[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four–Waitlists

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[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four: Waitlists | San Antonio Charter Moms

So far in our school-choosing adventure, we knew that one application for each child would go to Steele Montessori. SAISD allows three choice applications, which meant we had two slots to fill for each kid.

The Advanced Learning Academy (ALA) may seem like the most obvious choice, for those who know us. In fact, when I tell people we are applying for SAISD schools, they assume I mean ALA. After all, it was the first specialized elementary program specifically opened to attract families like ours: those living in the district who were opting for private schools or special-curriculum charters like Great Hearts and BASIS.

In fact, when ALA opened, I was covering it for The Rivard Report, and someone involved with the school told me, “I’ll bet this is where you’ll want to send Moira.”

That person was not wrong. ALA is incredibly attractive. I’ve watched the teachers engage the students—they are passionate, creative, and intuitive. I love the restorative justice and civic engagement emphasis. I love that I know so many of the teachers and other families. Two children who would be Moira’s classmates are in her flamenco class. One was in her class at St. Paul’s. Two are the children of my longtime friends. And that’s just pre-K 4!

However, everything that makes ALA so very shiny and attractive also means that there’s no lottery for kindergarten. Only a waitlist. And we can’t leverage the three-year-old to get sibling preference, because there is no pre-K 3 program at ALA.

As I’m explaining these considerations to Lewis, I can see his face suspended somewhere between: “This is insane. We’re talking about kindergarten, not the fallout shelter,” and, “Are you about to try to do something drastic?”

There’s nothing drastic to do, though. When I’ve mentioned the waitlist situation to friends, I’ve gotten a recurring sideways glance. One suggested that every waitlist was negotiable if you knew the right person. The other suggested that, if there’s a right person to know in SAISD, I surely know them.

If there was a right person to know in getting into SAISD choice schools, it would be Mohammed Choudhury, who runs the choice lottery.

I know him. I would never ask him to bump us in, but if I did, he’d say no, just like he’s said no to everyone else.

So, yeah, we are on the waitlist.

Before we went ahead and used up one of our application spots to get Moira on the ALA waitlist, we went to a parent night. As I mentioned, Lewis is nothing if not thorough. The parent meeting confirmed all my feelings about ALA. It is the bright and shiny object that I—as an educated, deeply competitive over-achiever—want for my kids.

ALA has that peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination of innovative (possibly venturing into the safely experimental) self-determination, and a familiar buzz words that progressive, middle class parents like me love to love: Advanced. Creative. Community.

But progressive middle-class parents like myself aren’t always consistent, and our inconsistency has a way of derailing things like ALA.

The school began as a way to strengthen gifted/talented (GT) offerings in the district. When Superintendent Pedro Martinez came to San Antonio, he brought with him Lisa Riggs to head his curriculum department. Riggs has special expertise in GT, and she is particularly keen on identifying kids whose linguistic disadvantage or learning differences might keep them from ordinarily being identified as GT.

This new school was going to target GT kids of all income levels, and serve as a lab school to train GT teachers to take best practices throughout the district.

It was and is my opinion that this sort of infusion of best practices is needed. I reported on the district’s GT curricular shortcomings in 2016, and they were significant. The offerings were piecemeal, with some motivated librarians and teachers receiving extra training, and some GT kids just doing extra worksheets. (Which reminds me that I need to follow up . . . .)

GT kids are not supposed to be simply your high achievers or your bright bulbs. They are the ones who learn differently. Riggs rightly thinks about GT more like special education than like Advanced Placement (AP) classes. It is supposed to be for kids who think truly differently, in such a way that they do not thrive to their full potential without some kind of alternative engagement.

Alternative engagement, however, usually means more stimulating classes, interesting projects, a break from the worksheets and time tables and drudgery of the basic curriculums we assume they will be subjected to under general coursework.

With GT, parents found a learning classification that came with extra resources and no stigma. Quality GT programming, for the savvy parent, became a cure to school-as-usual. So savvy parents were lining up to enroll at ALA. And once we heard who else was lining up, more of us got in line.

So ALA had no sooner opened its doors than the district discovered the equity vortex that comes with schools for “advanced and creative learners.” It was enrolling the year before Choudhury arrived with his equity audits and complex lottery. The doors were open and motivated parents were arriving in droves. The “natural” sorting of selective schools had begun. In that year, ALA’s enrollment looked like this:

[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four: Waitlists -- SAISD census blocks | San Antonio Charter Moms

For details on what this means, and why those low orange and red bars matter, see any of the stories written about Choudhury’s block system in the past year: here, here, or here. The ALA skewing is subtle, but it was early days. Word was still getting out. Skeptical parents were still watching and waiting.

Over time, it’s likely that a familiar pattern would develop. A competitive lottery so full of middle class families that the school couldn’t help but skew wealthier. Or, perhaps, an application screening process.

If there was any kind of profile of an ALA student—highly motivated, GT, artistic—then middle class parents like me would be able to make the case that my child fit that profile. You want creative? Watch her dance! You want high-performing? She speaks French! You want “different”? She organizes her crayons according to the color spectrum! You want high-test scores? We’ll hire a tutor.

Middle class parents know how to make our kids fit whatever mold will yield the most advantages.

Now, I do think there’s a place in the world for a certain kind of elite academy. Art conservatories and schools for prodigies offer invaluable opportunities to children whose needs and abilities go beyond the reach of the ordinary schools. But there’s probably not enough such children in any single city to fill such a school, much less a single district. For a district like SAISD, where the goal was to better serve the majority of students, including GT students, predictable inequities were likely.

Which is why ALA course corrected a bit in those earliest days. It’s out to prove that this innovative mix of curriculums is good for every kid, and that the “advanced” stands not for the students, but for the quality of instruction they receive. Choudhury applied his block analysis to the school, conducted equity audits, and used all of his other balancing tools to make ALA’s enrollment look like this:

[Hall Monitor] The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four: Waitlists -- SAISD census blocks | San Antonio Charter Moms

Of course, that hasn’t tarnished any of the school’s appeal for me and my peers, as evidenced by the still-strong green bars. In fact, the Diverse by Design designation has only made it sexier. Advanced. Creative. Community. Diversity.

And so there is still a waitlist.

Which means there are still questions of how to work the system.

ALA has given San Antonio what might be its first experience of a coveted, competitive urban school, and with that comes a huge risk: that the progressive values that draw us to the school will mask a sort of middle class striving that is anything but progressive. That our love of civic engagement will mask our lack of civic responsibility, and our promotion of restorative justice will make us feel exempt from seeking social justice. That we will be all about social media campaigns against structural inequity while contributing to them in our backyard.

I’m preaching at myself. Because if the guard rails weren’t up, if there were a system that could be gamed, I’m not sure I have the integrity not to game it.

And with that, I’ve never been so happy to be on a waitlist.

Up next: The McNeels Choose a School, Part Five–What’s in a Neighborhood?

Originally published as “The McNeels Choose a School, Part Four: Waitlists,” Hall Monitor, December 26, 2018

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