Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How To Find A School Of Choice

This is a long overdue post I promised someone quite a while ago.
If you are a parent, looking for a school for your child, what are your choices? This is meant as a basic primer. To get you started, here is a somewhat complete (not entirely) list of choices.

Investigating will take some work. If you can't find what you want on the web site of the relevant school district or academy, then you might make a phone call--to the secretary or administrative assistant of the district superintendent or academy principal. Generally they know everything,  and if they don't they can find it out. [And if they don't help you, try the superintendent or academy principal directly.]

1. Neighborhood public school. Every home in the county is districted to a school district, and a school (or possible a choice of two schools) that may--or may not--actually be in the neighborhood.  Often your local school is a good option, but if not, there are some other possibilities.

2. In-district school choice. Many of the local school districts allow you to request an in-district transfer to another neighborhood school. I wrote about the Ann Arbor schools process here, and  I complained at the time that it was hard to find out about and was also named something that makes no sense to the people looking for it. For in-district school choice, choices are sometimes limited by grade (for instance, only open to first and third graders) or by number of spots. If you don't like your neighborhood school, but you've heard better things about a different school in the district, this might work for you.

3. In-district magnet programs. These programs are particular to a school district. Timing for applications varies, but generally will be after January first. Check the district web site or call. In some cases they might be open to kids from other districts. Magnet programs include gifted and talented programs, language immersion programs (not yet in this county), or an alternative school like Ann Arbor Open or Community High School. Districts can set their own rules for magnets--tests, lotteries, interviews, etc.

4. Out-of-district school choice. Other public school districts can become schools of choice, and they can open up their whole school district, or only certain grades or schools. For instance, they could open it up to K-1-2 only, and they could also restrict the number of openings if they want. Right now, as examples, Whitmore Lake and Ypsilanti schools have their entire districts open as schools of choice, and Saline is a limited school of choice district. Separate from the school of choice option, you can put in special requests, but they may or may not allow them. I wrote about this here and here. [If this is the option you are interested in, you should definitely read those posts.] Openings may be open to you even if you live in a different county, but the timing of the open application periods varies widely. On my facebook page the other day, I noticed ads from the Bloomfield Hills schools! Are you willing to drive? You will be responsible for transportation.

5. Charter Schools. Charter schools, also known as public school academies, are public schools of choice and they are not geographically restricted. If too many people want to get in to a particular school, they may have a lottery or some other method of choosing students. Someone asked me why there are more charter elementary and middle schools than high schools. High schools require more specialized teachers (thus they are more expensive), and they are also harder to run on a small scale. Everyone thinks that a first grade class of 15 is great; a tenth grade class with a total of 15 kids? Too small to differentiate instruction in math or give kids choices of a language... But in the high school arena, one option is the Washtenaw Technical Middle College which operates out of Washtenaw Community College. You can find the links to local charter schools, all of whom work with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, here. 
6. Consortiums. Lincoln, Willow Run, and Ypsilanti schools have a consortium that has kids learning at Eastern Michigan University. Find out about it here.

That's it for the totally free options. (Free to you as the consumer. You are paying taxes for those schools, after all.) Oh, wait--I forgot--some school districts that are not schools of choice may let you pay tuition to them, as if they were a private school. No, I am not making that up.

If you're interested in homeschooling, you will have plenty of company. Here is information on the Homeschoolers of Washtenaw, Clonlara and other groups (many of them are religious, but not all of them).

There are always parochial schools: one Muslim school, one Jewish school, several Catholic schools, lots of Protestant or more general "Christian" schools.

Local private, non-religious schools include those with Montessori and Steiner philosophies, as well as schools targeting "gifted and talented" kids, kids with learning disabilities, traditional prep schools, and alternative learning environments.


  1. I am curious: Why do you quote "gifted and talented", but not the other descriptions of students? It's not a topic you get into much, (It CAN be a hotbed...) although it came to my mind when reading your posts about the Top 20%, and dreams deferred.

  2. You can call it whatever you want to, a charter school is a charter school.

    What Is a Charter School?

