School Choice Improves Education

As a parent of two school-aged children and a resident of Arlington County VA, I am pleased and impressed with the choices the county offers to parents. Truthfully, it's almost an embarrassment of riches. I sometimes think about my siblings in Colorado. In their case, their children either go to the neighborhood school or can choose to go to a private school. There is little option to choose among the public schools within their district. Nor do the schools offer differing programs from school to school anyway. From my viewpoint, I believe this surfeit of choice can make a positive difference in how schools perform, and I would encourage every school district, and even Arlington County, to expand on this model.

Arlington, offers a number of choices to students at all three levels: elementary, middle and high school. Because my daughter is in 5th grade, we are currently making our decision about her middle school for next year. So this post will look at middle schools in particular. (Future posts may cover other aspects of Arlington's school system.)

Arlington has five middle schools: Gunston, Kenmore, Jefferson, Swanson and Williamsburg. It also has a special program at H-B Woodlawn, which for all intents and purposes, is another middle school/high school combined. Four of these offer special programs of some kind. I think the other two should also, as I discuss below.

- Gunston offers the Spanish Immersion continuation program for students who attended one of the Spanish Immersion elementary schools (Claremont or Key, which is the school my daughter attends as did her brother before her). Our experience has been that the majority of elementary school immersion students continue at Gunston. The immersion students make up about 1/3 of the student body, with the rest coming from the neighborhood. This choice is really only available to those who participated in the elementary immersion program--or possibly students who live in Spanish-speaking households.

- H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program is a countywide program which selects students by lottery. It's unique in more ways than can be described here; you may click on the link for more details.

- Jefferson Middle School is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IBMYP), having received authorization from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) in the spring of 2007. (Note that Washington-Lee High School also offers an IB program.) Although this program is not specifically designated as available countywide, it is possible for parents to transfer in from elsewhere in the county, because Jefferson currently has the smallest enrollment of the five middle schools. However, the county does not provide transportation for out-of-area students.

- Kenmore is an arts and technology focus school, which serves as both a neighborhood school and is also open to students from across the county?space permitting. It integrates the arts (drama, music, dance, etc.) into the learning process.

- Swanson and Williamsburg are pure neighborhood schools with no special programs. Students could theoretically transfer in--space permitting--but it's not clear why they would, unless, say, a family moved within the county and wanted to stay at the same school. We live in the Swanson area.

We have now had two occasions, once with each child, to attend middle school informational sessions. By and large, they are impressive: Arlington Schools are excellent. My wife and I have both noted, though, that the presentation from Swanson--our home school--was decidedly less noteworthy than the others. Both of our children were underwhelmed by those presentations but truly impressed with Gunston and Kenmore presentations. I have a theory about this.

I believe that the schools with specialized programs perceive themselves as special. Swanson and Williamsburg perceive themselves as the neighborhood school striving to be the best they can be, but no different than any other middle school that is serving its neighborhood. When I attended the Swanson presentation for my son, about 90% of what was presented was about middle school in general and about 10% was about Swanson in particular. For Gunston, though, it was about 25% middle school oriented and 75% about Gunston and how it is unique. The pride they took in their special status oozed from the principal, the teachers and every student.

In a similar vein, a friend of mine with a 5th-grade student recently took a required tour of one of the two neighborhood middle schools with the principal. If you want to transfer your student out of your home school to one of the others, you have to get a form signed by your home school's principal and attend a tour and orientation. He was there to get that done, so he could move his daughter to another school. He told me that the principal spent most of the time trying to convince the attendees to not leave for another school. But without some sort of special status or program, she didn't have much to offer.

I believe that giving a school a special mandate or program creates an environment that spurs that school on to do more and aspire higher. I think Arlington would benefit from creating special programs at the remaining two middle schools, Swanson and Williamsburg. Give them a special status and they will make themselves even more special. They'll strive to attract students through their achievements and programs rather than just their geography. Every middle school in the county would be available to every student, with each providing a special program of some kind. There would be even more choices but also better results and outcomes, I believe.

Obviously a system would have to be devised to even out attendance with capacity, but I think that is doable. Arlington benefits from its compact geography, making it easier to provide transportation to students countywide--something that would clearly be more difficult in places like Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery or Prince George's Counties or even the District.

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