Schools of Choice: 10 tricks to get the school you want

college-advice

 

  1. There are no tricks. It was just a catchy headline. But I do have 9 pieces of advice
  2. Why do we have Schools of Choice? Because our neighborhoods are not economically diverse, and the leadership wants diverse schools.
  3. Figure out your own goals. Do you want a “balanced calendar” school? Does location matter? What is most important to you?
  4. Read up on the Magnet programs and the school profiles to see what schools offer (56-page booklet)
  5. Look up which school you have “proximity priority” to: http://choice.champaignschools.org/proximity.html (here are the schools in google maps)
  6. There are (currently) 12 elementary schools, each with a limited number of seats. You can list any or all in an order of preference (aka, “rank order”). Your “priorities” (sibling, proximity) apply to your first choice. I suggest ranking them all. If you do not, are you ok with the slim possibility of having an “assignment pending” status?
  7. There is a small chance you might not get one of your top choices – is such a case, you will be placed on a waitlist. Hypothetically speaking, would you relocate your child a week after school started?
  8. Talk to other parents: chambanamoms is a really good resource for connecting with other parents and sharing thoughts on Schools of Choice. Or start a conversation here.
  9. Visit the schools. Even before January or after March. Visit the Family Informatiodon't-panic-iPadn Center (also called FIC).
  10. Don’t panic. I know there is a lot of information to consider, but all the schools have something great to offer. It’s ok.

Other resources

Final notes

At a recent Choice Committee meeting, there was a general lament that there is a lot of misinformation “out there”. To the best of my knowledge, everything I share about Choice is accurate – if not, I ask that you call me out. Likewise, understand the difference between opinion and facts. Everyone has a difference experience going through “Schools of Choice”, and some people will want to deep-dive on all the nuances, while others just want to go to the closest school. If at any point you feel frustrated or confused, know that you are not alone and that there are people who want to help.

Analyzing choice data

In my previous post, I mentioned that the school district provided some new choice data for me. Ironically, I had asked for aggregated data, but the district pleasantly surprised me with disaggregated data. For those not familiar with the jargon, basically I asked for the summary and they sent me the details. I like details.

One major caveat: all the data below, and the analysis thereof, are from snapshots at specific points in time. I am told, and I believe, that the assignment data is very fluid. I have tried to focus on data that is fed into the relevant software at the time of the “big run”, when parent choices are inputted en masse.

First off, I had to massage the data quite a bit. Even though the district provided a PDF spreadsheet, the document does not convert well to a real spreadsheet; one program I used removed all the “empty” boxes, another program put all the pages on separate worksheets. So in the end I wrote my own script to convert the PDF to a SQL script which inserts data into a database. And from there, we can do all sorts of magic – like dumping it back down to an Excel spreadsheet:

My typical question is along the lines of “how many people chose each school?”

total_choice_count_2015

u4Dashboard_sample_2015The term “overchosen” is a bit nebulous, and perhaps even outdated at this point. But I use it intentionally because the school district still uses it, even though the district has had a history of not telling which schools are actually overchosen. 🙂 This past year I understand that the Family Information Center (FIC) provided a dashboard snapshot to help answer that question, but this was never provided online – you had to visit the FIC in person. You might wonder, why is this important? Sure during the registration process it is helpful to a degree, but afterwards? The purpose of this post is to address that question head-on, in two different aspects.

First, let us pretend this is the middle of March; you are a parent of a child who is entering Kindergarten in the Fall. Let us say that you are busy and have not had time to visit all the schools (all twelve schools!), but you have a pretty good idea of which ones you like, and there are two you least like (maybe the balanced calendar does not fit your work schedule). You visit the FIC and a choice specialist frowns upon your first choice because it is an “overchosen” school and your chances of getting it are less than 100%. This is where the fun starts. Are you the type of person that just really wants to know exactly what your chance is so you can weigh your options? If so, you will be frustrated because nobody will tell you. However, if you can let it go and not get hung up over it, you will be much happier, just pick a couple other schools that you want. The choice specialist will look at your list and tell you if all your top three or five choices are likely candidates. For instance, if you choose Barkstall, Bottenfield, Carrie Busey, Westview and Robeson as your top five and nothing else, there is a good chance you will not get any of them. Why? Again, are you the type of person that needs to know, or can you let it go and take the FIC counselor’s advice in choosing other schools?

