Flight from schools for academics, not safety, study says

The Columbus Dispatch – January 24, 2011


• Read the KidsOhio report on how families decide where to enroll their children (PDF)

Parents who shun their assigned Weinland Park-area schools do their research. They find better-performing schools in the Columbus district for their children instead. And they’re happy.

The Weinland Park parents who send their children to schools in their low-income neighborhood are less satisfied.

So much for conventional wisdom. It’s a long-held belief among many people who study and work with the Columbus City Schools that a quest for academic excellence wasn’t the primary reason parents flee subpar neighborhood schools.

“People thought safety was the main driver. It isn’t. People thought parents weren’t informed, but they are,” said Mark Real, president of KidsOhio, a Columbus-based nonprofit group that regularly studies the district.

A new KidsOhio study of the Weinland school zone, one of the poorest and most-troubled in Columbus, offers new insight into how parents choose schools for their children.

Groups that are investing millions to improve housing in the area wanted to know why so many parents were choosing schools outside the neighborhood, which is just north of Italian Village between Ohio State University and the state fairgrounds.

The findings highlight the need for those involved in improving the Weinland Park area to make academics a “priority – not incremental improvement, but dramatic improvement,” said Jeff Lyttle, region executive for the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, which funded the study.

“We want families who consider moving into the neighborhood to have a great choice in schools as well as great housing choices,” Lyttle said.

The study considered Weinland Park Elementary, Fifth Avenue Alternative, Windsor STEM Academy and the now-closed Literature-based Alternative at Hubbard as being in the Weinland zone. Only families who remain in Columbus City Schools were interviewed; the study does not include families who chose charter or private schools. Parents were surveyed by phone by Columbus-based pollster Saperstein Associates.

Fifth-six percent of children who are assigned to a Weinland-area school don’t attend one there, according to the district’s records. Based on the more-nuanced information about what influenced parents’ choice of their child’s school, researchers think the number of those “fleeing” is much lower.

Of the parents who chose other Columbus schools, more than two of every 10 did so because they wanted a specific program or school that the area didn’t offer.

The district’s simpler calculation also doesn’t consider that some residents who moved into the Weinland Park area let their children stay in their previous school, which the district champions as a way to combat student mobility.

In Weinland Park Elementary’s neighborhood alone, 51percent of students – about 280 – go elsewhere in the district, according to the district’s figures.

The school has gotten an “F” rating from the state in six of the past seven years.
But the principal there said she has a great school that is improving quickly.

“The rating does matter to people,” said Principal Monica Minor Gant, but “it was pretty obvious to me that many of (the parents interviewed in the study) have never stepped foot in the school. It’s so much better than the academic rating.”

The city began rehabilitation efforts in the Weinland Park area in 2006 with a sweeping plan to upgrade and update housing and make the neighborhood more family-friendly over the next 20 years.

Private groups and Ohio State University joined the effort and began the Weinland Park Collaborative, which has representatives of the Columbus Foundation, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and 11 other institutions. Together, they’ve promised to spend more than $15 million, building or renovating more than 100 houses in the next couple of years.

For Minor Gant, the report highlights the importance of marketing her school to prospective parents.

One parent’s comments in the survey interview back that up: “No one told us what they had to offer. No one I know sends their kids there because they have terrible test scores and a lot of student turnover.” That parent chose Indianola Alternative instead of Weinland Park.

Said another, who picked Valley Forge Elementary instead of Weinland Park: “I wouldn’t have had a problem sending my child there, but I just didn’t know about it.”