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Motivated by Choice?


As a reporter and editor, I have always experienced school choice in a rather abstract way, writing about it as an outsider with no stake in the outcome. To be sure, that helped me maintain my objectivity about a topic that can be very divisive and controversial.

But now, I am living it up close and personal, as my oldest son struggles to decide where he will attend high school.

In our community, public high school students can choose to attend public high schools other than their assigned one. The program--which offers specialty academic programs in fine arts, biotechnology, and other areas--aims to increase student motivation by tapping into teenagers' academic interests. Students who want to go somewhere other than their assigned school must apply for acceptance.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about how this program works and the effect it has had on the teenagers and parents in my neighborhood. (See "Different Directions.") At the time, I was still years away from having to step into the role of helping my son decide what high school would fit his interests, and our family's logistical needs, best.

But now he is in eighth grade and the decision is upon him and us.

I have always believed in the power of options. They can be your ticket out of bad situations and provide you with opportunities to pursue your passions. Educational trends in this country appear to support such options. The share of enrollment for public schools of choice grew from 11 percent to 15 percent of all students in grades 1-12 from 1993 to 2003, according to "Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993-2003," a report recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics. Those schools include public charter schools, magnet schools, and other types of options both within districts and in nearby districts.

But can you give a teenager too many options? Maybe.

My son has watched several of his neighborhood friends who are a year older choose to attend a school other than their assigned school, and the school they chose is a significant distance from our community. Some of his other 8th grade friends plan to attend their assigned school.

My son's interests, however, are leading him toward a third option, a high school that is nearby but is not his assigned high school.

At first thought, you'd think he'd be happy about all these choices. It sure seems like a cool idea to me, someone who never had such an array of choices.

Not so. Time and again, he has told me he wished the county simply made kids go to the school they were assigned to attend. That way, all his neighborhood friends would go there and he wouldn't have to decide, in eighth grade, whether he wants to pursue a fine arts specialty or a biotechnology specialty, whether he wants to follow his friends to the school that is far from our neighborhood, attend his assigned school, or chart an entirely different path.

For those of us who are particularly interested in student motivation issues, this public school choice program is a fascinating experiment to watch. Now, I'll get a chance to see, up close and personal, whether all this choice really leads to increased student motivation.


I'm sure your son feels overwhelmed by the decision, but it's probably not as fatalistic a proposition as "Decide your career in 8th grade." It is possible to change horses (and schools) mid-stream.

If he tries the biotech magnet and doesn't like it, I'll bet he can apply to the fine arts magnet the following year. And the local school has to take him whenever he chooses to attend. Imagine if you had moved to a new district or a new state during his high school career; the local school in your new neighborhood can't refuse to enroll him midyear. The same law applies to the neighborhood school where you now live.

Yes, attending three different schools during the four years of high school might look wonky to a college admissions board. On the other hand, admissions committees are looking for students who have evaluated their options and discovered their passion. If all three schools are college prep academically, a college ap essay explaining his educational odyssey could make him a stronger candidate, not a weaker one.

I appreciated this blog entry as I am presently consumed by middle school options for my current 6th grader. "Magnet" schools are a great idea, at first glance; but seem at deeper inspection to be just a band-aid for the underlying problem they were intended to address. If all neighborhood schools were well-resourced, the issue of choice would not be so prominent or important.

Also, transition to high school (and without one's friends) is already difficult; to do so multiple times in a 4-year period would be too disruptive to an adolescent's overall development.

With so many college students changing majors during a four year career I find it hard to believe that at 13 such a decision isn't for many forced. I like the idea of students having the opportunity to explore a subject deeply within the context of a less specialized school. Such an option prevents the need to move to a new school environment should a student change interests. One thing to consider during these years of self-discovery is that connections between peers and adults is very important in reducing the risk factors for less desireable behavior.

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