    The basic difference between a traditional public school and a privately run charter school is that with a charter school there is complete control of the school by a private enterprise within a public school district. Although taxpayer-funded, charters operate without the same degree of public and district oversight of a standard public school. Most charter schools do not hire union teachers which means that they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages. Charter schools take the school district's allotment of money provided for each student within the public schools system and use it to develop their programs. In many systems, they receive that allotment without having to pay for other costs such as transportation for students to and from the school. Some states, such as Minnesota, actually allocate more than what is granted to public school students.

    A charter school can expel any student that it doesn't believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores. If the student is dropped off the rolls of the charter school, the money that was allotted for that student may or may not be returned to the district at the beginning of the next year. That is dependent upon the contract that is established by each district.

    Also, according to a recent (June 15, 2009) study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), charter schools do not necessarily perform any better than public schools. In fact, 37 percent performed worse. Forty-six percent demonstrated "no significant difference" from public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools.

  3. For more information on what you are getting yourselves into with charter schools, see:

  4. Anon--Putting "gifted and talented" in quote marks was meant to refer to programs that are specifically for that "category" of kids. Willow Run has one such program, and Emerson (private school) advertises itself as for that "category." I'm not sure how they identify those kids.

    Dora--You are certainly correct about some of the issues around charter schools, and I have not really written about them. In Michigan, the charter school per-pupil allocation is on the low end of the spectrum (different from Minnesota). It is certainly true that most of them don't use unionized teachers, and that partly contributes to their turnover. That said, there are good charter schools and bad charter schools.

    Writing about them should not be considered a blanket endorsement. As I've written before, I think it is important for parents to feel that they have choices, and sometimes the fact that parents have choices makes traditional public schools perform better or offer different services. I know lots of people whose kids go back and forth: public-charter-private-etc.

    Just as two examples. If you want your child learning Arabic as their foreign language in school, only two schools offer that--one is the Muslim school, and one is Central Academy, a charter. I hope the public schools will decide to offer Arabic as a foreign language.

    If you want an "open/alternative" learning environment for your elementary school child, and you don't live in (or don't get into) Ann Arbor Open, there are two charter schools which approach this in various ways (Honey Creek and Ann Arbor Learning Community), and there are Summers-Knoll and Clonlara (private schools). Is there more demand than supply for alternative education in the public schools? I think the answer is obviously, yes.

    People repeatedly find this blog by searching, "How do I find a school of choice in Ann Arbor" so I assume that is something people want to know.

  5. Under the heading of Consortiums, you list Lincoln, Ypsilanti, and Willow Run, and then you refer to the Early College Alliance. Here is a link to that program's site:

    Ypsi, Lincoln, Whitmore Lake, Milan, and now Chelsea are school districts participating in this program (not Willow Run). It's an amazing program, worth investigating.


  6. Charters stink, the bottom line, and people may not know how much that is true until they leave the school and find out what their child doesn't know. They are unregulated, and many things happen there that are simply indefensible. If the state wants to allow charters, they must be watchdogged much more thoroughly then currently is happening.

  7. Summers-Knoll is an independent school that serves bright, creative and gifted children. Not all kids at S-K are "gifted" in terms of their IQ test, but the kids are all rapid learners and the progressive learning environment really supports that exploration.

    But to Ruth's point, S-K's learning environment would qualify as open and alternative, which works well in the small class sizes (capped at 12-14 kids).

    Thanks for your insights, Ruth.

    Fran Loosen
    (Board Pres of S-K)

  8. For 2011, AAPS says they will post information on their in-district transfer process, and any possible Schools of Choice, in early February.

    Some new choices county-wide include the New Tech High School, located in Ypsilanti but open to all county residents (9th and 10th grade, I believe); the Early College Alliance, open to many local school districts and located at Eastern Michigan University; the Washtenaw International High School, open to all county residents (9th grade only), and located in Ypsilanti; Washtenaw Alternatives for Youth, which I don't know too much about, but I believe is located at Stone School in Ann Arbor. There are also new private schools and charter schools that either have opened in the last two years or are opening in the coming year.