Our organization, Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools, began with a simple and pure desire of parents to make the best educational choice for our children. You see, our school system had decided to put magnet programs in all five county high schools, which means you could send your child out of district to any high school you wanted. We were grateful for the opportunity to choose, but also knew that we did not have much information to help us make the best choice: which schools have the highest academic standards? which school’s graduates are best prepared for college? which schools are better in Science? Or Humanities? We just wanted more information.
So, before we were even organized we did what concerned citizens in a democracy do: contacted our elected representative to ask for help. Some families who had future high schoolers had a nice, pleasant neighborhood meeting in one of our homes with our school board rep. We shared that we were concerned about some very low AP exam data we had seen at one school and wondered what it was like at the other high schools. We shared a need to see more data in order to decide where might be the best school to send our children. And said our goal was for all parents in our shoes to have access to such information. The board member listened well, was agreeable to our requests, and said she would talk to system administrators.
We don’t know what came of her efforts, but we never got the data we were looking for. So a few months later, a friend from a different district, also with a middle school child, contacted his school board representative. She was very receptive and helpfully referred him to system administrators, copying them on her response, to help (since they had the data and she didn’t).
Still, no response, no data. Just silence. At this point, we decide to get organized and laid the groundwork for Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools. We concluded that the administration did not wish to give us this information (we suspected it was not good) and strategized about how we might leverage the competition between our high schools to look the best in order to get the information.
So, one of our core group went to a local high school and asked to talk with an AP or magnet coordinator. He said he had a middle school kid, that they were districted for that school, but were looking at other options. And he asked to see AP exam data to help him make that choice. That employee was very helpful and emailed him a database with five years of scores. Another parent asked for IB scores by going to the school. We were elated!
BUT, we thought, “It shouldn’t be this hard. All families should have easy access to this.”
Immediately, we drafted a letter addressed to middle school families explaining our intent to help them make the best choice for their children. This letter included a data table with exam averages for all AP and IB courses in 2015 and a link to our website where we had posted lots of tables and graphs, showing 5 year trends.
In May 2016, the website was ready to go. We sent an email to all middle school principals asking them to share the letter with the data to middle school families. Of course, we knew they wouldn’t do that without first going to their supervisors, which is what happened: the letter and website seemed to have circulated around the administration, probably inducing a state of panic!
This “launch,” coupled with us speaking at the public budget hearing in June about how money was being spent on Gifted students in view of low AP and IB test scores is how we introduced ourselves to the system administration. Two different meetings occurred over the summer that were friendly and gave us hope that the school system would work with us to make sure all families had easily accessible academic achievement data. No one disagreed with our essential contention that families making school choice needed this information.
When the 2016 data came out, we asked for it and were promised it. A month went by, and we asked for it again by email. Silence. No response. We wanted to update our letter and website before the high schools started recruiting 8th graders in the Fall to apply to their magnet program. So, we filed a FORMAL open records request, which was fulfilled in a timely manner.
After updating everything, we reached out to administrators again to find out their plans for making the data available. Silence. No response. So, we decided to start personally visiting 8th grade counselors at the middle schools to give them the data and ask them to use it when advising middle school families.
Once the county office got wind of this, they put the clamps down. They would not allow the middle schools to make the data available. So, we called the county office, and said WE DON’T CARE IF YOU REMOVE OUR NAME AND WEBSITE FROM THIS DATA; WE DON’T NEED CREDIT; PLEASE JUST GIVE IT TO FAMILIES. Silence. No response.
At this point, we realized there was firewall around the data. It would never be easily accessible unless the school system made it so. That is why we reached out to the media: to make this a public issue in order to overcome the firewall and make the data available to every family in order to both help them make the best choice for their children and to drive up achievement by promoting healthy competition among the high schools for our students.