Here’s the thing. The FIC staff are smart people; they understand the “system” and they know about the back-end software. However their communication styles/methods differ from person to person. I have talked to many parents who get extremely frustrated with the FIC staff, and I have also talked to many parents who are totally thrilled with the FIC staff. Some people click, some people don’t. Don’t let it ruin your day. 🙂

And here is the second aspect. There is a wealth of information that the school district does not initially make available. Why? I am not sure. At one Choice Committee meeting I raised this question, and it seems the consensus is that sometimes there is “too much” information – it becomes overwhelming and increases stress. Which is a very tricky balance. My goal is to decrease stress. How do we do that successfully for everyone? Ultimately, I think it comes down to being able to differentiate well; which is extremely appropriate because that is exactly what we want our teachers to do. This is no different. Think about this as a class in choosing a school for your precious child, and the FIC staff are the teachers.

For instance, here is a chart showing the trends of the first school choice (choice 1) made my parents who ended up with the infamous and dreaded label “unassigned”:

unassigned_summary_2015

You will notice that Barkstall dominates the top. In other words, of the people who ended up being unassigned, a majority of them chose Barkstall as their number one school. Further analysis of the disaggregated data shows that almost all of those parents did not choose any “underchosen” school as a “backup choice”. However, there is something else I wish to tease out from this graph. I will make it clear with trend lines:

unassigned_trends_2015

In words: for those that end up unassigned, more and more are choosing Carrie Busey as a first choice, and fewer are choosing Barkstall, Bottenfield and South Side.

Another group of factoids from the data. 19 total families chose Barkstall as 1st choice and had no priority (sibling, proximity, low-ses), and only 1 got into Barkstall (18 did not). So that is a 1/19 chance. For Carrie Busey, it was 0/12. 8 of those that chose Barkstall ended up being unassigned – right there is more than a third of the total “unassignees”. The lesson here is that if you do not have priority to a “overchosen” school, your chances of getting in are really really low. And the way the FIC will put that to you is that you are throwing away your first choice. 🙂 Which significantly increases your chances of ending up with no school assignment.

As one parent recently told me, it would certainly be fascinating to find out “why” parents choose the schools they do. Unfortunately, the data we currently have is really bad at answering the “why” question; it is really good at answering the “what” and the “how” questions.

The district is (rightfully) rather proud that the number of families getting their first choice is relatively high. That translates into happy customers. How can we make even more customers happy? What is the next hurdle? For one, I think it comes down to understanding why parents make the choices that they do. I had a great email exchange with a parent from the 2015 School Assignment process that took the time to explain to me why she made her choices, and it totally makes sense. For this parent, being unassigned is stressful; even the ensuing aftermath of dealing with waitlists and being assigned to a second choice school that was (at the time) overcapacity was stressful. I believe the FIC could have done a better job to make this one parent less stressed; maybe by patiently explaining the trends shown above, and encouraging more choices. Or taking the time to listen a little more closely. In general, can we meet each and every single parent where they are at and try to learn what their needs are?

At the end of the day, I am really proud of our Unit 4 schools. I try to tell parents that no matter what school they end up at, most likely their child will love it and have a great experience.

Kindergarten registration now open

A new thing this year is that registration for Kindergarten school assignment is open two months early. Keep in mind, the online software from Codagami is not yet available – basically, parents are invited to start researching the schools, visit the Family Information Center, and fill out registration forms in person if they so wish. The results will still be posted sometime in April, and there are no “early bird” points.

Another new thing is that the language has changed such that families are encouraged to rank all 12 Kindergarten options (including the newly announced Spanish-English dual-language immersion program at the Kirby Street school). The sole purpose of this language change is to reduce the number of parents who end up “unassinged” at the end of the registration period. The downside is that some parents might be more stressed and more confused (“Do I have to rank all 12 options?”; “What if I only rank 3?”; “Is the Magnent School Registration still concurrent, and if so, what if I mark a magnet school as my 5th choice?”; etc). The bottom line is that if a parent only “chooses” popular schools, their chances of being unassigned is above zero percent (maybe only 1%). If a parent “chooses” more than seven schools, the chance of being unassigned drops to a fractional number, and if they rank all 12 options, they are guaranteed to be assigned to one of them. (Just straight up logic and common sense there *grin*)

http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/6446

Starting January 2, 2014, families with incoming kindergarten students residing in the Champaign Unit #4 School District may register for the 2014-2015 school year and rank their elementary school preferences in the Schools of Choice process.

