Desperate for a Grade-A Education What won't parents do to get their children into the "right" school? Farai Chideya talks with education experts about how to get your kids the best education possible. She's joined by Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector; Lana Brody, an education consultant who helps families with private school selection; and Mikelle Willis, founder and director of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity in Los Angeles.
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Desperate for a Grade-A Education

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Desperate for a Grade-A Education

Desperate for a Grade-A Education

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Every American child is legally entitled to a spot in a public school but many families, including a high number of black families, live in neighborhoods where the schools are overcrowded and lack basic materials. Some parents join painfully long waiting lists at highly regarded charter schools. Still others hope to win the lottery for a place in a magnet public school, or one with specialized programs. Sometimes there's a good private school nearby, but some cost as much as college.

So what's a parent to do? In extraordinary cases, parents commute with other kids two hours each way to school. Others falsify their home address to get their kids into a better district.

For more on the stresses and successes of getting your children into better schools, we've got Andrew Rotherham. He is the co-founder and co-director of Education Sector, an independent education think-tank. Lana Brody is an educational consultant for parents sending their children to private schools. And Mikelle Willis is founder and director of KIPP Academy of Opportunity, a charter school here in Los Angeles.

Welcome, everybody.

Ms. MIKELLE WILLIS (Founder and Director, KIPP Academy of Opportunity): Thank you.

Ms. LANA BRODY (Educational Consultant): Thank you.

Mr. ANDREW ROTHERHAM (Co-founder; Co-director, Education Sector): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Andy, why don't you give us a snapshot of what's happening nationally?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I think you have a couple of things happening nationally. First of all, there's obviously a greater pressure for school performance, and you see that embodied in things like the debate we're having over No Child Left Behind. And at the same time, as you said, many parents, and in particular, minority parents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the schooling options in their community, or more precisely the lack of schooling options in their community, and they're starting to behave much more like consumers and demand better choices and make decisions like that.

And so you're starting to see some of the beginnings of a parent revolution, the makings of a parent revolution around the country as people realize how important education is, how inequitable it is, and start to demand change.

CHIDEYA: Do you think there are special issues for African-American families whether those issues are race-based or economically based?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, it's impossible to look at the achievement picture in American public schools and not see that it's not random. Low-income Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, are much more likely to be affected by these problems. Their children are much more likely to be in low-performing schools. And so it's felt much more acutely there.

I mean, nationwide, for instance, you have the graduation rate for minority youngsters - on-time graduation rate from high schools is only about 50 percent. And that's, you know, that's not a problem - it's much higher in the white communities.

You're starting to see more intense demand in those communities. But I think it's also the beginning of just a general shift in how people approach public education, an increase of much more of a consumer focus across the board.

CHIDEYA: Mikelle, what about the same question? Are there any particular vulnerabilities for African-American children?

Ms. WILLIS: Yes. There are definitely vulnerabilities for African-American children. For example, the societal issues that the children have to deal with on a daily basis. Let's say, just getting to and from school on a regular basis. You know, having to deal with peers who might see education as not important, or it's, you know, it's not okay to be a nerd. And that's something at KIPP we really teach our children it's okay to be smart. It's okay to want to achieve and be successful educationally. And that is not something that's popular, unfortunately, I find in our community.

CHIDEYA: Lana, private school. It is an option, I mean, there are parochial schools and non-parochial private schools. Given the economic issues of paying for school versus getting it free, how do you deal with that when trying to counsel families?

Ms. BRODY: Well, I think, it's really important to understand that there are options that families really may not be aware of. You mentioned faith-based schools, and certainly, that is a bargain in most cities because the tuition of faith-based schools generally is decidedly less than your typical, "independent school," which is a euphemism that we all use for private school. So I'll probably be using "independent schools."

Another option that I think the community needs to be aware of is that there are many, many independent schools who have a commitment to diversity. And because of that, they are looking for highly motivated families with children who are eager to learn and would fit into a community and diversify that community.

Because of that, I know of one school, for example, New Road School, where 40 percent of the collected tuition is spent on helping parents come to the school to diversify the school. And 50 percent of the enrolled students in the high school are children of color.

So parents need to investigate independent schools, find out what is their financial aid policy. They need to go through the visitation process, the interview process, the application process, and throw their hat into the ring for financial aid, if that's what they're looking for.

If they don't need financial aid, they need to absolutely step up to the plate and find that school that is the perfect match for their child.

CHIDEYA: So Mikelle, charter schools. What are the process for getting into one of those?

