Families make a sacrifice when they opt for school choice

Making the School Choice Decision

An “itinerant school district” has wrought havoc on public school finance

By Walter Brooks

Over 4,000 Cape Cod children attend an institution other than their local public school system.  As we observed in last week’s story in our continuing education series, this virtual “itinerant school district” has wrought havoc on public school finance from the Bourne Bridge to Race Point.

Nobody makes a school choice (or charter choice) lightly.But there’s another side to this story, a perspective beyond the dollars and demographics, beyond “mystique”, “culture” and instructional strategies – the genuine sacrifice so many of these families make to provide an alternative education opportunity for these 4,000 children.

Here at the outset let’s set aside the cost of private school tuition for the 2,100 kids who attended the area’s private schools.  If families can afford a private school, “more power to ‘em”.  Prior to school choice and charter schools, only those who could pay for private school had an “escape” from their local public school.

Over the past two years we have spoken with many parents who made a “choice” for alternative public education.  We’ve also met with charter school staff and “school choice destination” district administrators.  In all of those conversations one thing comes through loud and clear:  nobody makes a school choice (or charter choice) lightly.

Social Independence

First, if a child is past kindergarten when a school choice is made, the child must leave behind her friends at the hometown school and become the “new kid” at whichever school her parents have chosen.  In many cases – especially at the middle or high school level – social pressures cause the kids to resist the change in venue.  Many children are just like we older adults – they hate radical change.  Our sense is that mainly the “socially strong” or “socially independent” children are the ones who thrive in school choice or charters.

Family Sacrifice

The entire family must make an enormous sacrifice of time and money to transport the child to her new school.Second, the entire family must make an enormous sacrifice of time and money to transport the child to her new school.  Last week we spoke with a delightful young lady who attends Sturgis Charter High School in Hyannis from the Nauset region.  Her family drives over 18,000 miles a year to take her to school in the morning and pick her up at day’s end – and that doesn’t include after-school activities, athletics or evening functions at the school.  If the family car gets 20 miles to the gallon and gas is $3.90/gallon this will cost them $3,500/year in gasoline and unknown additional dollars in car maintenance.

This girl’s mother or father must drive about 40 minutes each way, two times a day.  Both of them are employed on the Lower Cape, so they must spend 80 minutes on the road before they arrive at work and another 80 minutes when they get out of work.  The whole household gets up an hour earlier than if the girl attended Nauset.  When she’s old enough to have a license, mom and dad will need to consider whether they want an inexperienced sixteen year old driver making the commute on her own or whether they’ll continue to provide transportation themselves.

Cultural Challenge

What about the child who enters the “melting pot” of a charter school?Third is the cultural shift of moving from one type of school to another.  It takes time for a new kid to be accepted into the culture of a school choice district, such as a boy from Chatham joining Nauset Regional High School and having to “prove himself” in so many ways, most especially if he chose Nauset for the athletics.  How long before they stop calling him “Hey, Chatham!” and accept him as one of their own?  If he’s socially independent he will push through this wall and settle in just fine.  If not, he can always go back to Chatham.

What about the child who enters the “melting pot” of a charter school?  While Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School prides itself on a welcoming culture that nurtures students’ confidence, Sturgis is an entirely different story.  As our Nauset/Sturgis girl told us she had come home in tears some days because the work is so difficult.  “But if I’m not capable of working at that level, I don’t belong at Sturgis.”

We have also heard from administrators at traditional schools that Sturgis tends to “cull the herd” – that in the first weeks after school opens there is a certain level of churn as kids who don’t measure up to Sturgis “zero tolerance” discipline policies are exiled back to their home districts or those who dislike the rigor choose to go home.  For a school with the high academic standards – and consistent results – of Sturgis this cull is both necessary and appropriate.

“Choice” Isn’t Easy

Choice students don’t get free transportation so this burden falls entirely upon the family.Making a decision to move your child from “Hometown High School” to a school choice destination or to a charter school is not trivial.

With Cape Cod’s geography, there’s virtually no “easy” choice destination in terms of transportation.  Charter and Choice students don’t get free transportation so this burden falls entirely upon the family.  Moreover, with the social and cultural challenges the “choice” kids face, a parent must be sure that their child is centered enough to withstand the change of culture and social structure.

For those who make the “choice” and accept the sacrifice, many rewards can be waiting at the other end of the process.  Each family must weigh the sacrifice against the potential rewards and decide what works best for their own child.

Read the recent stories on this issue in the past month below:

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