The Public School Shuffle

When it was time for my son to begin school, I made a commitment to public schools.

I attended Catholic school. My mom told us it was mostly due to convenience. My sister and I were born after December 1st, and she couldn’t wait another year to enroll us in school.

I chose public school because of my commitment to our education system and as a young, single mom I couldn’t afford private school.

But, it has been a long and challenging road.

I was lucky as a UCLA student, my son attended preschool and kindergarten through their early learning program for free. When it came time to enroll in 1st grade, I looked up the API score for dozens of schools. At that time, California had an Academic Performance Index (API) system that scored schools from 200-1000. I moved from Palms to the Silver Lake/Echo Park area because of the local elementary school.

This would be the beginning of the angst and worry I had for 15 years, each time I had to find a new school for my sons. Unless you live in a very affluent area, finding a good school in California is nearly impossible.

I relocated to the Bay Area and began the process again. I moved Oakland, where I could afford to live, but the schools near my new apartment didn’t have high API scores. I used a friend’s address in Berkeley and enrolled my son in the only school with an opening. It was the lowest performing school, but all schools in Berkeley were pretty good.   

For middle school, we went with the school in our neighborhood. It was small and most of his friends were going. It was originally a magnet school, with a strong academic record. For high school, there was only one in the district. I did discuss private school options with my son. He wasn’t interested, which worked out since I wasn’t sure I could afford it.

I wish he had gone to a smaller high school. It was easy for a boy, especially a boy of color, to get lost at a school with 3,000+ students. While he thrived playing lacrosse, he did not get the academic support needed.

I then became a step-mom and started the school search process again. By this time, California wasn’t using the API system. Luckily, when we blended our family I lived in a neighborhood with one of the higher performing elementary schools in our district. We enrolled our son.

For middle school we were faced with yet another dilemma. We had moved and the local middle school didn’t have good test scores. I went online and researched every middle school in the district. My friend was on the board of a charter organization. That year, they had the highest test scores. We enrolled our son in that charter school.

We are nearly done, my son is a Junior. Where to send him to high school, was our last P-12 choice.  We are zoned for one of the worst high schools in the district, according to test scores and high school graduation rates. Our district does not publish college-going rates by school.

Again, I researched every neighborhood and charter high school in the district. I found Middle College, an innovative program where students attend high school at the community college and graduate with an AA and high school diploma. They had strong test scores and 100% of students go on to college. He applied and was accepted. Thank goodness.

Most of our choices were informed by school test scores and assessments available online. Sometimes I didn’t have a choice. Each time, my choices were minimal and limited.

Through the winding road that has been our school choice process, I’m thankful for the coincidences, luck, and people who supported me at each process. I’m also highly aware that families should not have to work this hard to get our children a good education.

What do you think?

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Raquel F. Donoso

Raquel F. Donoso

Raquel F. Donoso is a parent, advocate, writer, and results-driven leader. Her mission to increase educational equity for students began when she became a single mother in college. Having first-hand knowledge of the barriers and obstacles low-income, single-parent families experience, she dedicated her life to increasing opportunities for other families like hers. With 20-years of experience in the social sector, she founded Just Results Consulting, a mission-driven firm that works to increase opportunities for children, youth, and families. Prior to JR, she directed the Mission Promise Neighborhood, a $30M federally funded initiative to create a cradle to college to career pipeline in San Francisco and was CEO of the Latino Community Foundation. Raquel earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from UCLA and is currently completing her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from UC, Davis. Her older son is a graduate of Clark University, and her younger son is a Junior at Middle College in West Contra Costa.

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