School choice: How to co-opt the concept and keep it within your district

"We are not letting external factors drive our programs," Superintendent Roger Freeman says. "We're driving our programs."

Superintendent Roger Freeman doesn’t fear school choice, even though he’s a public educator in Arizona, a state that has been a hotbed for vouchers. That’s because he and his team have co-opted the concept and created choice within his K8 district by replacing traditional attendance zones with a series of career-focused academies.

He calls it an “interest-based innovation.” “We are not letting external factors drive our programs,” says Freeman, leader of the Littleton Elementary School District on the edge of Phoenix. “We’re driving our programs.”

Each academy is arranged around a single topic: business, science, engineering, technology, service and performing arts. This keeps instruction relevant and engaging because students can choose the academies that meet their interests.

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“Staff and family empowerment—the idea of school choice—shouldn’t just be choice outside of the school system… we could create choice inside the school system,” he asserts. “How were we going to create choice in our communities? We needed to get unique identities to our schools.”

Each academy has an enrollment cap so administrators know how many teachers and other staff members are needed, notes Freeman, Arizona’s 2004 Superintendent of the Year. “The secret sauce of choice is it increases relevance, and it allows us to better address rigor,” he adds. And it’s relevance and rigor that better prepare his students for a smooth transition to ninth grade, which dramatically increases their chances of graduating high school.

‘Fighting for survival’

Freeman has been Littleton’s superintendent since 2006. A key to his longevity is an adherence to the guiding principles that the school board and the community established shortly after he was hired. Those values include trust, respect, integrity, dedication and collaboration, and they now form the basis for the district’s code of conduct.

This, in turn, creates stability in an increasingly politicized K12 environment that is more often marked by instability.”People do share a lot of common values, and we do occasionally stray from them,” he says. “That is a constant work in progress for us.”

A lot has changed since Freeman became superintendent in 2006. The thing that concerns this 40-year educator most is what he—and many others—see as declining support for K12. “When I started, I wanted to reform teaching and learning, to help make it a more engaging, relevant and just enterprise,” he explains. “And today, I feel like we’re fighting for the survival of public education.”

He has seen an erosion of ideals such as civic leadership, civility and decorum, which he believes are the building blocks of collaboration. Advocates for public education are battling forces that have “little concern for how any one person’s conduct, behavior or choices impact the people around them.”

We need to be less polarized, and more focused on policy and people than politics,” Freeman concludes. “My big appeal to everybody is please put your shoulder into helping build strong communities instead of going off building walls around your own self-interests. That’s not a sustainable course for a community.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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