In St. Louis, Parents Go Digital To Make Sense Of School Choice
Angelee and Paul Brockmeyer have a soft spot for urban living and fixer-uppers.
The couple spent five years rehabbing an old home in Chicago. So, when they decided to pack up and come to St. Louis to be closer to family, Paul spent his weekends scouring the city's nooks and crannies for their next project.
What they found was a sprawling Victorian in Compton Heights in need of elbow grease and updates.
“It’s kind of easy to get sold on the whole package when you have this great neighborhood and you really love your house,” Angelee said.
But with a 4-week-old and plans for a growing family, Angelee said the couple had a lingering question: “What are you going to do with your children for schools?”
Fast forward four years and the Brockmeyers are a bustling family of five. The late 19th-century Victorian that caught their eye back in 2010 has been given a second life. Toy trucks roll across the living room and children peer out of the stately home’s arched window. As the Brockmeyers’ children approached school age, Angelee and Paul began asking around about the long list of options in St. Louis.
“There were boat loads of families spending tons and tons of time on all sorts of different sites trying to get the information they need to make school choices for their families,” Angelee said.
'There were boat loads of families spending tons and tons of time on all sorts of different sites trying to get the information they need to make school choices for their families.' -- parent Angelee Brockmeyer
Angelee, who taught Kindergarten in Chicago public schools for seven years, would trade stories with her husband after they put down the kids at night.
“’Well, so-and-so was saying this and so-and-so was saying that,’” Angelee recalled. “It was really making the choices too difficult.”
Ultimately they settled on Stix Early Childhood Center, a magnet school near the Central West End, for their two oldest children, Abe and Nico.
Along the way she and her husband Paul -- who develops software for real estate companies -- started kicking around the idea of building a website to help parents untangle a web of school options. After learning a family friend was moving to the suburbs in search of what she felt was a better education for her children, Angelee and Paul took their plans off the drawing board.
“I came home and said, ‘let’s get this ball rolling,’” Angelee said.
With Paul’s programming chops, the front end for the not-for-profit website – called STL City Schools -- came together after a couple of weekends. But the husband and wife team said it took months to plug in a range of data for the 275 schools listed on the site, which encompass neighborhood, charter, magnet and choice school options. The database also holds information on private schools in both St. Louis city and county.
“What we were trying to do with the site was to capture a more complete picture of each school,” Paul said. “Test scores are working their way up, maybe the extracurriculars are great. Or, parent involvement is off the charts and you know that’s going to drive up the quality of the school over time. All those things we feel weren’t being captured anywhere else.”
Users can map out schools by location and pull up information on test scores or how well a school fared under state accreditation standards. The website also has links to a school’s Facebook page, if it has one, and data on the racial and economic composition of a school’s student body.
Both Paul and Angelee say they’re not out to play politics or fall head first into the prickly debate over school choice.
“The motives are very pure,” Paul said. “We’re just trying to make the data more accessible, trying to get the right information to parents so they can make the best decision possible.”
After launching in early July, the site has been visited 4,500 times. Most of that web traffic has come from within the city limits.
The couple has plans to expand the site over the coming months, as well, with reviews from parents and a forum for questions. To help out, Angelee has started rounding up volunteers to share their experiences and continuously verify information on the site. Along with creating the website, the Brockmeyers also formed the nonprofit City Parents League of St. Louis.
Ami Boehlje's family is one of five that have signed on to help, and a couple of dozen other people have said they'll chip in as well. A program manager for Junior Achievement of Greater St. Louis, Boehlje has three children in magnet schools. She figures she can answer questions once the website’s forum for parents is up and running.
“All the feedback that I’ve heard is, ‘thank goodness, where has this been? I wish I had this when I was making choices,’” Boehlje said.
St. Louis Public Schools runs a magnet and choice school office, distributes brochures and has staff ready to field questions from parents. But while shepherding her three kids through the magnet school process, Boehlje said it was the parent-to-parent conversations that helped ease anxiety about things like student lotteries, feeder school patterns and enrollment requirements for selective public schools.
“I hope that presence on the web will be noticed and leveraged to bring people together in the same room,” Boehlje. “To have that personal contact is important.”
