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Making School Choice Work for Families: DC School Reform Now’s High Quality Schools Campaign

While Washington, D.C., boasts one of the most extensive systems of public school choice in the nation, some families struggle to take advantage of the opportunities school choice offers. The innovative High Quality Schools Campaign (HQSC), developed by DC School Reform Now (DCSRN), pairs families with parent advocates, who leverage direct outreach, persistent follow-up, and personalized support to help underresourced families succeed in their efforts to navigate school choice. CRPE has partnered with DCSRN to evaluate the program and share lessons with other school districts and community-based organizations looking to improve families’ access to high-quality schools. This brief is the first in a multiyear series.

Tackling the Challenge of Making School Choice Work for All Families

Like many cities across the nation, Washington, D.C., has looked to school choice as one way to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. School choice attempts to “level the playing field” between students of different backgrounds by making it possible for all families to have access to a city’s high-quality public schools—whether students live near these schools or not. But the process of school choice requires substantial investments of time and resources, which not all families have. As a result, school choice, on its own, does not resolve gaps in access to high-quality schools.

Findings from the High Quality Schools Campaign

The HQSC fills a critical gap, helping underserved families overcome barriers and take better advantage of school choice. As one parent said, “The first time [my parent advocate called me], I felt like I wasn’t alone and if I had questions, I had someone to call and ask.” But the work of engaging hard-to-reach families is not without challenges, and requires careful development if other cities are to find success with this strategy.

Lessons for Organizations and City and District Leaders

The HQSC model offers encouraging lessons for organizations that support parent choice, including leveraging partners that families already trust, developing high-quality supports for staff working with families, and tracking families’ challenges and results to continuously improve services. DCSRN’s work with families also offers important lessons for district and city leaders interested in improving access to school choice. These include designing parent information systems with parents’ priorities in mind and engaging in coordinated efforts to address families’ access challenges.

Read CRPE’s brief to learn more.

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