`Choice' Pioneer Fine-Tunes Plan

`THE educational choice process has got to be one of the most gut-wrenching experiences that any parent can go through,'' says David Thompson, father of a first-grader in the Cambridge (Mass.) school district here. This multiracial, mixed-income city of 95,000 people operates its school district by ``controlled choice.''

Under the plan, parents choose and prioritize three preferences among the city's 13 elementary schools. The district then assigns students, while making sure each school's enrollment approximates the racial makeup of the overall school population. Residential proximity to schools and sibling enrollment are also taken into account.

About 90 percent of all parents are granted one of their first three choices. The remaining students are assigned by a lottery system and then placed on waiting lists for their preferred schools.

Last year, Mr. Thompson went through ``an extremely nail-biting, anxious period'' when his son was not assigned to any of the family's three choices of kindergarten programs. But a week after school began a spot opened at the family's first-choice school. Despite the initial disappointment, Thompson says, ``I support the policy; I think it works extremely well.''

Cambridge pioneered the controlled-choice concept in the early 1980s as a way to avoid court-ordered desegregation. Now approaching its 10th year, the plan is widely viewed as a success story. Parental involvement has increased and schools offer a variety of innovative and diverse programs to attract enrollment.

``We achieved desegregation in terms of the numbers very quickly,'' says Alice K. Wolf, mayor of Cambridge. ``But in having achieved desegregation, are we also supporting the learning of the kids in a better way? We are still working very, very hard on that.''

Some critics of the Cambridge plan charge that more-educated, affluent parents have an advantage in getting their children into the most popular schools. ``That is a danger of the system if it's not well-implemented and you don't do a good job at parent information,'' agrees Mayor Wolf.

``At the beginning critics said that it was only white, middle-class families coming out [to register their children],'' says Margaret Gallagher, citywide parent coordinator in Cambridge. ``They have the ability and the know-how to make the system work for themselves,'' she says. ``You really need to make strong efforts in helping the rest of the community do the same.''

A campaign to inform parents of incoming kindergartners about the choice program begins each October, Ms. Gallagher says. ``There's a lot of hoopla in trying to get people out to citywide informational sessions.'' But, Gallagher recognizes, ``low-income families usually don't come out to those kinds of things. That's a more middle-class attitude than it is for these families.''

So Gallagher holds special meetings at Head Start facilities, a federally funded program for children from low-income families. When the parents come to pick up their kids in the evening, Gallagher is there handing out information. ``I've taken parents to visit schools myself,'' she says. ``I've arranged for school buses to come to the Head Start centers to pick them up and take them. All the TLC [tender loving care] you can give parents helps with that transition.''

Off the lobby of Harrington Elementary School here is a door marked ``Desegregation'' - a vestige of the choice plan's initial goal. Now known as the Parent Information Center, this is where parents come to get information about the Cambridge schools and register their children.

Peter Colleary is the student-assignment officer for the city schools. It's his responsibility to place each student. When a parent is unhappy with their child's school, he provides information on other schools and helps find a more appropriate match.

But most of Mr. Colleary's job involves assessing the applications of incoming kindergartners, balancing criteria and choices, and allotting the classroom seats. By teacher contract, the school district must keep class sizes confined to 20 pupils for kindergarten and 25 for grades 1 to 8.

``Over the last several years, more and more people have been looking for an alternative type of education,'' Colleary says. Currently, Cambridge's seven alternative programs are most popular.

Keeping up with the preferences of parents is an ongoing challenge. ``It's only in the last year or two that we've paid enough attention to what parents are requesting and started making some changes in programs,'' Mayor Wolf says.

Several new alternative programs were established this year to meet increasing interest. The main complaint about the choice plan in Cambridge, according to Thompson, is that there is not enough choice among schools. ``There's a groundswell within the parental community,'' he says, ``to provide more curriculum choices.''

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