By Madeline Perez De Jesus
My daughter benefits from a different education reality than I did. My own working-class Puerto Rican parents, conversely, thought that all public schools were the same. My guidance counselor convinced my parents to allow me to apply to a prestigious exam high school in New York City allowing me to by-pass a low-resourced neighborhood school. Now I am writing a book on families navigating school choice. My experiences as a student, educational researcher (and now as a mother) have led me to understand that while the school choice system created by Sheff. v. O’Neill 30 years ago is not perfect, it has increased opportunity for Hartford children from backgrounds like my own who were previously shut out from high quality schools.
As my husband and I consulted our social network about the “process”, we realized their worldview and resources shaped the conventional wisdom many families shared with us. As college professors, interpreted this advice through our own worldview and were mindful of the resources available to us as parents (that were not available to us as children). We also learned that these perspectives are always tempered by reality. Below I list some of this conventional wisdom on public school choice followed by realities to consider:
Learn about your school options early.
Reality: Your options may already be shaped before your children are born based on where you’ve chosen to live (or didn’t choose). Where you live already shapes the menu of schools available to you (as well as your odds of getting in). Folks who are low-income are not likely to be able to access the full range of options with zoning.
You have to talk to lots of people to get the scoop on how they are experiencing the schools.
Reality: This assumes that you can access a network of parents whose children attend a wide variety of schools. If you don’t, you need to muster up the courage to speak to strangers. Trust and safety concerns impact one’s ability to engage strangers. When I was conducting my research in New York City, many wealthy parents told me it was the norm to be approached by prospective neighbors who wanted to learn about the schools. The working class and poor parents I interviewed thought it was crazy to approach strangers because of safety.
You have to make time to attend school open houses as well as workshops on how the lottery process works.
Reality: It was vital for us to visit schools observing classes in session. This gave us a strong sense of our top schools early on. Not everyone has the opportunity to visit on a weekday between 8am-3pm. Parents who have overall control of how they schedule their time are the ones who are able to do this best.
You can apply to the HPS lottery every year and any year.
Reality: For Hartford residents, if you don’t apply in preschool, your chances diminish rapidly afterward. The Pre-K 3 year has the most seats available and therefore the highest chance of allowing you to get selected. Even if the seat you are offered was not one of your top choices, you are still advantaged as you are now the “in the system” and given priority if you choose to reapply next year. In her policy brief on the Sheff Movement, Mira Debs highlights that pre-k3 children are not provided transportation by the school system. Therefore, those who have control over their transportation are the ones who can take advantage of this.
Apply to the schools in your order of preference.
Reality: If you live in Hartford, zones really matter. (Jack Dougherty, from Trinity College writes about this.) In order to increase your chances of being matched to a school, rank them while keeping in mind your odds of getting in. The press publishes the percentage of applicants from each town who get offers to schools which can be used to inform the way you rank your selections. Not everyone knows this. Therefore, parents who seek out data from reputable sources can rank in the ways that are most advantageous.
Consider sharing this information with someone who might need it before the February 28 lottery deadline. And let’s work to further efforts to make the lottery process support the needs of the families in Hartford with the fewest resources. Our entire region is better off as a result.