Where school choice doesn't mean vouchers

Posted Monday, Mar. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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To learn more about choice in the Fort Worth school district: www.fwisd.org/choice

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Those following the Texas Legislature have heard talk about reducing the number of standardized tests a student is required to pass in order to graduate and about increasing school choices for Texas families.

Reducing the amount of testing in our schools is music to anyone's ears. The number of days of instruction, dollars and student, teacher and parent tears spent on testing is incalculable.

This does not mean that accountability is a bad thing. There was a time in the recent past when we did not care whether all students learned. We have turned that corner. Virtually everyone in America would argue that every child, regardless of color, gender or class, deserves the opportunity to learn to speak, read, write, calculate and, most importantly, think critically, at high levels.

Despite the burden of constant testing, an argument can be made that accountability is associated with a positive difference for Texas children. In the last administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, African-American and Hispanic students showed strong growth and rank in the top five on most indicators compared to their peers in the other 50 states.

However, there is still much work to do, and we must insist on holding ourselves accountable to closing the considerable achievement gap between ethnic groups so that all children have equal access to higher education and high-paying jobs. We just have to find a saner middle ground between constant testing and high expectations.

Legislators are considering a great first step with a bill that would reduce testing and enable students to take a wider variety of courses.

Expanded choice for families is also music to the Fort Worth school district's ears. We are leading the charge when it comes to providing more choices for our families.

In the last four years, the district has opened gender-specific leadership academies for boys and girls; Spanish-language immersion schools; two early-college high schools, one focused on biomedical sciences and the other with a general focus; and nearly 40 Gold Seal Programs of Choice.

Last year, the Fort Worth school district graduated its first class of certified International Baccalaureate students. This fall, a new orchestra-focused academy will open at Como Elementary. Talks have begun with Texas Christian University to explore opening a laboratory school, and the district looks forward to opening another early college high school at Tarrant County College South Campus in the near future.

These exciting programs join already popular choices such as our applied learning academies and Trimble Technical High School, which offers a full array of technical certifications and licensures as well as Advanced Placement and Dual Credit options.

Gold Seal Programs of Choice (GSPOC) are offered in every high school in the district. Each program offers a career-themed course of study that begins in the freshman year. Most GSPOCs are open to all students who have successfully completed eighth grade.

Within each program, students can follow a basic, medium or advanced trajectory of courses that culminate, at a minimum, with eligibility for licensure or certification.

Advanced students can also earn Dual Credit and Advanced Placement credits. All students who successfully complete their course of study will earn a special gold seal on their diploma.

The high school Gold Seal programs, which started two years ago, now have 3,567 students in grades 9 and 10. Students from outside the Fort Worth district can enroll if space is available; 35 students in the high school programs are from other districts.We say that GSPOCs are money in the bank because they prepare students to enter high-paying jobs and to save thousands of dollars in college tuition. Career fields offered include education, engineering, firefighting, aviation, culinary arts and law, plus many more. Each school has at least one that focuses on math or science.

With change comes opportunity. We applaud the changes proposed in Austin, as they will increase instructional time for our students and choices for our families and community.

Michael Sorum is Fort Worth school district deputy superintendent for leadership, learning and student support services.

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