In our School Choice policy brief we learned that parents and guardians are exercising school choice for multiple factors. However, there are families deciding to enroll their children into neighborhood schools too. In our efforts to capture diverse voices, we're glad to share a guest post from Jason Roth, Public Policy Director at United Way of Northeast Florida on his involvement at West Riverside Elementary. - Ale'ta Turner
As parents, we naturally want the best for our children. The best clothes, the best toys, and the best education. But while picking out nice clothes and cool toys are relatively straightforward decisions, finding the best fit for your child’s educational needs is a fairly complex task in today’s world of school choices. Having a child entering kindergarten can be a confusing and stressful time. Or at least it was for us.
My wife and I have three boys, ages nine, four and three. A few years ago when it was time for my oldest to enter kindergarten, we did what every parent living in a district with so many choices does. We looked at private schools. We went and visited magnet schools, which we later applied for. We even checked out what charter options were available. Then we took an extra step and we checked out our neighborhood school, which we knew had a “D” rating by the Florida School Accountability system.
When we moved to Riverside/Avondale, we were told by many that we shouldn’t even consider sending our kids to West Riverside Elementary. But as a product of public schools and a longtime professional advocate for teachers, it didn’t feel right not to give our neighborhood school a shot. So we showed up one day and asked for a tour.
What we found was a pretty amazing environment. West Riverside Elementary is housed in an historic Riverside building and has been educating neighborhood kids for over a hundred years. It’s incredibly diverse ethnically and economically, and operates both an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program and a program to help over-aged children get back to grade-level. The teachers and staff were passionate and it was easy to see that they cared deeply about their students.
We made the decision that if our son didn’t hit the magnet lottery and get into our first-choice program, he was going to West Riverside … and that was all right with us.
With three kids, two professional careers, and one parent back in grad-school, that first year taught us the value of the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” We quickly formed bonds with other families (almost by necessity), and by our second year, I found myself becoming more invested in the school. Gradually, I became more involved with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).
In my son’s first grade year, West Riverside Elementary started offering a dual language magnet program that pairs English speakers with non-native speakers. Under the leadership of West Riverside’s Principal, Dr. Sylvia Johnson, the Dual Language program has drastically expanded the quality of education possible in the classroom, and served as tool to recruit and retain talented bilingual teachers. While my son can’t hold a conversation “en español” yet, he is pushing the limits of my long neglected, Cuban-accented, fluency that I attained growing up in Miami. He also doesn’t ever stop talking about one of his best friends, who was born in Guatemala.
Recently I attended a Community Assessment Team (CAT) meeting, which is required of “low performing” schools, and intended to identify weaknesses and strengths that can be used in strategies to bring up school performance. I had a chance to dig into our school’s data and spend some time talking with our administration about why West Riverside’s school grade has remained low for the past three years.
Putting aside the rhetoric that has recently surrounded the validity of Florida’s school accountability system, it was pretty apparent that while running phenomenal programs to help non-native speakers and over-aged children catch up, those students were weights that also had to be carried, which ultimately affected the scores West Riverside’s grade was based on.
But the statistic that came as a surprise was the number of families that were choosing alternative options. Whether it was other magnet programs or parents choosing to home-school, last year over 80 families decided that West Riverside Elementary wasn’t right for them. While I respect their need to find the best option for their children, I have a nagging suspicion that these decisions are being driven by the letter grade the school has carried for three years.
As the Public Policy Chair for West Riverside’s PTA, I am helping our small group of active parents fulfill a mission of providing an enriching educational environment for our children and their families. In addition to the PTA’s usual Fall Festival and monthly movie nights, we are actively working with our administration to engage our parents and teachers in promoting our school. This month we are even holding a legislative advocacy training to help our teachers and parents become effective voices in our neighborhood and with policy leaders at the state capitol in Tallahassee.
We have taken ownership of the idea that while we can’t change our school’s grade overnight, we can advocate on West Riverside’s behalf and get the word out that ONE letter can’t tell our school’s story.
If you are interested in attending the advocacy training, which will be held on Wednesday, December 16 and is open to all community advocates, you can find details on the West Riverside PTA Facebook page here.
Public Policy Director,
United Way of Northeast Florida