What Lures Parents to − and Away From − Certain Schools

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

What Lures Parents to − and Away From − Certain Schools

Here are what the district says are the top reasons parents opt out of neighborhood schools:

• test scores

quality facilities

• principal engagement

 transportation

 reputation

• marketing

It’s time for people to re-discover San Diego Unified schools. The district feels so strongly about this, it’s making that refrain its new marketing slogan.

Yes, San Diego Unified wants to market itself better. That’s one big takeaway from the workshop it held Tuesday night to brainstorm ways to keep more kids in district schools.

Because, let’s face it, children aren’t just parents’ most precious commodities. They’re also worth a lot of money – about $8,000 per student, on average. This is cash that neighborhood schools miss out on whenever parents opt for charters, or a school in another district.

In 2009, the school board had an idea: Why not make neighborhood schools so enticing that parents don’t have to send their kids across town to find the right school? The concept sounds so simple.

In the years since, that idea evolved into an ambitious plan: Vision 2020. Superintendent Cindy Marten often says that the school board hired her to make this plan reality.

But the further the school board travels down this road, the more bugs it finds. The major one: Parents aren’t going to have confidence in schools just because the board wants them to.

So the board right now is asking itself some tough questions. On Monday, we posted numbers that showed the schools that parents avoid most. It seemed to have touched a nerve. Parents flooded us with emails, many wanting to know the reasons why these schools are losing kids.

This thread on Reddit is also getting some play.

But the district has its own ideas about why this is happening.

San Diego Unified spokesperson Linda Zintz said the district’s findings come from several sources, including publicly available school data and a survey the district conducted in 2013 that asked why parents were opting out. When the district first launched its Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood initiative, parents also filled out questionnaires indicating what they valued in schools. Those helped paint the picture, too, Zintz said.

Here are what the district says are the top reasons parents opt out of neighborhood schools:

Test Scores

To find this, Dan Stoneman, San Diego Unified’s chief innovation officer, said the district looked at data for six of the 16 clusters in San Diego Unified – enough to get a good sample. It found a correlation between the schools students applied to and the schools’ test scores (both schools’ API scores – a composite number based on standardized tests – and their scores on specific portions of the California Standards Test).

This may seem obvious. But remember that for the second year in a row, the state has suspended the API system. And even though Marten often reminds us that students are more than a test score, test scores clearly matter to parents.

Quality Facilities

Stoneman said that school choice also correlated to the quality of a facility – but to a lesser degree than test scores. The district measured this by looking at choice applications, and the facility conditions index for schools receiving applications. The index is basically a score that indicates what shape a building is in.

This is where the neighborhood schools initiative meets spending. The district is considering its long-term facilities plan to see where investment, based on need and projected population growth, is justified. New schools could also be built, like the one the district is considering in Mission Valley.

Principal Engagement

This is a more qualitative measure based on interviews with parents, Stoneman said. Basically, parents choose schools where they’re able to make a connection with the principals or teaching staff.

That’s why the district wants to make schools more inviting and accessible. This could mean making it easier for parents to schedule a tour, or revamping websites so it’s easier to find basic information about schools.

There’s a potential problem with this, though. It requires that principals believe in the idea. I ask to tour a lot of schools, but I’m often ignored or turned away by principals. Sure, I’m a reporter, and principals may not trust my intentions. They could also simply be too busy to show me around. But I’ve also heard from many parents that principals shut them out if they ask too many tough questions.

Put simply, this change will require philosophical buy-in from school staff and could pose some practical challenges.

Transportation

Even if a kid attends a neighborhood school, there’s no guarantee that campus is within a safe walking distance.

During Tuesday’s meeting, trustee John Lee Evans said one of the great ironies of the neighborhood schooling initiative is that in some cases, it may actually be safer for a student to get on a bus and travel across town than to walk to his or her neighborhood school. If they live next to a bus stop for instance, they could get a ride pretty easily. And riding beats walking.

In recent years, the district has slashed its busing budget. That would make sense if kids actually attended their nearest schools – but that’s often not the case. So in order to keep kids in district schools, the district will reconsider its busing budget.

Reputation

Yes, a school’s reputation matters. As board president Marne Foster pointed out, perception is often reality. If parents believe a school is quality – whether that’s true or not – it will attract parents. Which leads to the next point.

Marketing

Basically, the district needs to do a better job of it.

The big question the district wants to figure out is how to let parents know the options that exist close to home. Parents might be overlooking great programs down the street, simply because the one across town has a better reputation, for example. This calls for making a better sell.

During the meeting, trustee Kevin Beiser got a little worked up about marketing. He suggested hiring outside consultants to take on the work. He said the district has been talking about this point for about three years, and little progress has been made.

Marketing isn’t just about buying television ads, or ad space on the city bus. The district is also thinking of creating a fancy welcome center. That way, if a parent comes in seeking information on choosing a school, he or she can be guided through the process in-person. (This also gives the district a place to showcase neighborhood schools options that could entice parents.)

You can read through the district’s full presentation here. These are all fine ideas. But to go from ideas to action, the district needs to get more than just parents on board. It will also need principals and teachers to buy in, and it will need to throw more money at the plan.

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