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The Key to JCPS' Elementary School Choice? Parent Involvement in the Process.

This is the first of a two part series. On Friday, we'll look at how Jefferson County Public Schools elementary clusters compare and what's being done to improve parent engagement in school choice.The application process for Jefferson County public elementary schools begins Monday, bringing another batch of incoming kindergartners' parents to confront the choice of schools.Louisville parents will be asked to rank schools on the application and then wait until the spring to find out to which their child is assigned. Their options include schools in theircluster—five to eight schools near their home area—and magnet schools with special programs. For parent Laura Scheuer Sutton, the application process to get her son Dash into Kindergarten next fall  is easy to understand but, nonetheless, she describes it as "anxiety-provoking.""Obviously, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child applying to college yet, but, to me, in some ways it almost feels more fraught because my son isn’t quite ready at this point to tell me precisely what he wants and what he’s looking for in same the way an 18-year-old at least has, hopefully, some concept of what they’re looking for and what they would enjoy," Sutton said.JCPS takes into account matters such as classroom space and diversity requirements when assigning students. This is the second crop of children to go through the 13 cluster system—in the first crop, 80 percent were accepted into the parents' first choice within their cluster.  So what can parents do to ensure they're getting the right school for their child?Engage in the school choice process, parents and JCPS officials said. How to be EngagedSo far, Sutton and parents like her are on the right track, school officials said.Sutton and her family have already toured schools and plans to tour several more. Her family plans to go to the JCPS Elementary Showcase of Schools on Saturday. There, representatives from each school will be available to talk about their programs.She's talking to friends and neighbors, too—but she's not putting too much weight on those conversations."Because you hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s great, it’s perfectly fine,’ you hear people say, ‘Forget it, go straight to the Catholic schools," Sutton said. "You hear people say, ‘It’s so complicated and it’s so hard.’ I tried to say, ‘I don’t want to hear any of that, I want to go in with my own perspective.’"The Internet has been her friend, too. She's been able to learn about the application process and also learn about individual schools from their websites.Sutton has also looked at each schools' state test rankings.But she's not putting too much weight on them. She's looking for the right fit for Dash. The stricter traditional magnets have good test rankings, but she doesn't think her son would thrive in that environment."I suppose that is one benefit to having some school choice here," Sutton said. "When you are sent only to the school right next to your house, you don’t have those same personalization options."But engagement in the process has requirements not every parent is in position to meet.Ida Grace's 4-year-old son Andrew enters kindergarten next year, too. Grace wants a school where teachers are responsive to student's needs—but she doesn't own a car. The lack of transportation makes school tours difficult."The Showcase of Schools will be easy because they’re all in one area where I can check them out," she said.Without a car, Andrew's list of schools he could realistically attend is diminished, too. We'll address those issues and more in a story Friday morning looking more closely at the clusters.'We Found the Right Fit'Last year, John Lincoln's family was interested in two schools—The Brown School in downtown Louisville and Tully Elementary in Jeffersontown—for his daughter Maryjane.Brown is a popular magnet program that emphasizes "student-led exploration." Tully is lower profile, but it's in Lincoln's school cluster. The Lincolns toured the schools in their cluster but were convinced Brown and Tully, in that order, were good fits for Maryjane.“And then after Tully we probably would have gone the private school route," Lincoln said.Maryjane got into Tully. And they're happy with the assignment.“I’ve got a comfort level with Tully," Lincoln said, adding that insights would be difficult for parents who couldn't tour schools. "I know the PTA is very strong there. I am familiar with the principal there. They’ve got a high focus on physical activity, which is important to me.”Months into Maryjane's first year of school, Lincoln said he's pleased with the outcome.Before applying, Lincoln was impressed with the school's use of technology in the classroom and with how prepared the kindergarten teachers appeared to be. The Lincolns didn't consider state test results, though Tully and Brown performed about the same in the latest batch of scores.Lincoln didn't know which school performed better when he discussed their choice.In the application process, the Lincolns focused on Maryjane's personality and her learning style. Their school options were guided by what the parents knew about the daughter."We found the right fit for her," Lincoln said.

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