Parents descended on the downtown Minneapolis Hilton and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St Paul on Saturday, like sharks on a wounded surfer, for the annual School Choice Fairs, held by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and St Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Sometimes seen as an opportunity for well-off “super parents” to compete for slots in the districts’ best schools, officials from both school districts said crowds this year seemed to attract a more diverse set this year.
The fairs are a central part of the School Choice process in each district, where parents must pick a school for their child to attend if the student is entering pre-school, kindergarten, sixth grade, or ninth grade, or if they’ve recently moved to the district. In both Minneapolis and St Paul, a parent must apply for a spot in any school, even if they’re only interested in the neighborhood elementary school across the street from their apartment. The process was originally designed to help poor and minority children get access to the same schools as privileged, typically white children.
Minneapolis’ charter schools held a similar fair on Saturday.
For many parents I spoke to, “overwhelming” didn’t even begin to describe the process. Melissa and Joe Erjavec of Minneapolis started trying to find an elementary school for their five-year-old son Ephiram last year.
“Right now, we’re really interested in Whittier Elementary – the classrooms are bright, they’ve got a strong language program, and because they used to be an arts magnet school, they still have a strong music program,” Joe said in an interview last month, ticking off some of their most important concerns.
Transportation is also an issue, the couple said. “It depends on what you can afford to do,” Melissa said. “For example, Emerson [Spanish Immersion School] starts at 7:30 a.m. – that’s when we’re usually getting ready for work…others start at 9:30. We need to know if there’s before or after-school care, and busing,” she said.
To get to this point, the couple said they had looked at seven different elementary schools from Emerson Spanish Immersion to Hiawatha Elementary, their neighborhood school. “We’ve talked to parents at these schools, and parents of Ephiram’s former pre-kindergarten classmates…we’ve used a lot of online resources” like Department of Education scores and news articles, said Melissa.
Parents at both fairs moved aggressively from booth to booth, peppering parent volunteers and administrators with questions. Many were so intent on their search that I found it hard to stop them for an interview.
“It’s definitely overwhelming,” said Caralin Dees of St Paul, who was looking for a kindergarten for her four-year-old daughter with her husband Matt. The couple said they hadn’t done much research before the fair. “We’re looking for an elementary with a math-science focus…but really, how much do we want to limit her. I mean, she’s only four!”
Some parents said they would judge schools by what they saw at the fair. Nicole Betlach, of Minneapolis, said she was judging schools she saw by how much parent involvement they described, in addition to the availability of programs like all-day childcare. Maria Barrett, of St Paul, said she would be swayed by “how much information do they [a school] present? Are they approachable?”
Many parents I spoke with, like the Erjavec family, came with a list of specific programs they were looking for. Brittainy Dixon, of Woodbury, was at the St Paul fair looking for a Spanish immersion or a Montessori school for her 5-year-old daughter. “I went to a Montessori school here…and Spanish is a good skill to have.”
“I know the chances are slim,” she said, of getting one of the few spots in St Paul’s most popular programs. “I still really want to send my kids here. I know the schools, and I’m comfortable with the district.”
Jill Cacey, Director of SPPS’ Student Placement Center, acknowledged the process was overwhelming and intimidating for under-prepared parents, but pointed to the large counseling station they had set up to help parents through the process. Every table at the station was full of parents. “We put a face on the whole process,” she said. “We ask them, ‘consider what your child likes. Music? Science? …What’s important to you in a school? An orderly environment?”
“We try to help them get specific” about their needs as a parent, Cacey said.
This year, Cacey said, SPPS had dramatically increased their outreach to current and prospective parents with multi-lingual advertising in city-wide and community publications, particularly trying to get minority parents to come to the fair. While neither the Minneapolis nor the St Paul Public Schools could provide specific numbers by the time this story went to press, officials with both organizations said the crowd was substantially more diverse than in previous years.
James Sanna (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.