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Options help families find schools that meet needs

  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts draws, Wednesday, alongside classmate Finn Puckett, 8, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts draws, Wednesday, alongside classmate Finn Puckett, 8, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts collects her belongings, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts collects her belongings, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts, center, plays flag football, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts, center, plays flag football, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bridge Street School students Elizabeth Watts, 8, left, and Philippa "Pippa" Watts, 10, meet their father Mark Watts after school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Bridge Street School students Elizabeth Watts, 8, left, and Philippa "Pippa" Watts, 10, meet their father Mark Watts after school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts draws, Wednesday, alongside classmate Finn Puckett, 8, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts collects her belongings, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bridge Street School 4th-grader Elizabeth Watts, center, plays flag football, Wednesday, at the school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Bridge Street School students Elizabeth Watts, 8, left, and Philippa "Pippa" Watts, 10, meet their father Mark Watts after school. The Watts family, who are from Holyoke, have chosen to attend Bridge Street School in Northampton.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Still, with Holyoke public schools struggling, Watts, a partner at Abacus Associates in Northampton, said he worried that the neighborhood school’s beleaguered teachers would not “be able to meet our kids’ needs.”

“It’s a school district that’s dealing with an overwhelming amount of poverty,” he added. “A lot of children are entering elementary school there without having gone through pre-(kindergarten).”

The state’s school choice program seemed like a potential solution. After doing some research, the family applied to the Northampton schools through the choice lottery system. Pippa, 10, was accepted for an opening at Bridge Street School, where she is now a happy fourth grader, Watts said. Her sister Elizabeth, 8, is in second grade at Bridge Street. Siblings of students already accepted to the district through school choice are guaranteed slots.

Watts said school choice provided his family a way to maintain its commitment to public schools while also meeting his children’s educational needs.

“I like the diversity at Bridge Street. My child is thriving there,” he said. “I’m now on the school council and the Northampton Education Foundation board. I’m deeply invested in the Northampton schools.”

Has it been hard for his kids to attend school outside of their hometown?

“No, in part because going to the neighborhood school isn’t what any of the kids in our neighborhood do,” Watts said. “They have multiple communities, friends from school, from the neighborhood and from other walks of life.”

As more families take advantage of school choice, local school administrators are trying to find out exactly how they make their educational decisions. Easthampton is among the local school districts that reaches out to parents for exit interviews. In Hatfield, Superintendent John Robert has a sit-down interview with people who opt out. Laurie Hodgdon, principal of Hampshire Regional High School, took similar steps with families who left her school when she was hired in 2011.

The reasons parents give for leaving their hometown schools are myriad — and according to studies, they aren’t necessarily about academics.

Local school administrators say families cite geography, class size, educational reputation, special programs and varsity sports as among the top factors they consider when researching school choice options. Surprisingly, Jennifer Towler, Northampton’s school choice coordinator, said parents she speaks with often made decisions about schools without making site visits or researching the state’s school district profiles online — a wealth of information about class sizes, academics, faculty and finances for public, private, charter and alternative schools in Massachusetts.

The Darragh family of Northampton, however, did some intensive research before choosing schools for their children.

Lisa and Neil Darragh researched a handful of schools for Caileigh, a sophomore in high school, and Christopher, a seventh-grader, before making a family decision about where the kids should enroll. The family took tours of the schools, sat in on classes, read up on educational statistics online and spoke one-on-one with teachers, principals and superintendents.

Darragh said it was MCAS testing that pushed her family to consider educational options outside of their hometown public schools. She wanted her children to be educated in an environment not so reliant on standardized testing — or at the very least give them freedom from testing-centric education in their early school years.

“I wanted to instill in my children a love of education versus a fear of education or testing. That was my greatest concern, about the Massachusetts state testing,” she said.

First, the Darraghs enrolled their children in a local, private elementary school she declined to name. Caileigh did fine there, but Christopher struggled. He was shy and needed more individual help with his school work, but the level of attention the private school could offer wasn’t enough, she said.

“Their whole premise was ... if he needs extra help, you get it,” said Darragh about the private school. “We really needed help and, financially, between paying for the private school and getting extra help, it had become a burden.”

So, about four years ago, with Caileigh graduating from the school’s final grade and Christopher in need of a different education style, the Darraghs started looking at public schools again. They considered at least five schools, discussing issues with administrators such as curricula, electives and what remedial help they could offer her son, before selecting Hatfield.

Darragh said she was impressed by the level of dedication teachers, administrators and the Hatfield superintendant were willing to give Christopher.

“I was blown away with how they were going to help my son and have,” she said.

Since enrolling in Smith Academy, Darragh said Christopher has excelled. His difficulties with attention are no longer present. Darragh said she thinks the extra attention he receives in the small classes has something to do with this.

“It’s almost as if there was no problem,” Darragh said.

Meanwhile, after a few years at Smith Academy, Caileigh wanted to attend a larger school with more academic and extracurricular options. She enrolled at Northampton High School in 2012.

“It was a great decision,” said Darragh of exploring her school choice options. “It’s been a wonderful experience. ... The choices we have as parents in this area because of school choice is phenomenal. Choice worked out for the kids.”

To see a chart of how much 22 individual, local school districts have received and spent through school choice and charter schools, click here.

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Hatfield: Case study in receiving end of school choice

Friday, May 17, 2013

HATFIELD - In Hatfield — the smallest kindergarten through Grade 12 district in the state — about a quarter of the student population are school choice students from other communities. The town is well known for attracting school choice students with its small class sizes that allow for extra attention to students, said Superintendant John Robert. In five years, Hatfield …

Local lawmakers seek to lessen choice’s impact on sending schools

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

School choice and charter school options affect western Massachusetts communities differently than they do in the eastern part of the state, and local legislators are filing bills that aim to correct the imbalance. This year, John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, filed three bills seeking to make alterations to educational option programs. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Legislature’s educational …

School choice creates options, but headaches for districts

Monday, April 29, 2013

School choice may create egalitarian educational options for students, but it breeds inequality among school districts. Receiving districts reap the financial rewards of added tuition. Sending districts lose thousands of dollars for every child that opts for an education outside his or her hometown. A Gazette analysis of state data shows which Hampshire and Franklin county school districts are financially …

Legacy Comments3

"nslator" you have it all wrong. I know the Holyoke parents personally. The fact they had a choice meant that they could stay in Holyoke and not be forced move to a better school district. They love Holyoke, but they would have moved if choice was not available. That is what many families who can afford it do . Is it really in the best interest of Holyoke to have families that are looking for viable school options move out or never move in to the city in the first place? There is a reason why housing prices are so low in Holyoke compared to Northampton. That is because people move to where schools are best. Choice helps ameliorate that problem.

Parents need to do what's best for their own children. But there is much less benefit to the children of Holyoke in general that these active parents don't have a personal interest in Holyoke schools anymore. Not to say they wouldn't do the right thing for the schools if the issue came up, but now they're like me -- I live in Amherst but my kids have graduated. I don't worry about how many required study halls there are any more like I did when my kids were in school. "School choice" ballot and legislative options are well funded by people who want to end public schools. They understand that school choice undermines public education and that's OK with them.

Parents need to do what is best for their own children. However, school choice is negative for children as a whole. Look at this example: activist parents of children Holyoke took their children out of Holyoke schools. Those educated, activist parents are no longer advocating for improvements in Holyoke and the children left behind in Holyoke are worse off for it. Public schools are best when they are local and when the local communities are invested in them. With school choice that doesn't happen anymore.

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