Ms. WILLIS: Sure. Well, it starts with parents wanting something different, wanting an option for their children. And step one is for parents to put their name on our list, which is a lottery, and we - about just - the spring of every year, we have a lottery where we pull however many number available seats we have. We pull that number of parents. It's completely based on a lottery. We don't select our students. We can't pick and choose what students we want.

And because of that, the majority of our students do come into our school at KIPP maybe two, three years below grade level and that is the mission of our school is to take those students who have been historically, educationally underserved and to equip them with the tools that they need to be successful so that when they finish after those four years, they can go on to some of these amazing college prep high schools that are going to put them on the college path.

CHIDEYA: KIPP has become an incredible franchise. It was started by two young teachers and has expanded exponentially. What do you think has made it successful in reaching lower income students?

Ms. WILLIS: The main thing that I think that's made KIPP school successful is commitment. There is a commitment from all parties involved - commitment from the students, commitment from the parents and commitment from the school. If one of those three are not in place, we can't be as successful with our students.

And when I say commitment from the teachers, for example, our teachers work on average 12 hours a day. We have extended school days. And the students start at 7:30 and they're in school until 5 o'clock. Our teachers roughly are there from seven to five at a minimum, which doesn't include parent meetings that happen in the evening, parent meetings that happen on the weekend, or other after-school activities that the students have.

That commitment from the students come in, one, coming to school, being there from 7:30 to 5:00, and then going home doing their two hours of homework that they might have every night. And that commitment that comes from the parents means making sure their children come to school and making sure the kids -children come to school on time. Making sure they're going do everything that it takes to allow their children to be successful.

Another quick example, all of our teachers have cell phones. And the school provides the cell phones for the purpose of allowing the students to call them after hours so they can get additional help with their homework, any questions or concerns that they might have had in class so the students, again, can be equipped to be successful at school, and to fill in some of those gaps that the children might have had and maybe bad habits that the children might have had coming in to the school.

CHIDEYA: Now, Andrew, when you think about the differences between independent schools, also known as private schools, and charter schools, is there anything parents need to know about evaluating those differences?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Most definitely. I think, and you hear in this conversation, parents should be focused on what is a good school for their kid. And that may be a public school or may be a private school, a parochial school, or as we're referring to be - independent schools as well. And parents should really focus - every child is different. Every child needs different things. And there are outstanding schools in all of those sectors. And there's also schools in those sectors that won't work for different kinds of kids. And it's really important that parents look at what they need for their child and not be swayed by labels and different characterizations of schools.

There's actually an excellent book that Emily and Bryan Hassel wrote called "The Picky Parents Guide," which is excellent, precisely, it comes at it from the perspective of parents thinking about what do you need for your child, not what do you need in these different kinds of schools. And that's really important because, as I said, you know, in a lot of communities, there are schools that are independent schools but they're not necessarily performing or working any better than the public schools and vice versa. And so parents really need to sort of lift up the hood, look under the hood, look in the engine and find out what's going on inside a particular school that will make it work for their child.

I'm personally a big fan of KIPP. I think they're doing amazing things. And one of the reasons they've been successful, I think, is their really terrific results. But as much as I like it, that's not a school that's going to work for every child. And so it's a good example of why parents really need to shop around and figure out what works for their child and not be swayed just by labels.

CHIDEYA: In case you're just joining us, I want to reintroduce our topic. It's how to get your kid into a good school, even a great school. And you are listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We've got Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector; Lana Brody, an education consultant who helps families with private school selection; and Mikelle Willis, founder and director of KIPP Academy of Opportunity in Los Angeles.

So, Lana, I want to go back to you. You really help people walk step-by-step through this process of deciding if and how their kids should go to an independent school. Give me, just in broad strokes, what that process looks like.

Ms. BRODY: Well, the first step would be to meet with parents without a young person, without the child there because sometimes there are nuances and conversations that we need to have that children really do not need to be a part of. Then we go over a broad spectrum of what's available in the geographic area that's convenient. More than ever, we need to talk about the commute. Not only does the commute have to be safe, but the commute has to be reasonable given our traffic situation in Los Angeles. We have a unique situation here. So we have to look at the possibilities.

Then we have to take a look at who is this child. Almost every child can benefit from a smaller, more personalized environment. And that is usually what parents are looking for. And so we take a look at, is this child a cellist? And does this child need to have a rich program during the day that includes music? Or can that music be taken care of outside of school? Is the child a jock, an athlete?

CHIDEYA: What do you do if the kid doesn't have any particularly interesting hobbies, and doesn't have a good track record?

Ms. BRODY: Some kids have a great heart. And what a school is looking for is glue. They want a youngster who will have spirit, who'll be a good friend, who will be the kind of peacemaker that elementary schools cherish. And so they don't have to be a star. They have to be a good person with a good soul.

