It seems like every aspect of education has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic, but the ability for families to choose where students will attend school isn’t one of them.
“The choice system is still working,” said Bill Kottenstette, director of school choice for the Colorado Department of Education. “Parents still have broad choice in schooling for their kids in Colorado — COVID did not affect that.”
Though when life will return to “normal” is still unknown, parents and students are being asked to make decisions for the fall.
This is traditionally the “choice window,” when student may apply to other schools beyond their neighborhood for the coming academic year. But the process is ongoing.
“It calls the community’s attention to now’s the time to select your school — although we still accept applications through the rest of the spring,” said David Engstrom, deputy superintendent of achievement, learning and leadership for Colorado Springs School District 11.
Colorado became an early adopter of allowing students to choose where they go to school, when in the fall of 1993, the state’s first two charter schools opened.
“Colorado has been on the leading edge of choice policy,” Kottenstette said. “Our policy framework is very supportive of choice.”
The concept has intensified competition, Engstrom said.
“It’s here to stay in Colorado,” he said. “It’s part of the way public education is going to be.”
The choices continue to expand with not only religious and private schools but also charter schools, magnet schools, online schools and homeschooling.
“It’s helped schools really identify their focus and commitment to parents on what to expect,” Kottenstette said.
In response to community surveys, Colorado Springs D-11 is adding more choices to its repertoire, Engstrom said.
D-11 will debut a new traditional online school, likely for kindergarten through eighth graders, in the fall, since many parents want to keep their children at home, he said.
Also, a Spanish-language immersion program will start at a D-11 elementary school, with students learning half the time in English and half in Spanish.
More magnet schools are on the way in D-11 in coming years, Engstrom said. Magnet schools follow a certain instructional theme in all grade levels, don’t limit students by geographical boundaries and provide transportation for students.
Concentrations will include visual and performing arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and career and technical education. The areas were selected after polling students and parents, Engstrom said.
“People want choice, and it’s our way of responding to meet the interests of the community,” he said.
COVID-19 has led more parents to realize they have options in education, said Deborah Hendrix of Parents Challenge, a nonprofit organization in Colorado Springs that awards grants to about 240 students each year from low-income households to attend schools of their choice. The grants pay for tuition, uniforms, school supplies, sports equipment, tutoring and other educational expenses.
When schools closed last March, switched to remote learning, and created hybrid forms of learning at home and at school, “parents had to look for options,” Hendrix said, “because their kids still needed to be educated.”
Many families made conscious decisions to homeschool their children or enroll in dedicated online programs, she said. Pods emerged in some neighborhoods, where parents took turns having their children do remote learning in their homes so other parents could work.
“Certain types of education may not be working for some students,” Hendrix said, “but that doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it not in that child’s best interest.”
Many schools aren’t allowing outside visitors so schools are doing virtual tours, online briefings or phone conversations with prospective new families.
At some point, it’s important to do a face-to-face interaction with school leaders, Hendrix said, to determine whether the school is the best fit for a child.
“The choice is what’s best for your family,” she said.
Education experts see schools shifting their models to incorporate online learning and adapting to what students and parents need.
“District schools are going to have to offer a segment of e-learning for families who have embraced this as their choice,” Hendrix said.
The concept of cohorts, small groups of students that stick together during the day, which many schools are using during the pandemic, also could be here to stay, she believes, because “it maximizes that time students are engaged.”
The traditional school calendar also could be in flux, with more schools considering offering robust summer programs and perhaps year-round instruction.
“As more businesses continue to let employees work from home, there’s going to be a lot of conversation around how to support that and other changes,” Hendrix said.