Education Forward DC believes that schools in DC should reflect the citywide diversity of students’ needs and interests so that every student can grow and learn in a setting that works for them. Our Public Engagement grants are focused on ensuring a better match between the needs of families and the city’s public schools by investing in organizations that support and amplify the voice of students and families to inform school decisions, strengthen the work of public schools and government to engage with families and the community, and gather and share information to support policy decisions and planning efforts, as well as families’ school choice decisions. We partnered with Higher Achievement, a year-round out of school time program serving middle school scholars, and SchoolTalk, Inc., a DC-based non-profit whose mission is to create spaces that promote self-determination and a voice for youth with disabilities and their peers, to better understand how DC middle school students approach the high school choice process and to identify any additional resources needed. Christie Lerro, Deputy Director for Higher Achievement’s DC Metro office, wrote the following piece describing some of the highlights from the research.
According to My School DC, the common application and common lottery for public schools in DC, 33% of students complete their own applications when applying to high schools. Given this fact, the research conducted by Higher Achievement and SchoolTalk, Inc. is meant to both understand how young people navigate the high school selection process in DC and to make recommendations for future resource development to better support their needs and the needs of all DC students engaged in the school choice process. The two organizations conducted focus groups with middle and high school students in Wards 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8, including two focus groups specifically with students with disabilities. In addition, the organizations conducted a survey of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter middle school counselors and staff as well as staff from community-based organizations who work with middle schools to understand what supports currently exist for students going through the high school choice process.
Two extremely helpful members of the research team were Higher Achievement alumni who were hired to support the work – Jermisha, a current student at Eastern Senior High School, and Chioma, an alumnus of School Without Walls Senior High School and current University of Maryland student. Their perspectives and empathy as students who recently went thought the high school choice process made them particularly well suited to support this work and helped to ensure that student voice was kept at the forefront of the project even in the planning stages.
Chioma helped lead focus groups with middle school students and recruited high school students to participate in the focus groups. Chioma reflected, “This project was helpful and important not only for future improvements, but for the students’ decision making. Many put their trust in the rumors around a school and what their parents heard rather than what the programs and extracurriculars the school had to offer. I was happy that most students knew what they liked (sports, theater, etc.) and wanted a school that presented both strong academics and specific extracurriculars. It was also interesting to see their perspectives on some concepts such as district and public charter schools and the differences between them. When I was applying to high schools, I (nor my parents) knew in depth about these concepts and others, so students today definitely know more. It seems to be that issues stem not from the lack of resources, but not knowing the resources are available and how to access them. This does not fall all on the student, but the school and school officials’ initiatives in making sure students are prepared to transition to high schools before they reach the eighth grade and knowing what each school has to offer.”
Jermisha helped with data entry and editing and creating the tools, including the School Choice Glossary. Reflecting on the glossary, Jermisha said, “I feel that a tool like this would have been very helpful when I did this process. I didn’t have much help from my family when choosing my high school, and something like this could have cleared any confusion and answered any questions I had.”
The final report from our project will be publicly released soon, but some of the most significant findings include:
- High school choice for middle school students is strongly correlated to school social climate and perception of academic rigor
- Middle school students in DC are excited about the options for high school choice, but many don’t have the right information on how to apply
- Middle school students found the My School DC website relatively easy to use, but it’s not their main source of information on high schools, and there is some information on schools that students would like to have that they don’t currently have access to
- Many students are the drivers or a strong component of school choice in their families; parents of students with disabilities are more involved in the school choice process than the parents of students without disabilities
It’s our hope that the final report can be used by schools and city leaders to better understand and address the youth perspective in the high school choice process to ensure that all young people receive the support they need when applying to high schools.