Okemos Public Schools serve school of choice students, but focus locally

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Alena Zachery-Ross is the Superintendent of Okemos Public Schools, hired just this year. She explains that Okemos Public Schools, while serving school of choice students, primarily focuses on serving the Okemos community.

School of choice is a district optional program that allows students from one school district to chose another. This allows students and their families the option to choose what education they’re receiving, regardless of residency.

The number of school of choice spots available for 2018 will not be figured out until the spring. Photo by Claire Postelli.

“Our philosophy regarding school of choice is that there will be limited seating opportunities for non resident students,” Zachery-Ross said. “These seating opportunities are typically for children of those employees and siblings of students who currently attend the Okemos Public Schools. We will consider opportunities for others after evaluating our kindergarten enrollment session as well as looking at prospective students from the first two groups.”

The way school of choice works for Okemos is fill-in-the-blank. For example, if a class size is 25 students and they have 23 students from Okemos enrolled, they will have two school of choice spots available for non residents. The higher the grade level, the fewer the spots.

For the past 11 years, Okemos High School has only advertised one school of choice spot for each grade level. The number of applicants vary each year.

In order to be accepted into Okemos’ school of choice program applicants are given a 15 day period, typically in June, for Fall enrollment.

“The application asks very basic information (name, grade, address, district of residence, whether there have been suspensions or expulsions),” reads the school of choice section on Okemos’ website. “For grade levels that more applications are received than advertised slots, the law requires that districts accept students on a lottery basis.”

Emily Powers is an education major at Michigan State University (MSU) gaining teaching experience at Chippewa Middle School. Like many people in the Okemos Public Schools district, she supports school of choice.

“School of choice seems like an amazing opportunity for families to explore outside of their district public schools and have more options for their children,” Powers said. “This gives students the chance to go to a school that would best fit their academic wants and needs to be successful in their future education.”

The office of Okemos Public Schools gave a historical perspective on their school of choice program. Okemos tries to start school of choice students in kindergarten. It believe this helps keep students part of their culture right from the beginning and makes for an easier transition.

While no school of choice students from Okemos were available for comment, Louie Eble was a school of choice student at Rochester Adams High School, about an hour and a half away from Okemos. Now graduated, he attends MSU.

“My parents wanted me to get a better schooling than what I was assigned to go to so they did school of choice for me,” Eble said. “It wasn’t hard to acclimate because the people there were really friendly toward me. The main thing I noticed was that the teachers treated me more like an adult rather than a kid.”

Rachel Guinn has been an educator for 25 years and is the Deputy Superintendent for Birmingham Public Schools. Unlike Okemos, her district doesn’t participate in school of choice.

Guinn believes that school of choice is a viable option for public schools, but private schools are where it needs to end.

If you don’t have the ability to transport your children, then it disadvantages poorer kids,” Guinn said. “This is inherently wrong. The rich thrive and the poor are left with no other option.”

Like Emily Powers, Catey Regis is an education major at MSU. Unlike Powers, however, Regis doesn’t support school of choice.

“I think school of choice programs are a good idea, but they don’t work in practice. Once we figure out how to make them more effective, then it could be a good advancement for education,” said Regis.

Jonesville is about an hour away from Okemos. Like Okemos, it has school of choice.

Holly Taylor went to Jonesville High School. Now in grad school at Oregon State University, she remembers a time where JHS would bus in students from surrounding areas.

“It bussed in kids from neighboring districts,” Taylor said. “I wouldn’t even know which kids that would be. This was 10 years ago. I remember them being referred to as school of choice kids.”

A blur of faces from years ago shows that school of choice students aren’t always easy to point out. They are often integrated well into their new districts.

School districts like Jonesville and Okemos benefit from school of choice programs due to per pupil funding.  

“I know that school of choice was beneficial for the school — and I know that because my mom was on the school board — because it brought in more revenue per kid,” Taylor said. “Many of the neighboring schools were rural schools that sucked and didn’t even have up to date textbooks and lacked tons of resources.”

Okemos, however, doesn’t aim to fill spots beyond their means.

“For us, we are a local school district who focuses on servicing the students who live in Okemos Public School boundaries,” Zachery-Ross said. “We do not seek to fill spots from those adjacent communities and we believe our students are best served in their local communities.”

School of choice numbers are not figured out until the spring of each year for Okemos Public Schools. Statistics are not currently available.

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