My friend’s grandson was struggling in his elementary school, a very smart kid, he had regressed over the last couple of years. He can be a tough kid, he has seen more than he should have, and holds a reservoir of anger and sadness. But he has been labeled at his school as “the bad kid”, they don’t give him the support he needs, and it’s clear they want him to move on. In fact, after a year of struggling, it’s clear to everyone that he needs to move on and find a new school, get a new start, and find a better fit.
My friend doesn’t have internet or a working computer at home, so when I asked her to look at the District’s webpage or to look at charter schools, she couldn’t really. She is also physically disabled and generally has a hard time getting around.
I looked at the District options for enrollment, we had missed deadlines, there were basically lists of schools with no sense of quality or the programs offered, and it seemed we just needed to show up to the enrollment office to really get help. I did reach out to charters, again we missed lotteries, some were very helpful in giving us information about getting on the waiting list, one didn’t even mention the waitlist option, one never got back to me, and another had an online application, but I never got any receipt or sense of where we are on the waitlist.
For something this important there has to be a better way. Families need better information and guidance through the matching process, one that meets families where they are. In a world of multiplying school choices and increasingly diverse school quality and programs we need to consciously level the playing field to assure that we don’t diverge into choosers and losers, with non-choosers being increasingly concentrated in default schools, and choosers escaping to the best.
How much energy is spent on getting farmers to hook up, or matching so called cougars and cubs? With the immense needs and enormous consequences, why can’t we create an eharmony-like app for schools and a common enrollment system where families can fill out one application and submit it for as many schools as they want, based on their preferences?
We need; (1) an app-based system, in multiple languages, and relatively simple to navigate for less literate families (2) that is universal, including all district and charters (3) containing school quality information that families want and value (4) a range of filters around school programs and parent preferences (5) that comes out into the community and is facilitated by trained community members at pre-schools, parks, community centers, churches, and anywhere that families gather. We also need to embed equity into it, moving the most challenged up in the line, and working to assure that non choosers participate. A robust system would also push reminders to parents, maybe information about how they can support their child, and other opportunities for enrichment. And ideally we create a set of feedback loops, where parents can provide simple feedback on experiences, that adds to the reliability of school quality information.
Oakland has a range of school options, of varying quality, supporting different student needs, ranging from the Military Academy to the School of the Arts and Street Academy. Many families already actively choose, and those with more resources tend to get more. School choice is not going anywhere, but it is up to us to create a system where the students who need the best schools, get them, rather than continuing to perpetuate the inequitable status quo.
What’s more important, creating apps so that any subgroup can find a date or hook up, or one to help Jose find the right school? Sadly, the market has spoken.