‘It’s a growing problem and it’s a significant one’
Parents in St. Louis scratching their heads and asking about their children's choices certainly aren’t alone.
The University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education surveyed 4,000 public school parents in eight cities -- Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. -- with large public school choice programs. They found that 42 percent of parents said choosing was difficult because they couldn’t find a good option for their child. That number rose to 48 percent among parents of children with disabilities. The process was especially daunting for low-income parents with limited transportation, according to the report.
There’s also widespread confusion about charter schools. The mainstays of school choice programs are tuition free, nonsectarian public schools that operate without school district oversight. But last month a PDK/Gallup poll found that most Americans believe charter schools can charge tuition and almost half think they can teach religion.
“It’s a growing problem and it’s a significant one,” said Claire Smrekar, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. “The whole issue of making good decisions with respect to selecting a school for your child is increasingly complex and takes place against this rather dense and complicated array of options.”
'It's a growing problem and it's a significant one. The whole issue of making good decisions with respect to selecting a school for your child is increasingly complex and takes place against this rather dense and complicated array of options.' -- Claire Smrekar, professor at Vanderbilt University
Even though school districts and charter school associations across the nation have outreach programs to help parents make informed choices, Smrekar said parents often rely on the perceived reputation of a school or word-of-mouth when making their decision.
“Sometimes parents choose some of the lowest performing schools when they have choice options,” Smrekar said.
Aside from having access to reliable information, there can be practical limitations to school choice.
Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul, Minn. based Center for School Change, highlighted a point raised in the University of Washington report that finding a reliable ride to school can be major hurdle for poor families.
“You don’t have choice for low- and moderate-income families if there’s no transportation provided,” Nathan said.
In St. Louis, transportation is provided to students attending magnet schools, which are run by St. Louis Public Schools. Charter schools are operated outside of the district and don’t always provide transportation.
“Right now what seems like a barrier -- ‘I live on one side of St. Louis and the school I really would like my child to attend is across town’ -- could be a problem,” said Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
The association runs a hotline to help families navigate their charter school options. Thaman said the ideal situation would allow parents, regardless of whether they have reliable transportation, to be able to take advantage of all of their options. But he said for some charter schools it makes more sense to funnel what can be limited dollars toward classrooms instead of school buses.
“At what point do you have a ballet of buses?” Thaman said. “If every school has multiple school buses going all over the city, you have to look at that and wonder how many thousands of dollars are going into just transportation.”
To help families get their kids to class, Thaman said some charter schools focus on organizing carpools, others try to help parents get discount Metro passes.
Robbyn Wahby, who works on education issues for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the issue is on their radar.
“We have been having conversations with Metro, the public school district and our charters schools thinking about how might we might utilize the asset of Metro in our public school area,” Wahby said.
'We're still, as a city, driven by zip code. And the zip code you live in, unfortunately, still determines whether you have real choice for your children.' -- Douglas Thaman of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Wahby stressed that conversations have only been preliminary. And both she and Thaman said the finish line isn’t drawn at providing transportation; rather, it’s ensuring high performing schools are in every corner of the city.
“If we had more quality options available to families throughout the entire community, then they wouldn’t be making that choice because they’d have choices in closer proximity to where they live,” Thaman said. “We’re still, as a city, driven by zip code. And the zip code you live in, unfortunately, still determines whether you have real choice for your children.”
It’s a point that’s underscored by a report from the Chicago based nonprofit IFF that found students living in six zip codes on the far north and south sides of St. Louis lacked access to nearby schools that are meeting state standards. Released in June, the report came on the heels of a decision by St. Louis Public Schools’ Special Administrative Board to move forward with a plan that identifies and then funnels more resources toward the lowest performing schools in the district.
Magnet and charter schools accounted for the lion’s share of available seats in public schools that are meeting state standards, which doubled in the city between 2008 and 2013, according to the report. At the same time, almost two out of three children in St. Louis don’t have access to a public school that met state standards.
“We need to reach a time quickly where every community within the state of Missouri has quality options available,” Thaman said. “So that parents aren’t worrying about making a choice out of an entire city of schools but have options within their own community to look at and evaluate.”