Why Shopping for Schools Must be Strategic—Especially When the School You Love Is Closing

Six weeks into the new school year families filled the gym at Aisha Shule/W.E.B. DuBois Preparatory Academy—despite knowing the school would be closing. It was four years ago and I was part of a team of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers asked to come to a school choice fair being held at the school.

In our role as support for families, we were to greet them, serve light refreshments and remind parents to choose a school wisely.

The room was filled with mixed emotions. Schools hoping to draw students displaced by the closure dressed in their best and brought every tool they could use to lure families to their tables, including cheerleaders, football players, notebooks and plenty of other giveaways. 

They encouraged their student leaders to go through the crowd and speak to families about why choosing their school would be a great idea.

When a few schools showed up that were not on the list for a vendor table, greeters immediately asked questions. “Did you RSVP? Who told you about the fair?” They were told space was limited. Many stood in the parking lot passing out literature to families.

Meanwhile, families had been notified just a few days after count day—the day of the official counting of the number of students enrolled, which sets schools state funding rates—that their quaint little school would be closing. Not at the end of the year but in two weeks.

Parents and students walked around confused. What could they do to save the school, some wanted to know? Was this really happening? They were overwhelmed by the dog-and-pony show the schools were putting on. They just wanted their children to land in a great school—like the one they thought they had.

District leaders took the mic to explain to families that this was real and happening now. They radiated encouragement, telling families there were some good schools in the room and wishing them well in finding one.

I stood there watching in disbelief. Not knowing I was there to support families instead of to find a school for my own child, schools approached me hoping to give as much info as possible.

Across the room, a mom and her son were going back and forth in a heated exchange. You could see the frustration. “Just pick a school,” I heard mom telling her son, as I approached them.

“I don’t want to go to none of these schools,” the young man, a high school senior, told his mom.

I intervened, asking the young man what grade he was in and what schools he had in mind. You could feel the disappointment in his voice. He just shrugged his shoulders. “I wanted to graduate here.”

When Mom started at him again, I stopped her. “Mom, you have to remember that he is going through this, too,” I told her. “This is hard for him, he already had a prom date and everything. This is a shock to everyone. You don’t need to force him to just pick.”

And then I went off script. “Go and visit some of these schools,” I suggested. “Don’t just go off of what you’re being told.”

Mom had not thought about that, she explained. She thought these were the only schools accepting kids right now. I told her to take the next week before deciding. But not to just pick any school for her son.

And then I went to my supervisor and told her I was officially going off duty: “I am about to advocate for these families,” I said. I turned my T-shirt inside out and took off my name tag and went to work. With a few of my fellow AmeriCorps members, I began talking real to families.

“You don’t have to choose these schools here,” we told them. “There are other schools out there.”

I left there with such a sour taste in my mouth. What was taking place was as unfair then as it is now. If you care about education in Detroit you know schools are closing now, which means families are being notified when it’s so late in the game that they can’t find the best seats to meet their kids’ needs.

Four years later, parents are still coming to school choice fairs and leaving frustrated. And schools still show up with a big show and gifts.

The good thing is that now there are formal advocates available to dish out the kind of informed guidance we had to go into guerrilla mode to share at Aisha Shule.

A nonprofit program to help families find schools that meet their needs, Enroll Detroit, has hosted family friendly school fairs, co-hosted fairs for Phoenix Academy, Experiencia, University Yes Academy and most recently STARR Detroit Academy in Harper Woods.

We partner with closing schools as a support to families to help them “Learn, Apply and Enroll.” We do not work for schools, we work for families.

We act as greeters, encouraging families coming through the front door to:

— Know what you need for your child before enrolling them in any school,

— Know who authorizes the school,

— and Ask questions about your needs, such as “what are your class sizes?” “What’s your teacher-retention rate?” and “Will I be waitlisted or do you have actual seats available?”

Other questions we suggest:

— “When will I know if I am enrolled?”

— “What specific support do you have here for my child, such as special ed services, before- and after-school care and languages taught?”

The list can go on and on depending on the child.

Once a parent applies and enrolls, it’s important to know your rights about homeless/foster youth issues, as well as special ed services governed by Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans. Know important dates, orientations and schedules for tests and auditions.

If you have been accepted in more than one school make sure you let go of the seats you won’t occupy so other children can have those slots. Make sure you show up the first day of school and every day. Go to parent meetings so that you stay up to date as possible with your child’s school.

We talk to families and offer additional support outside of the school fair. We follow up with families to make sure they have enrolled in a new school. We connect with schools to make sure families and schools receive students’ transcripts in a timely fashion.

And we will go to schools with families if they have issues around enrolling.

We are dedicated to these families. At times all a parent needs is an ear to help them give themselves the answers they need. Families call back and give us updates. A lot of them were thankful that they thought it through before just enrolling anywhere.

The reality is that schools are closing. Each year both charter and public schools close for many reasons. School expos need to be designed with maximum support in place for the families and students impacted by these closures. Just rows and rows of tables set up by schools is not the answer.

Parents need to know there are organizations like ours who will help them navigate this process—without a vested interest in the schools that are trying to attract their child.

We are Enroll Detroit. We’ve done this work as parents, as volunteers and now as a dedicated group of advocates who know what it feels like to be frustrated and disappointed about enrolling our own children in schools.

So as these closures take place, think more strategically about how you engage families.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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