What happens to students who attend five schools in six years? How can schools attract enough students to balance their budgets and stay competitive when new schools are opening all the time? How does school choice benefit families who are the least prepared to make informed decisions?

Three D.C. principals recently discussed some of the challenges of educating children in a system that is increasingly defined by school choice, with growing numbers of charter schools and high mobility in traditional schools.

“For me, what keeps me up at night is how much choice is too much,” said Andria Caruthers, principal of West Education Campus, at a forum at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. “I think especially for me in Ward 4, it’s a tipping point right now.”

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Caruthers said there are 10 schools within a five-minute walking radius of her school in Northeast Washington. She’s concerned about schools not having the enrollment to qualify for funding to provide quality services. And she worries about families who are not well versed in how the lottery works, particularly at the preschool level, when they are not guaranteed access to their neighborhood school and could miss out on the opportunity for early learning.

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The forum, which included principals from two traditional public schools and one charter school, was part of a series called District of Change, produced by Slate editor David Plotz and author Hanna Rosin and funded by the D.C Public Library Foundation. It was moderated by Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.”

The conversation touched on teacher evaluations, testing and demographic changes as the principals explored whether efforts to improve public education over the past few years have been successful. They lauded the city’s renewed focus and energy around school improvement, improved academic results in some areas, as well as efforts to make more data available to the public.

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While they appeared to agree on the principle of choice and offering families more opportunities to pursue quality academic opportunities, they also highlighted the need to provide more coordination in the disjointed system of charter and traditional public schools.

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“People look at these like two separate systems, but we have so many students that are shared,” said Scott Cartland, principal at Wheatley Education Campus in Ward 5.  “Unfortunately, we have a lot of students who will be in four or five different schools in a five- or six-year period.” He said that if students are struggling in one school and then just move on to another school, their challenges go unaddressed.

“They are always starting over, and ultimately it has a detrimental effect,” he said.

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Alexandra Pardo, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School in Southeast, agreed.

“For us at the high school level, we get students who have been to five or six different middle schools,” she said. “You’re not surprised if they are not there in May of their ninth-grade year, because every six months, seven months, eight months, kids are moving around.”

She described students learning from different reading programs at multiple schools and the gaps in learning that result.

“We have a ton of choice, but we are not having targeted or strategic choice,” she said.

The full discussion is available here on podcast.

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