A matter of choice

A matter of choice

CHAMPAIGN — When Champaign parent Eric Martell went through the school assignment process for his son last spring, his family visited seven elementary schools.

They live within a mile and a half of Dr. Howard, South Side, Westview and Bottenfield elementaries and also visited Stratton, Barkstall and Booker T. Washington.

They liked Booker T. Washington STEM Academy the best, Martell said, but liked the idea of a school closer to their central Champaign home.

They chose South Side as their first choice, because they know others whose kids attend and like it, and Westview as a second choice, followed by Booker T. Washington, Bottenfield and Stratton.

Their son ended up being wait-listed for South Side and placed at Booker T. Washington.

"Other than the inconvenience of the busing system and not having him closer to home, we are happy with the school," Martell said.

When it comes to ranking the schools in the Champaign school district kindergarten assignment process, families choose different schools for different reasons. As a result, many of Champaign's 11 elementary schools see their rate of being chosen fluctuate, based on how many families each want one of the finite number of seats.

If a school is considered overchosen, it means more parents of incoming kindergartners listed it as their first choice than there are kindergarten seats available in the school. If a school is underchosen, the opposite happens.

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, The News-Gazette obtained statistics dating back to 2004-05 for how many seats have been available at each elementary school and how many people chose those schools as their first choices.

The Champaign school district started using schools of choice in 1998, as a result of concerns regarding inequity in the number of black students being bused from north Champaign to the more southern schools for integration purposes, said Susan Zola, Champaign's assistant superintendent for achievement, curriculum and instruction.

"Families choose based on a variety of factors," Zola said. "We find having several choices aligned to calendar, start and end times, uniforms and programming really (offers) the families true choice in what they would like for their child's school experience."

Barkstall is consistently overchosen, as is Bottenfield. South Side is frequently overchosen, and Robeson has often been highly chosen and sometimes overchosen.

Carrie Busey was overchosen for the first time for the 2012-13 school year, the year the school also opened its new building in Savoy.

Champaign's other elementary schools fluctuate from year to year.

The school district has also added some "bubble" kindergarten and first-grade classrooms at various schools throughout the district as it has seen increased enrollment over the last couple of years. A bubble kindergarten classroom, for example, adds a needed classroom for a year but doesn't mean an extra kindergarten classroom will be available at that school the following year.

The school district's magnet schools — which have a STEM theme at Booker T. Washington, a microsociety theme at Stratton and made Garden Hills a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme — are in their third year this school year.

As to why people request a school as their first choice, the reasons are as unique and individual as the families that are prioritizing them, Zola said.

When Stratton and Barkstall opened in the 1990s, parents were interested in them as new schools, Zola said.

A parent might make a first choice on whether a school is close to home or whether they live far enough away to be eligible for the school district to provide transportation. The same thing is true for start and end times, as some schools start and end earlier than others.

Five elementaries have uniforms, so a parent might choose that school because they like that idea. Or, a parent might have the opposite reaction and purposely choose a school that doesn't require uniforms.

As many of the elementary schools are rebuilt and renovated with the school facilities sales tax, some parents might make their choices based on how up-to-date a building is.

Barkstall and Kenwood have balanced calendars, which are also known as year-round schools, which some parents prefer or want to avoid.

Another possible factor, at least when it comes to Carrie Busey as a first choice: Once it was announced Carrie Busey on Kirby Avenue would move to a new building in Savoy, the school district for one year gave students who lived within a mile and a half of the new site priority to attend the old building in its final year there.

That way, kids who live near the school now had a chance to start attending when the school was still located in Champaign.

Anna Simon is a Savoy parent who is also the president of the school district's PTA Council.

Her family was considered to have Proximity A to Carrie Busey even as her son went to kindergarten in the school's old site last year in Champaign.

Simon said her family knew the school would be opening in Savoy, but they still looked at other schools. They were open to selecting another as their first choice if it felt right, Simon said.

"It just so happened to work out that Carrie Busey was the school that we wanted to choose anyway," Simon said, adding that she liked the teachers and administration at the school.

"We weren't as concerned with the physical structure as we were with the staff of the building," Simon said. "It was really a perfect fit for us."

Schools might be underchosen because their neighborhoods represent an older demographic, where the families continue to live in the neighborhood but children are beyond high school age. Some families may not choose a school because it is an older building and not yet renovated, Zola said.

Dr. Howard and South Side are the two that come up when the school district lists buildings that need to be addressed in a future facilities plan, either for renovation or even possible replacement in Dr. Howard's case.

Jen Davis, the parent of three students, two of whom are school-aged, said she chose Barkstall when going through registration in 2011 for their eldest daughter.

They lived within a mile and a half and so were considered to have Proximity A to the school.

"We liked the balanced calendar, and it had a good public reputation," Davis said. "I had always envisioned her going there through her preschool years and paid close attention to what was going on at Barkstall during those (prekindergarten) years."

However, after Davis' family went through the registration process, her daughter was placed at Carrie Busey.

"I had liked Carrie Busey during the 15-minute school tour but had not done that much research into other schools," Davis said, adding that her daughter's neighborhood friends all ended up attending Barkstall. Davis didn't feel comfortable having her daughter ride the bus because no other students from her neighborhood were on it, she said. She had to wake up her middle child at nap time to pick her daughter up from Carrie Busey.

Her daughter had a great kindergarten year at Carrie Busey, Davis said.

"We had just finally accepted the idea that we were a Carrie Busey family," Davis said.

When the school district's Family Information Center called at the end of the year and said they'd have space for Davis' daughter the following year at Barkstall, Davis said her family had a weekend to decide.

They ended up switching to Barkstall, and now Davis' kids both carpool and ride the bus.

Davis said her family worked to be adjustable throughout the choice and assignment process, but said she found it frustrating.

"It can be quite an overwhelming experience," Davis said, adding that she's encouraged other friends as they've gone through it.

"I also feel that Unit 4 has been taking great strides in order to get people their first choice placements through bubble classrooms and the online registration data being displayed to the public so parents know which schools are being over- and underchosen," Davis said. "We did not have that in 2011."

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pattsi wrote on November 03, 2013 at 9:11 am

Maybe another variable that ought to be part of the decision model has to do with the  "barrier" streets (number thereof) a child must cross to arrive at school. For whatever reason as school choice and walkable school bus became du jour, the issue of "barrier" streets did not receive sufficient analysis.

bueek wrote on November 03, 2013 at 6:11 pm

That would be nice, nice indeed. But under the current "schools of choice" system, not really feasible.  Maybe if we went back to neighborhood schools that would be possible? I don't know.  When you have to "game" the system just to get into the school you want, or learn to be "ok" with the school you get, the whole system is frustrating.