A. Getting Beyond Square One
Not all school districts opted for the minimalist course of merely formalizing existing transfer policies or seeking exemption from the choice mandate. Some districts saw in the mandate an opportunity for restructuring, innovation and school improvement. Others had begun their improvement efforts prior to or independently of the choice legislation. Such initiatives am perhaps some of the most encouraging steps that districts are presently taking toward expanding educational choice. The following section highlights several districts whose programs may serve as models for other districts.
The Farmington District already had an elementary magnet program and early childhood centers, but it opened up the rest of its schools to choice as part of its plan. Unlike most other districts, Farmington's choice efforts did not end with the Board's formalization of its past practices, according to the March 23, 1992 Farmington Observer:
Superintendent Michael Flanagan called Tuesday's report and board action the first phase in the district's study of choice programs. "It does not end tonight," he said. "What I hope to bring is other legitimate choice options. But it can't be done overnight." In that vein, the district plans to form a second committee to study the future of other choice programs and schools within the district, which educators believe will be parent-driven in terms of what is offered. A year-round school -within-a-school will be piloted at Gill Elementary this fall.
Kalamazoo, despite its formalization of existing policy, has made notable progress toward installing a fine choice program. Although the district already boasts a magnet program, administrators hope to expand it in the near future after evaluating the Lincoln International Studies Center, which was initiated in 1991. That school features the regular district curriculum, but also places an emphasis on international studies and foreign languages. According to the schools of choice plan drafted by a subcommittee of the Kalamazoo Public Schools Redistricting Task Force, "The Lincoln International Studies Center is the only public open enrollment school in Kalamazoo County and the only school of its type in all of Southwest Michigan."
Several years ago, the district began a math and science center with a $2 million grant from a private company. The Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center (KAMSC) is a unique, ongoing partnership between area public and private sectors. Developed with the cooperation of greater Kalamazoo area schools, KAMSC welcomed its first class of 75 students in 1986. Funded with a $2 million grant from The Upjohn Company and administered by the Kalamazoo Public Schools, KAMSC reflects a creative continuing relationship involving public education and private industry.
In the Anchor Bay District, sixth grade students this year will have the choice of taking a "special class at the junior high. It will offer more homework, more structure and, possibly, more math and science," assuming that the district is able to fund the program, according to April 22, 1992's The Bay Voice. The Anchor Bay Beacon of April 23, 1992, notes, "Competitive opportunities will be stressed and parents of students involved will be required to commit ten hours a month volunteer involvement in the program."
Flint is increasing school autonomy and moving toward site-based management. Under the district's choice plan, schools will be given the freedom to develop special programs to attract students in the manner prescribed by Board of Education policies and procedures. Of the district's 32 elementary schools, 19 draw students from outside their attendance areas; of Flint's 4 middle schools, 3 do so; all three high schools do so as well. In addition to choosing from Flint's magnet and gifted programs, high school students can enroll in classes at several high schools in order to take classes that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Students, however, are required to provide their own transportation.
In its recommendation to the Board, Lapeer's Planning Committee wrote,
The committee recommends that we delay implementation of "schools of choice" in grades K-6 [grade 7-12 transfers endorsed] until our building/bond program is completed and at that time revisit the issue.. .. Additionally, the committee would like to recommend that the Board consider establishing (on a longer range basis than our April 1, 1992 deadline allows) procedures for exploring the possibilities of further restructuring to look at school year options, length of day options and facilities which might further extend the study of math, science and vocational subjects.
Superintendent Jack McCauley agreed with the committee's approach and emphasized that the Board as a whole is likewise in agreement with the recommendation.
From the mid-70s until the mid-80s Lapeer had a year-round school of choice that was very popular. Due largely to rising transportation costs, the rapidly growing district had to eliminate its school of choice program. In subsequent years, the district offered transfers but even though Lapeer formalized its transfer policy to conform with state law, neither the Committee nor the Board were satisfied.
The district is presently waiting on a $40 million building/bond issue to be used for upgrading its elementary buildings. After renovating the elementary buildings, the Lapeer district will "begin to look at unique schools or schools with unique programs," McCauley said. "The committee and the Board are interested in choice with legitimate options to choose from," he explained, adding that there is "no point to schools of choice if ... [the district is] not offering a choice in schools."
The Wyoming District glimpsed an important part of a full schools of choice vision as well. It is one of a few districts to understand choice as part of a larger reform process. According to a letter distributed with schools of choice information,
Wyoming public schools embraces this mandate because it supports the school improvement process that the District has been working on over the past several years. Site-based management has allowed principals and staff to develop programs and apply for grants that are unique to their building. While core curriculum is provided at each school, choice will encourage diversity within the system and provide programs, activities, and training that fulfill differing student needs.
The benefits of Wyoming's approach can be seen in its wide array of curricular offerings. According to district documents, East Elementary provides "staff members [who] are actively involved in improving their skills in areas such as: outcomes based instruction, mastery learning, thematic unit instruction, instruction with math manipulatives, Chicago math program, Math Their Way, Cooperative learning, and AIMS." The school has departmentalized the fifth grade and offers cross-ace tutoring as well. Gladiola Elementary, in contrast, "provides a computer lab for students that is organized and managed by a parent coordinator and sixteen volunteer parents." Parkview Elementary emphasizes computer literacy even more strongly and "is implementing the Quality Schools program by Dr. Glasser." Such variety characterizes the district as a whole.
Developed in April 1992 by the Lansing District's Planning Committee, A Plan for Creating Schools of Choice in Lansing takes a measured, well thought-out approach to providing students with educational choice. "The committee was not satisfied with simply meeting the letter of the law. Its members maintained that choice is not authentic unless families have something different to choose from. Therefore, a substantial amount of time was spent on determining how Lansing schools could implement programs with diverse content, teaching styles, and educational philosophies," the report states.
Lansing's Committee also suggests that "Individual schools should be allowed to develop programming that best suits the needs of students and the characteristics of staff, facilities, and location; parents should be involved actively in the process to develop such programming.... In order to offer choice, there must be difference.... We believe that a controlled choice [program where] each school has special or diverse programming is the best choice option for the LSD, but it must be phased in gradually."
With the recognition that real choice means having distinct alternatives, however, came the realization that most successful choice programs have been constructed over a much longer period of time than was provided to school districts and planning committees by the Michigan Legislature. According to the committee, "[T]he members of the committee believe strongly that this plan is only the first step. Most choice plans that have been implemented around the country have taken three or more years to develop; this committee was given only three months." The committee recommended that a six-year plan be developed, and proposed a detailed preliminary timetable (which appears in full in Appendix 4).
An interesting recommendation – one made possible by the Lansing district's size – is that the district should be divided into regions, and students and parents should be allowed to choose among schools located within the region in which they live. Such an organizational feature can minimize the cost and logistical problems of transporting students and can minimize the time students spend traveling to and from school. One can easily envision such an approach being used even in smaller districts with decentralized populations. Such controlled choice can limit the variety of programs available to particular students, however, if the regions do not all offer the same options.