GenAll Intern Reflection: High School Choice isn’t Really a Choice

I grew up in Thornton, Colorado, a northern suburb of Denver. It’s a town with boundaries that straddle the boundary line between the cookie-cutter suburbs and the large swaths of prairie farmlands that make up most of the northern half of the state. Colorado has made some questionable policy decisions when it comes to education, and I feel that my experience is an example of many of the pitfalls of school choice as a public education policy decision.

My high school selection came as I had completed 8th grade at a K-8 charter school, and my peers and I were all faced with the decision of where to go to school now that our charter education had concluded. Most of us had been sheltered in the small school environment for years, having received an education that only a handful of students with high enough test scores were given access to. Attending a charter was beneficial to me in the sense that it provided me with a rigorous education, but the “gifted and talented education” environment also instilled a sense of elitism and snobbishness in myself and the rest of my 8th-grade cohort.

Most of us had never attended a traditional public school up until that point, and our opinions about the public high school options were, regrettably, mostly informed by middle school gossip. This gossip ranged from the relatively benign to the outright outrageous. Everyone at Legacy High School has  a pill problem, they said. Thornton and Northglenn High Schools were written off as “dangerous” and “ghetto”. There were nasty nicknames coined for Horizon High School, because its facility included a daycare center for students who were also young parents. Mountain Range High School, the most recent addition to the district, was too new to have developed much in the way of a “reputation”, but the general consensus among the middle school elitists was negative. Of course, none of us realized the more alarming fact about all of these high schools, which was that they were highly segregated across racial and socio-economic lines, and were contributing to an inequitable system that separated students based on demographics and academic performance.

“Adams 12 Five-Star School District”, as it is officially named, was a big proponent of school choice, and offered options for students in a variety of ways. Everyone had a “boundary” high school where they were guaranteed a spot. Then there were many charter school options. Additionally, if a student wanted to go to a different high school in the district, they could apply to “choice in”. This meant applying to a lottery to the different school, and a certain number of students would be pulled from the lottery to attend depending on the number of spots available. Some schools were much more difficult to “choice” into because demand to go there was higher. However, there was somewhat of a back-door option to the “choice” process. Many of the high schools also ran specialty programs – IB, STEM, liberal arts, etc. – and if one was accepted into the specialty program, they would automatically be allowed to “choice in” to the school.

Despite the negative comments about all the high schools, there was definitely a hierarchy of preference among them. Legacy was generally regarded as the “best”, but that made it very challenging to choice into unless you could gain admission to their rigorous STEM program “Legacy 2000”, or “L2k”, as it was nicknamed. The stakes for this were high, however: L2k had very strict expectations for your high school grades and conduct, and if you failed to meet those, you could be kicked out of the program. For those students who had obtained their choice slots through L2k, this meant being kicked out of your high school, as well.  Yet this was not a deterrent, because I had always gone to school in an environment that prioritized educational prestige over everything else. So despite a lukewarm interest in STEM, and the added stresses that would come from having my school enrollment so directly tied to my grades, I applied to the program and ended up attending Legacy as an L2k student for all four years.

Did that end up being the right choice for me? Yes and no. At Legacy, I was fortunate to have a few really great teachers who supported me.  Also, being surrounded by my ruthlessly ambitious L2k peers definitely pushed me to work harder and apply to colleges I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. The selective program was insular, to be sure, but it also created a tight-knit group of people all in the same academically challenging boat.

However, I sometimes think about the other high school opportunities I turned down in favor of the “prestige” of the high school I chose to attend. Considering the activities I ended up getting involved with later in my high school years – theatre, music, and writing – I realize that many of the high schools I brushed off in my selection process actually had much better programs for those things than Legacy did. The Legacy 2000 program demanded so much of my time that I was never really able to experiment with academic subjects or even indulge in free time, either – my schedule was so full of credits that I didn’t even have a lunch period for my entire junior and senior years of high school! Additionally, the academic stratification of Legacy, in conjunction with its location in a pretty racially and socio-economically homogenous area left me with the distinct impression that my entire high school experience was taking place in a bubble.

I remember during the whole process of school selection that my parents were frustrated with all the extra steps it took just to enroll their child in a public high school. Why can’t everyone just go to the school down the street like we did growing up? Looking back, I absolutely agree with them. My experience with Generation All has really helped me see how inequitable my school district was. I always had teen-angst frustrations at the homogeneity of my suburban hometown. A big part of my desire to come to the University of Chicago, and part of why I have loved living in this city so much for the past 3 years, was because I wanted to burst my aforementioned bubble and experience the cultural diversity of a large city. I now firmly believe that neighborhood schools are a big part of what helps contribute to and foster that diversity. Just like my hometown, Chicago is city that supports school choice. But from my own experience, I can see how these choices might overwhelm students and foster negative perceptions of the schools deemed “other” by students whose choices separate them from the general school population over the years. My experience taught me how education is about more than just a means to an ivory tower end – it’s about cultivating communities, learning from the people around you, and finding your place in the world. Unfortunately, and probably unintentionally, I think school choice has the adverse effect of undermining these aspects of education. It’s my hope that communities like Thornton, Chicago, and countless others can keep these ideas in mind as the debate over education reform continues.

-Hannah Skaran is a summer intern at GenAll and a rising senior at University of Chicago.

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