A School Choice Program That's Working

In September 1991, the Michigan Legislature required all public school districts to implement a "choice" program in the 1992-93 school year in order to be eligible for state funding. If a district had more than one elementary or more than one secondary school, it was to construct a policy for allowing parents to freely choose the particular school where they wished to send a child.

A recent study from The Mackinac Center for Public Policy revealed that very few Michigan parents today have any more choice in public education than they had before the Legislature acted. The overwhelming number of districts simply ratified existing transfer policies and called the result "choice" while doing little or nothing either to inform parents of their options or diversify offerings to make choice truly meaningful.

From the southern Wayne County town of Wyandotte comes an interesting exception. There, the school district developed a grander vision of choice than mere transfer policy and its benefits are already visible.

Wyandotte actually began its "Program of Choice " (P.O.C) in the 1991-92 school year at McKinley Elementary, months before the Legislature's mandate. Several teachers were sent out to examine alternative programs. They were determined to find a new instructional model that was unique and effective--the main ingredients needed to catch parents' attention and give them a real choice. The model they were most impressed with was at Key Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The P.O.C. at McKinley Elementary is not all that different from what is offered throughout the district, but "it's the way they teach the curriculum that's different," according to the Wyandotte District's Director of Curriculum Robert J. Dunn. Based on innovative teaching methods in place at the Indianapolis school, McKinley's program seeks to provide students "the flexibility to make some choices" about what they study while teaching them that they also must learn to be "responsible for their time and how they use it."

Now half way through its second year, this novel pedagogy serves first through fourth grade students and will include fifth grade in the 1993-94 academic year and sixth grade the year after that. With a current maximum capacity of 125 students, enthusiastic parents have filled the program; it now has a waiting list.

An important component in the McKinley P.O.C. is involvement by parents, characterized in a consulting firm's review as "an alive, active, ongoing event," unlike many parental involvement efforts elsewhere which "are token in nature and make little impact on the learning process." Parents placing their children in the McKinley program are required to sign a written agreement that, among other things, stipulates that they will provide transportation for their children and two hours per month of in-school support. Director Dunn says that most parents spend considerably more time than the minimum expected; some spend as much as 20 hours a week at the school. Parents are also expected to meet on a regular basis with the teacher to discuss their child's progress.

McKinley Principal Dolores O'Kray describes what's happening at the school as "an excellent academic and personal growth opportunity for children." She added, "I have noticed a feeling of extended family and true cooperative learning. I believe that when people have choices, they work particularly hard at making those choices successful." Indeed, a survey of parents last year indicated their overwhelming endorsement of the program.

The P.O.C. was not implemented without opposition. "We had a number of grievances filed by the (teacher's) union against us...on any number of grounds, anything they could think of," says Director Dunn. "There was also a need," he says, "to work on elementary principals and other professionals who did not want to see it happen."

The program survived that initial hostility and has produced expressions of support from all involved teachers. One, with 30 years of teaching experience, says it has made teaching "fun, exciting and new again."

Other districts across Michigan could learn much by studying the details of the McKinley Program of Choice in Wyandotte. Among its lessons are these:

· Choice doesn't have to mean a different building. In this case, it has meant a different program in an existing building. And state government doesn't have to force it on districts if districts really commit themselves to the concept and act on their own initiative.

· When teachers, parents, and students are all committed to an educational process, the conditions for a dynamic learning environment emerge. Choice that springs from real diversity and innovation is a powerful catalyst for those conditions.

· Choice does not have to be expensive. Director Dunn claims the McKinley program costs no more--and maybe even less--than the standard offering in the district.

· Entrenched teacher unions behave as though preserving the status quo is more important than the children they're supposed to teach, but creative district officials bucked up by determined parents and a few bold teachers can overcome such opposition.

The diversity and creativity that give meaning to choice in public schooling are no longer factors we have to search beyond Michigan to find. Wyandotte in Wayne County is one place where they exist today.