Families in Baltimore City Need a Centralized School Choice Hub

by Corrie Schoenberg, Senior Program Director

In 2016, the Fund for Educational Excellence spoke with more than 400 Baltimore City Public Schools parents and students about their experiences with the middle and high school choice process. What we heard is outlined in Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools, the third in a series of reports bringing parent and student voices to bear on how Baltimore’s public schools can work better for those they serve.

During the Calculated Choices listening campaign, parents talked about how confounding the school choice process can feel. Many didn’t understand how to complete the City Schools choice application, particularly the importance of ranking the five schools they were applying to in order of preference. Others expressed confusion about how charter applications relate (or don’t) to the City Schools application. With the choice season for SY18-19 winding down, now is a good time to talk about streamlining the process to better serve parents and students. We need to move to one online school choice hub.

Without a centralized hub, families are left juggling multiple applications, requirements, and timelines. Consider what a mother and son intent on maximizing school choice options might have to navigate. Let’s say this student is interested in the Ingenuity Project, an advanced math and science program offered at Poly, and plans to apply to City College, Dunbar, Bard, and MerVo as other options on his City Schools choice application. He also wants to apply to three charter schools – Green Street Academy, Coppin Academy, and City Neighbors High School. Here is what this family is facing:

  • Ingenuity requires a completely separate application due in December – a month before the City Schools application deadline — and administers its own admissions assessment in January.
  • Bard requires an interview and writing sample during a Bard-run interview day in November, December, or January.
  • Each of the three charter schools requires its own application with its own deadline and conducts its own lottery to select students.

This student and his mother are now managing six different application processes.

It’s easy to understand why parents are confused about the school choice process. Different choice elements have been pieced together and added to each other for decades. What sounds simple – in middle and high school, City Schools students can choose their schools – is, in practice, simply not.

We strongly encourage City Schools, including all of Baltimore’s charters, to band together and establish one common online application and one lottery for the benefit of all Baltimore City students and their families.

We know this kind of system is possible. The District of Columbia Public Schools and nearly all of Washington, DC’s charter schools made this move several years ago with www.MySchoolDC.org. Public school parents in DC go to that website to apply to up to twelve schools – district or charter – and rank their choices. School profiles are also located on MySchoolDC.org.

City Schools and all of our city’s charters can and should do this as well.

As we push for this change, we recognize that parents and students need help navigating the choice system we have right now. This year, the Fund is offering a new school choice workshop to any group of three or more City Schools parents, available upon request. For more information, please email corries@ffee.org.

We owe it to our families to simplify the choice process so that all students can find and apply to the schools that best meet their needs. Make your voices heard and help advocate for this necessary change. Share this article on social media, contact district and school leaders, and spread the word.

Helping City Schools students BMore Ready for college

by Danielle Staton, Program Manager for Analysis and Engagement

Through our recent studies, we’ve had the opportunity to hear from hundreds of City Schools students and parents about what it means to be college ready. While academic preparation is top on that list, students and parents also spoke a lot about the need for reliable, relevant information around applying, financing, and transitioning to college. Designed specifically for City Schools students, our new BMore Ready website addresses these issues.

Throughout the planning and development of the website, input and feedback from students and families was always at the forefront of my mind—inevitably, so was my own college experience. In many ways BMore Ready is a response to my seventeen-year-old self, eager to attend college but navigating the process almost entirely on my own. Like many of the students in City Schools, I was the first person in my family to attend a four-year college. My parents always encouraged college attendance, but having never applied to college themselves, didn’t truly understand how to help me through the process. BMore Ready is the type of resource I wish had been available to my family and me. If, in high school, I could have watched a video of a peer highlighting all of the benefits of taking AP courses, I’m positive I would have taken more AP courses than I did. If there had been a site highlighting college readiness events in my area, I’m sure I would have gone to several of them.

One of the main things that sets BMore Ready apart from other college prep resources is the inclusion of videos from our City Schools student ambassadors. BMore Ready is truly a place where City Schools students and families can see and hear from people like themselves. We spent several months recruiting a diverse group of City Schools graduates to serve as student ambassadors and share their experiences and advice on the process of preparing, applying and transitioning to college. Their personal stories offer a wide range of perspectives and insights. We want to thank the City Schools’ Student Media Team and students in the Recording Arts and Media Production (RAMP) Program at Frederick Douglass High School for helping us record and produce the ambassador interviews featured on BMore Ready. These videos cover a number of topics, from advice on deciding what courses to take in high school to learning new time management skills to handling culture shock on a college campus. Please take a minute to browse through our video gallery and hear what some of our ambassadors have to say.

BMore Ready is one piece of a collective push – that includes greater access to Advanced Placement courses, college advising, FAFSA help, etc. – to increase readiness for college here in Baltimore. Our hope is that City Schools students and families see the BMore Ready website as a valuable college and career readiness resource. Please help us get the word out by sharing information about BMore Ready with students and families, as well as the organizations or community groups you work with. Please also follow BMore Ready on Twitter at @BMore_Ready and on Facebook at BMore Ready. If we spread the word, we can help every City Schools student who desires to attend college access the knowledge and resources to do so.

