Future of The Choice Is Yours uncertain

By Sheila Regan
Contributing Writer

Kao Xue and Soua Xiong, two students in The Choice is Yours

Minnesota’s The Choice Is Yours program, which was started 10 years ago as a result of a settlement between the State of Minnesota and the NAACP, allows inner-city, low-income students from Minneapolis to attend suburban schools and Minneapolis magnet schools.

Supporters of the program, such as Jay Clark from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), fear that it is in danger of ending, and that the end of the program would close an educational opportunity that is vital to low-income, inner-city students.

Since The Choice Is Yours program’s inception, the number of Minneapolis students attending suburban schools through the program has increased. The first year, 472 participated, and that number increased three-fold the first seven years of its existence, according to a multi-year report by ASPEN Associates, Inc.

Currently there are about 2,000 students enrolled, according to Christine Dufour, deputy communications director of the Minnesota Department of Education.

In March 2000, after a bitter legal battle between the NAACP and the State of Minnesota, a settlement required eight suburban school districts to reserve 500 seats for low-income city students each year for the next four years (for a total of 2000). The lawsuit stipulated that the State would pay for busing and also communicate with families about school options.

The eight partnering school districts that began The Choice Is Yours were Columbia Heights, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, St. Louis Park, St. Anthony/New Brighton, Robbinsdale and Wayzata. Eden Prairie, not involved in the original lawsuit, voluntarily admitted The Choice Is Yours students in 2005, according to the ASPEN report.

The Choice Is Yours program has continued after the four-year requirement, although the results have been mixed. According to the ASPEN report, after four years, the answer to the question “What impact does The Choice Is Yours program have on student achievement?” remains unanswered.

The report states that a comparison of the annual growth of suburban choice participants in reading and mathematics to that of eligible non-participants revealed mixed results over the years.

For some students, the opportunity has been an invaluable way to get a better education. The ASPEN report states that almost all suburban choice parents (96 percent in the final year) would recommend the program to others. However, there is a high turnover rate with the program, with only two-thirds of the participants returning each year for the first seven years, according to the Aspen report.

Funding for the program, which comes from the federal level, is supposed to continue through 2013. But the funding comes at the discretion of Congress, according to Christine Dufour, who said the federal government determines the actual amounts to be awarded each fiscal year.

CURA’s Jay Clark said that a number of the Hmong immigrant children that he works with have been trying to apply to Wayzata High School. Last December, they were told that Wayzata wasn’t taking any more The Choice Is Yours students. Last June, Hopkins stopped taking new students, according to Clark. Also, Edina has put a cap on the number of students that can come in, according to Clark.

Heather Lindstrom from Minnesota’s Department of Education said that the state pays for The Choice Is Yours program through Voluntary Public School Choice, a federal funding grant. Though the State has been granted the award through 2013, funding has only been allocated through this year.

“It may or may not continue,” Lindstrom said. The grant is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Education in partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools, the West Metro Education program, the Center for School Change (which works with dual enrollment students through PSOP), the Plymouth Youth Program, and Lang Evaluation.

Lindstrom said that recruitment for The Choice Is Yours varies. Currently, information is available at the Hennepin County Government Center. Other recruitment efforts include flyers at the bus stops, information at buses and at the Mall of America, distribution of brochures, radio advertisements, and publicity at culturally specific community activities.

During the 2004-2005 school year, the Minneapolis Parent Information Centers, which were supposed to facilitate outreach and support for students, were originally headed up by the NAACP before forming a nonprofit organization and receiving 501(c)(3) status, according to the ASPEN report.  The centers, one at Sabathani Community Center and one at 2000 Plymouth Avenue North, have both closed.

Michael Schwartz, business manager for Richfield Public Schools, said that this year there were 117 students enrolled in Richfield’s The Choice Is Yours program, which peaked in 2007 with 211 students. Schwartz said that his understanding is that once a school district reaches 50 percent free or reduced lunch students, the school district shouldn’t have to continue the program.

“The demographics of Richfield are more closely aligned with the urban school districts,” Schwartz said. “The diversity of our school district continues to grow.” Richfield currently only accepts new The Choice Is Yours students for high school, although they are allowing some elementary-level students to continue in the program.

“We feel we can teach to all kids,” Schwartz said. He said there is some perception in the community that there is a negative connotation attached to The Choice Is Yours students, but he said that the kids that participate “are good kids… There really is no problem.”

Columbia Heights does not cap enrollment for The Choice Is Yours; this year, they have 401 students. The number has gone up every year, according to Nicole Halabi, director of student services.

Halabi said that the students participating in the program have access to the variety of programming that Columbia Heights offers, particularly a very strong after-school program called Encore. The drawback, she said, is that there is poor turnout for parent-teacher conferences because the schools aren’t close to home.

Jim Grathwol, a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools, said The Choice Is Yours program has produced mixed results academically. In the survey data, parents and kids feel good about their choices, but there is a significant attrition rate hovering around 50 percent.

Minneapolis has an abundance of choices for low-income students, according to Grathwol, including charter and magnet schools, The Choice Is Yours, and other programs. But, he asked, “How do we demonstrate we’re delivering for the low-income students we serve?”

While there seems to be agreement that the current model isn’t getting the job done, the innovations, such as charter, The Choice Is Yours, open enrollment, etc., “don’t seem to be delivering game-changing improvements… What do we need to do to move the needle?

“All I can say is we are participating in The Choice Is Yours voluntarily,” Grathwol said. “We’re looking at internal and external programs and asking, ‘Is this the best tool to deliver results we want?’ Uniformly, we’re under-whelmed by our ability to close the achievement gap in a systematic matter.”

Unfortunately, he said, there’s “no silver bullet.”

Thanks to Sheila Regan and the TC Daily Planet for sharing this story with us.