School choice was a luxury I didn’t have when I was in school. I lived in a rural area, and I attended the one school that was available to me, and in general it was a good experience. I knew a few students who left the district for athletics, but by and large I don’t remember the decision hinging on academics, or program offerings, or the educational philosophy in a particular school. We went to our neighborhood schools, and it was enough.
Fast forward a few years —I now have twin sons who have both been receiving Early Childhood Special Education Services (ECSE) since the age of two, and are entering kindergarten. This is it! This is what I have been waiting for all these years.We have choices, and we have to make them. Choice is exciting. Heading into this process, I was thinking: “I can choose the very BEST place for my boys to continue learning, and everything is going to be amazing.”
Except it wasn’t exciting, or amazing. It was excruciating, and I was paralyzed that we would make the wrong choice. Our ECSE team wasn’t in the part of the district where we had purchased our home, and they knew nothing about the schools in our new quadrant of the city.
Our community school could not support our sons who needed to be in a school with autism services, so it never made the list.
As our list of needs grew, we watched our list of schools got smaller and smaller, until we were down to two district school magnets, and a special needs charter that had the three things we were looking for: Autism services, a location in our quadrant of the city, and busing. The charter school was 95% special needs students, one of the magnets was highly regarded as “The Best” school in our area, and the other was mostly not talked about because it was known for behavior issues. We added one other school to our list that met two of our needs, and started to tour.
We started with the special needs charter, and though I had zero qualms about whether or not they could keep the boys safe, we really wanted the boys in a more integrated setting. That school came off the list.
The second school we toured was fantastic. The staff was attentive to students, and I felt welcome and at ease. It stayed on the list, though it didn’t have busing.
Our third school tour was “The Best” school, but I was disappointed. The person leading the tour spent her time talking about how over capacity they were, and the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) teacher spent her time telling me we should really look at other schools.
At this point I just wanted someone to tell me where to put them. I was overwhelmed — annoyed that our community school couldn’t support them, and really frustrated about the lack of support from our ECSE team in making this decision. None of this is what I’d expected, and I started to resent the process.
I almost cancelled the last school tour because the reviews I’d read were pretty negative. But the only school that had made the cut so far would require me to commit to driving every day for the next decade, so I persevered.
I went to the school with the bad reviews, the low test scores, and the limited neighborhood support and I was blown away at how welcome I felt walking through their doors. After meeting with the autism team, and watching the kindergarten teacher lead her class through a science lesson, it went right to the top of our list, and that is ultimately where we enrolled our kids.
I almost didn’t tour the school because everyone I met that had an opinion on my list of schools told me I would be crazy to send my kids there. Every piece of data I could find painted a grim picture of what they could offer us. What I found in that building was quite different.
We loved that school, but when our autism team moved across the city, we made the decision to move to our second choice school before the boys started 2nd grade, where there was an established autism team.
Our experience in our new school has many similarities with our first school. Although it is a community school, we have a very small percentage of kids in the community actually enrolled there. We have a high number of ELL students, and are considered a Racially Identifiable school by the state of Minnesota — even though we are in an integrated neighborhood. We have a high rate of poverty. We have a declining enrollment, and every year feels like a fight for survival as we wonder how we get parents through our doors, and how we get kids into our seats. It may not be known as a “good” school, but for the families who attend, we are proud to send our kids there every day.
Five years ago when I was choosing a kindergarten, it never occurred to me that I should think about my choice, and how it affects the district as a whole. If I insisted on putting my kids in an overcrowded school because it was regarded as better, I would just be adding to the problem. If I refused to look at schools due to data points, what message does that send to others in the community? That school is good enough for you, but not good enough for me?
No one talked about these things when I was making my choice, I only stumbled into them.
As a community, we need to engage parents early about these choices, encourage them to look outside of their comfort zone, expand their lists beyond what they have heard about in the neighborhood groups, and give that school that doesn’t look so great on paper a chance. Our choices matter, and sometimes they can not only be great for our kids, but for our communities as well.
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