Kirwan Commission: Accounting for Poverty in Education Funding

Last school year, our City came together in a tremendous push to close a $130M funding gap for Baltimore City Public Schools. Because of the voices of our students, parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders, our elected officials at the State and City level provided enough funding to reduce the gap to $30M and avoid the worst of the anticipated instructional and facilities impacts. But a $30M gap still has an impact on teaching and learning and conditions in schools, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Baltimore City Public Schools students and families were once again forced to accept less.

The reality is that the funds restored this year — and committed for the next three years — to minimize the gap are simply a short-term reprieve. We still have to solve the much larger issue of equitable education funding in the State of Maryland, and the next move lies with the Kirwan Commission. The commission, so named for its chair, Dr. Brit Kirwan, the former University of Maryland System Chancellor, was established in 2016 by the General Assembly. It is charged with recommending changes to the State’s education funding formula and will release its proposals this December.

While the Kirwan recommendations have not yet been made they may be informed by a report from a national firm, APA Consulting, concluding that Maryland should invest an additional $2.6 billion in its public schools. Most notably, the report advises increasing the State’s base per-pupil funding amount from $6,900 to $10,800, while decreasing the additional funding amounts – or weights – allotted for students in need of additional supports.

This recommendation to decrease funding weights for the students who need the most support should alarm all of us working to improve educational outcomes for our most vulnerable students in districts across Maryland, and especially here in Baltimore City. Daily, our students confront food insecurity and housing instability, mental and physical health challenges and violence– the effects of the concentrated poverty in which many of them live.

Inadequately addressed, these effects all come to bear in our public schools. Our educators strive to meet our students where they are – too often, where they are is hungry, tired, stressed, and sometimes traumatized. That’s part of why it costs more to serve our students. Increasing the base per-pupil funding for each student without also increasing the weights for students in need of additional support fails to recognize the significant impact of poverty in a child’s development and will not be enough to provide a truly equitable education.

The failure to fully close last year’s budget gap sent a message to City Schools students, unquestionably the most at-risk, high-need population in the State. It’s time we stopped saying to those who need us the most that they should accept less. The Kirwan Commission will issue its recommendations in December. Let’s make the case for our students to receive the funding they need to receive the type of education every child deserves.

Supporting Baltimore City Public Schools Principals

ffee_3-30-17_0135On Monday, May 22nd, the Fund for Educational Excellence will host the second annual Heart of the School Awards celebrating the dedication and tireless efforts of our Baltimore City Public Schools principals. With the support of City Schools, as well as business, foundation and community partners, this special night will recognize ten exceptional leaders who have demonstrated exemplary innovation, execution, and leadership, building strong school cultures.

Since our successful inaugural event last year, I am often asked why the Fund decided to make this commitment to a principal recognition program. The answer is easy. We think school leadership is absolutely critical to the success of any school. Every research study on turn-around schools or high performing schools says the same thing: it can’t be done without a dynamic principal leading the way.

We see this time and time again in our work where a strong, committed principal is a pre-condition for success for implementing new programs. We hear it in the community discussions we conduct for our Analysis and Engagement studies. And it is re-iterated in the 587 nominations we received this year from teachers, parents, students and community members for 84 individual City Schools principals.

Principals have one of the toughest jobs you can imagine. The responsibility they have for students, teachers and educational outcomes is enormous, particularly in high-need, urban centers like Baltimore where they are constantly asked to do more. They deserve every bit of recognition and support that we can give them.

Please help us celebrate all our 181 City Schools principals by buying a ticket or making a donation today to the Heart of the School Awards on Monday, May 22nd at the historic Hippodrome Theatre. All proceeds go to our Principal Support Fund that awards up to $5,000 to principals for innovative projects or opportunities that benefit their students, teachers and schools. To-date, we’ve awarded 26 grants totaling over $100,000 for projects ranging from classroom technology to student field trips, professional development, and parent engagement.

Thank you for sharing our commitment to principals and we look forward to seeing you next Monday, May 22nd.

Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools

We are excited to share our latest report, Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools, looking at school choice in Baltimore City Public Schools.

city-college1Calculated Choices is an outgrowth of our 2015 report, Building A Bright Future, which explored how our high school students prepare for college, and the disparities in experience students have depending on which high school they attend. With school choice now an established part of our local education landscape, we wanted to better understand how students and their parents make decisions about to which schools they apply. Along the way, the critical role that middle school plays in this process came into sharp focus as both the options available and the choices families make in 5th grade influence students’ secondary education.

As in our prior reports, this study merges analysis of local and national data with insights from 418 students and parents across 41 communities about how they experience the school choice process. What we learned is that our choice system in its current form has yet to correct the existing inequities.

The inequity is seen in the different pathways that are generally available to families in higher-income vs. lower-income neighborhoods. It starts in middle school where students in higher-income areas have greater access to specialized academic programming. The academic boost they get from such programming helps them earn higher composite scores, increasing their chances of admission to our city’s selective ‘entrance criteria’ high schools over those of their lower-income peers.

However, Calculated Choices also shows that parents and students across all income levels share the same goals and want the same things from our schools with six main themes emerging from our conversations. Participants want strong academics across all schools and geographic areas combined with supportive, safe school cultures led by teachers and staff. When navigating the school choice process, students and parents need information on admission criteria, school offerings and the application steps, as well as consistent school-based support before and during the choice process.

These insights offer our community a roadmap for how to improve school choice going forward. We hope you will take some time to review Calculated Choices, and check out our Baltimore Sun Op Ed.  Please reach out to us via email or social media to keep the conversation going.