Highland Park students’ Florida trip is a reminder of the need for school choice

David DorseyEducation

Imagine you’re a low-income, but academically high achieving student stuck in an inner-city poor performing high school. You think your only post-secondary option is community college. But along comes the district superintendent who takes you to a national conference in Florida, showing you what a big world is out there. That’s what happened to four seniors at Topeka’s Highland Park High School (USD 501). The group was recently taken to a national conference in the Sunshine State with new Topeka Public Schools (USD 501) superintendent Tiffany Anderson.

I am very happy for those four students and their chance to get out and see that it’s a great big world out there and opportunities abound. I spent the last eight years of my teaching career in a USD 501 inner-city school, and came to understand that for many of those students a simple trip to Wal-Mart, something that might be a chore for most of us, was a big deal to those kids. I can only imagine what a trip to Florida meant for kids who attend that high school. Of the 900-plus Highland Park students, more than 80% are considered “economically disadvantaged” by the Kansas State Department of Education.

According to this Topeka Capital-Journal article, before the trip, “leaving their East Topeka neighborhoods to pursue their dreams after graduation is something (the four) had believed would be difficult if not impossible.” One of the girls, who claims to have all but given up on her dream to attend Florida State University and major in business, is now motivated to finish her senior year strong to “have a shot” at FSU.

Good for them, but what about the others? What about their dreams of a better life? These kids are stuck in a school in which ACT scores and graduation rates consistently lag far behind the state average. The dropout rate is three and a half times the state rate and over 90% of the students score in the bottom two levels on state assessments.  Does that sound like a place with a culture of success? What chance do those students have?

Their prospects would be much better if Kansas had real school choice options. I’m not talking about being able to attend Topeka High or Topeka West, or even nearby Shawnee Heights (USD 450). I’m talking about having the opportunity to choose something other than what a traditional inner-city public school has to offer.  What about a school like Capital City Charter in Washington, D.C.? Capital City is a public charter school with a student body that is over 90% minority and three-quarters low income, yet 100% of their graduates are accepted into college. Does that sound like a place where a student’s dream can become a reality? Or what about access to private schools through an educational spending account (ESA) in which parents are given educational dollars directly and can go shopping for better opportunities? Why should only the wealthy be able to choose private schools?

Options should be on the table where all students and families can make choices that could open doors not available through what an inner-city high school typically offers. Would school choice cause all students to abandon their neighborhood school to go elsewhere? Would school choice solve the problems of every student stuck in a high school like Highland Park?  Of course not, but that’s not the point.

starfish-storyIt’s more akin to the parable of a boy throwing starfish back in the water that had washed up on shore. He is approached by an older man who sees the miles of shoreline covered with starfish and asks the boy why he is bothering since he cannot possibly make a difference. While throwing another into the sea he responds: “I made a difference for that one.”

Kansas students need educational choices that allow more of our starfish to be tossed into the ocean.

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