Meet Families Where They Are: Lessons Learned from Expanding Access to Public School Choice
November 16, 2017

Advocates across the PIE Network are working to provide high-quality school options for students and families. For the past six years, Network member DC School Reform Now (DCSRN) has uniquely driven this mission by partnering with D.C. parents to navigate a complex school lottery and application process. Recently, PIE Network partner the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released a brief on this work—the first in a three part series—highlighting key lessons learned that could be replicated in other communities, including recommendations for advocates seeking to more broadly improve access to choice. Below, DCSRN Executive Director and PIE Network board member David Pickens explains how DCSRN has approached partnering with families.

Meet Families Where They Are: Lessons Learned from Expanding Access to Public School Choice

By David Pickens, Executive Director, DC School Reform Now

When I came to DCSRN in 2010, I had a vision that still stands at the forefront of our organization today: that every student in D.C. should have access to a high quality principal, teacher, and school, no matter where they come from. Though there were an abundance of school choice options in the district, families, especially those from the underserved communities of Ward 7 and Ward 8, lacked the resources and support needed to complete the application process that would allow them to compete for quality seats. During the fall of 2011, that vision turned into action when DCSRN launched the High Quality Schools Campaign (HQSC), aimed at leveling the school choice playing field for families by helping them apply, enroll, and persist in quality public schools.

Lack of Traditional High-Quality Options

Not participating in the public school lottery process puts students from underserved communities at a disadvantage that their wealthier peers will never face. Collectively, Ward 7 and Ward 8 have three quality traditional elementary schools, two quality traditional middle schools, and no quality traditional high schools. Without applying through the lottery to a high quality school, students’ chances of meeting the bar for college and career readiness are substantially lower. That first year, DCSRN helped families representing 100 students apply to quality schools, giving them access to school options that could change the course of their children’s lives.  

Parent-Centered Outreach

Since the pilot campaign, DCSRN has engaged families representing over 2,000 students in the school choice process, and has learned many lessons along the way that have evolved into best practices when engaging families. Key to DCSRN’s model are parent advocates, who are experts in D.C. school choice and act as personal coaches to families. Advocates work one-on-one with parents to assess their priorities, their child’s priorities, and ultimately recommend quality school options for families that meet those specific needs.

Having an advocate proved to be essential for engaging families.

DCSRN does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, but seeks to meet parents where they are, and advocates are able to tailor their work to individual families.

Many of the families that advocates serve have never filled out an application before. Many have competing priorities that prevent them from completing the application on their own. Many lack crucial resources, such as computer access or an internet connection, that make completing an online application challenging. Support from an advocate helps to alleviate these barriers, and ultimately builds a relationship between advocate and parent as they work together to find the best school options. A strong relationship not only makes the process more accessible to parents, but also develops them into strong, confident advocates for their child’s education.       

What’s Replicable

Through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, DCSRN has collaborated with the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to study and refine the HQSC model. CRPE will release three briefs on this work; the first of these, Making School Choice Work for Families, was recently published, and seeks to evaluate the HQSC and share lessons with other school districts and community-based organizations looking to improve families’ access to high-quality schools. Findings reveal that leveraging partnerships, developing high-quality supports for advocates, and meticulously tracking challenges and results provide families with the deeper, more personalized support that they desire. Parents also need broader investments from city agencies and districts to better understand school-wide data and mitigate systemic barriers such as neighborhood safety, transportation, and availability of quality seats in order to fully engage in the public school choice process.

We know that we have a long way to go in leveling the playing field for students and families, but if we continue to identify best practices that provide families with better information and support, we can work toward building systems that give every family the opportunity to access the best education for their child.


David Pickens

David is DC School Reform Now's Executive Director


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