Families should register during the designated period that runs from January 2-March 31, 2014 to increase chances of placement into one of their preferred schools. Students must turn five on or before September 1, 2014 to register. Families will need to visit the Champaign Schools Family Information Center (1103 N. Neil Street) to register and will be asked to provide a birth certificate and proof of residency at the time of registration.

This year, families will be advised to rank all elementary school choices in the Schools of Choice process. In addition to the 11 elementary school options, families will also have access to a 12th option, theSpanish-English Dual Language Two-Way Immersion Program that will begin next school year with kindergarten students at the  1605 W. Kirby Avenue school location.

A number of community forums and tour dates will be held during the registration period to allow families the opportunity to visit schools and have them questions answered by the Schools of Choice specialists.

For more information on registration, Schools of Choice, community forums, tour dates, and hours of operation, please visit www.unit4registration.org.

Families may also contact the Family Information Center:

1103 N. Neil Street

Champaign, IL 61820

217-351-3701

Customer Service

We all have experiences with poor customer service, whether it be contacting a large software company, dealing with the kool-aid drinking psychos from the cellular provider or trying to find some help at a big box store. Rarely do I see examples of customer service that leave me feeling “Wow, that was really satisfying”.

Last week I had an exchange with Tech Support at Pandora.com; these guys have always been super nice and are a delight to talk to. In my most recent exchange, they sent me a t-shirt with the following letter:

Hi Charles –
On behalf of everyone and myself here at Pandora please accept this gift with our thanks for
being such a great listener. It means a lot to have such support from folks like you.
This journey is getting more and more exciting with each passing day. The ‘everywhere’ aspect
of personalized intemet radio — smartphones, home consumer electronics, TVs, cars, etc – is
opening up a world of opportunity. We’re having a blast and we’re glad you’re along with us on
this journey!
Please stay in touch. l can always be reached at tim.xxxxx@pandora.com and l’m always
eager to hear your thoughts, ideas, criticisms, comments… anything y0u’d like to share. Your
feedback is a huge part of what helps Pandora stay on target for our listeners.
Thanks for listening!
Tim Westergren, Founder
Wow.
Another company that really has great front-line people answering the phones is fidelity.com; these folks are empowered to do just about anything you need them to do, are exceptionally polite and eager to help, and extremely familiar with the system and are rather intelligent to boot. These examples really put others to shame.
I use these positive examples to paint a picture of what I would like Unit 4 to be. I cringe when I hear stories of people calling the FIC and having such horrible interactions. I have to confess though that I have never called the FIC with a complaint, so I cannot judge them based on my own experience.

Registration/School Assignment: getting technical again

This post is going to be a little technical. You have been warned. 🙂

 

So I have an online database; I am not aware of anyone who has written any queries against it other than myself (have not yet built the functionality to save and archive input queries). My overall goal is to 1) move responsibility for the “computer program” and relevant data away from Massachusetts and into Champaign, and 2) create a catalyst that results in provoking Unit 4 to be much more transparent about this whole process than they are now. That word “transparent” means different things to different people, so here is where I am coming from – basically, put as much information online as possible. Let people see what is happening. Sure, ok, remove names and addresses, I am cool with that.

 

In order for that to happen, Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday at Houlihans: Dec 7th recap

We had quite a few folks show up at our little open chat session this past Wednesday. We had a Unit 4 Board member, a Barkstall parent, Meg Dickinson from the NG and a Champaign County Board member. And some really good discussion! 🙂

I already know I am not going to do justice to all the topics we covered, so I am hoping the participants do not mind sharing their own perspectives. For now I’ll let you remain anonymous until you are ready to attach your name. *grin*

An underlying theme that we seemed to circle back to a few times was that of perception, which manifested itself in several ways. The Barkstall parent is a recent transplant from out of state; not knowing where to look or how to get information at first, she was frustrated by Read the rest of this entry »