that were not meeting student achievement goals or drawing diverse student populations, and instituted socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students to schools.

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The district also is working to improve communication with parents about optimal school placements. For example, Cambridge is increasing the role of its Family Resource Center, which, in addition to referring families to a wide range of social services, helps with school registration, logistics, counseling, after-school placements, and transition programs for students needing extra academic support.

The district also sponsors an annual kindergarten tour, encouraging parents of prospective kindergartners to visit any number of schools, observe, ask questions, and consider the benefits of different school placements for their children. To increase the number of low-income parents who take advantage of the tour, the director of the Family Resource Center now visits local Head Start facilities to inform parents about their school choice options and to recruit them for the kindergarten tour.

The district's "junior kindergarten" pilot program, held at two schools, was designed in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The initiative is intended to increase the number of low-income students attending high-achieving and predominantly high-income schools. The purpose of the program is to give an academic boost to children who might otherwise enter kindergarten unprepared for elementary school work. Low-income parents may enroll their 4- and 5-year-olds no matter where in the district they reside; the only stipulation is that parents agree to keep their children at the same school for their subsequent year of regular kindergarten. The hope, of course, is that the children will feel comfortable, competent, and welcome at the school and will stay on through the elementary grades.

In conjunction with its efforts to enroll low-income students more evenly across the district, Cambridge also is working to improve the appeal of its under-selected, low-income schools among high-income students, thereby further contributing to income diversification across the district.

One district school avoided by upper-income parents is the Tobin School. With a population three times the district average, Tobin also has failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards. Tobin now has established a volunteer relationship with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and with Harvard, has created a strong parent-mentor group in the fields of technology and science, and has won a grant to create a science and technology magnet program at the school. The principal reports that although affluent parents are not yet choosing Tobin, the emphasis on science has made Tobin a better school, and students' achievement scores have improved.

Source: U.S. Department of Education