This proposal addresses an unexplored question in policy debates surrounding school choice: what type and quality of support do students and their families receive from elementary school personnel in making decisions about where to apply and attend high school. Proponents of school choice emphasize its potential to expand students' access to high quality schools and ability to avoid lower-performing/ failing schools. Additionally, choice is thought to provide students and families the flexibility to choose schools with academic offerings that best meet their individual needs, preferences, and goals. This proposal examines two questions: first, what support do students receive from school personnel about which high schools to apply to or attend; and second, what factors ultimately influence the choices that students and families make.
This analysis uses data from a longitudinal, mixed-method research study examining Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students' transition from elementary to high school. The research combines qualitative data on groups of students, teachers, counselors, and schools; survey data gathered through biannual surveys of all teachers and students in CPS; and district-wide administrative records. Qualitative data was gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews with a sample of 75 students between May 2008 and February 2009, first in four public elementary schools and later in five public high schools.
Interview data indicate that multiple social-ecological factors, including proximity of schools to students' homes; perception of school and community safety; perceived academic quality of schools; presence/absence of particular extracurricular or sports programs; and general reputation of schools shape choices. Students receive mainly passive, circumscribed support from elementary school personnel in the school choice process. Support from teachers appears uneven; support from counselors appears more uniform, but extremely limited. Counselors describe their roles in terms of the passive provision of information about school options. Evidence suggests higher-achieving students receive more and/or higher quality support, indicating a kind of inverted triage in which only the students who need the least assistance are likely to receive any. Minimal contact between school personnel and students' families also suggests that support systems have not included family systems. School social workers' involvement with students appears limited to servicing special education students.
Conclusions & Implications
School choice programs' potential to increase educational equity of opportunity depends partly on systems' effectiveness in supporting informed decision-making. School personnel's role in the school choice process appears ill-defined, producing uneven, often passive, and non-specific support, rather than contextually sensitive, individualized guidance. Evidence also indicates a critical inattention to family systems, both as a source of resources and a site of critical decision-making authority. School social workers' familiarity with social-ecological theories and experience working at intersections between family systems and schools positions them to support the implementation of an important school reform strategy. Although typically restricted to servicing special education students, these findings indicate that school social work practice should claim and apply its expertise to support school choice reform's goal of increasing equity of opportunity in an historically segregated, heavily stratified urban school district.