CHIDEYA: Do you believe that, Mikelle?

Ms. WILLIS: As I was listening, I find that very interesting. I do believe that in some part. However, there are some realities that do make access to some independent schools challenging.

With our school, last year, we had about 55 eighth graders who needed to, you know, culminate and go on to high school. And, of course, we want to make sure our students are going on to college prep high schools that are going to continue them on their college path. And a lot of what Lana was speaking of is what I did.

I was our school's high school - director of high school placement. And the main purpose of that role is to match students with the school that is going to fit them best.

And those schools might, you know, it might depend on that child's academic level. It's taken into account for the independent day schools, and we also work with the students on boarding and parochial schools. But there are some children who might not have the academics. There are some children who also might not have the behavior and who are still working on, you know, being that good person and fighting with, as I mentioned earlier, those societal norms that kind of contradict what we want our children to be.

So for those children, again, charter schools are an amazing option that are still going to keep them on the college track, excuse me, college path that still have those solid track records. But charter schools are very solid options for those children who might not be able to get accepted into some of the more selective independent day boarding and parochial schools.

So I do agree with that. However, if, you know, if those schools are not an option for the children, they still have options. It's just a matter of making sure the parents and the students are empowered with the knowledge and know how to choose those schools that are, as mentioned earlier, going to be the best fit for that child.

I agree 100 percent that there is no one school that is best for every single child. You have to look beyond the scores. While scores are important, statistics are important, but there's also a filling. There's also, you know, being a match with the culture of that school. All of those things have to be taken into account if that child's going to be successful at that particular school.

CHIDEYA: Let me let Andy jump in here. I went to an elementary school in a school. There was a certain program inside another school. And the program was great, and the school was not so great. What about these schools within schools? Whether they're magnet programs or, you know, a lot of schools seem to be developing these sub-schools. How do you make sure your kid could get into one of those?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: It's the same process. You have to get into the school and you have to look and talk to people about what's happening. There are, you know, there's information now. There's great Web sites like schoolmatters.com or greatschools.net that have all kinds of data. But there's no substitute for actually going to the school, getting a feel; are people treated with respect; are parents treated with respect; or how are the kids treated with respect; what's the experience the people are having there. There's no substituting so don't go by reputation, or what you hear, or what everybody in the neighborhood knows. Go find out for yourself because different kinds of schools are going to work differently for different kids. It's a very customized process.

And it's ironic that, for a long time, you know, people have put more energy into sort of learning about what kind of car or washing machine they buy than about their child's school. This is a very important conversation. There's absolutely no substitute for really rigorous due diligence in making the very best choice that you can. And as importantly, if you discover you've made a choice that's not working for your kid, not being afraid to revisit it and try something else.

CHIDEYA: What about marketing? Lana, how do you find your clients?

Ms. BRODY: Actually, the truth is, what I do, I call a secret service. I don't market anywhere. My name is not in anything. I don't take out ads anywhere. My clients come to me word of mouth. I find that that is really the best way. Frankly, I see clients in my own home. I don't have an office per se. And so every single person that comes to me comes from a satisfied client that I've served in past years.

I think it's important for you to know also that I served in the public schools of Los Angeles for over 30 years. So in addition to working with placement in independent schools, I know where the good bones are buried. And I was the assistant principal at Palms Middle School for 13 years where there was a magnet. I also was the assistant principal at Markham Middle School where there was a magnet within the school.

CHIDEYA: Now, Mikelle, what about you guys, as a chain of charter schools, do you market? Do you sort of push out? Reach out?

Ms. WILLIS: Well, with KIPP, we are very grassroots. It started with the - our school is currently in its fifth year of operation. And there's another KIPP School here in Los Angeles called KIPP L.A. Prep, and that one is in south, excuse me, that one is in Lincoln Heights. But with us, we start grassroots. We do home visits. We knock on doors. We stand in front of grocery stores and, you know, talk to parents whose children look like they might be, you know, finishing fourth grade, ready to start fifth grade with us the following year. We speak at community events, neighborhood organizations. So we really just try to get into the communities where our schools are to make sure that we are serving the children who have the need for our schools.

CHIDEYA: Well, ladies and gentleman, thank you.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So we've been talking to Andrew Rotherham, co-director of Education Sector. He also writes the award-winning blog, eduwonk.com. You can find the link to that Web site on our site - nprnewsandnotes.org. He spoke with us from NPR's Washington headquarters. Lana Brody is an education consultant who helps families with private school selection. And Mikelle Willis is founder and director of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity in Los Angeles. Both of those ladies joined me here in our NPR West studios.

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