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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Whose parents? what choice? : a study of parents of grade 7 students choosing a high school program for their children Pritchard, Janet Elizabeth

Abstract

School choice is an important and controversial policy issue in education. Proponents of school choice maintain that it will be of particular benefit to those families who are less able to choose schools by residing in desirable neighbourhoods or sending their children to expensive private schools. However, the literature suggests that unless school choice programs are specifically targeted towards lower-class families, schools that are available by choice will tend to attract a disproportionate number of middle-class students. In part, this is theorized as being the result of a disparity in social and cultural capital between middle-class and working-class parents. Social capital includes the networks and other sources of information available to parents. Cultural capital involves the parents' abilities to evaluate the options that will best facilitate their children's future educational and occupational goals. This study was designed to consider the issue in an urban British Columbian context. Parents of Grade 7 students in Vancouver have several choices when selecting high schools for their children. Recent legislation opening catchment boundaries permits a wider range of choices than ever before. Because of space limitations, however, many popular high schools are unable to accommodate all the students who wish to attend. This leaves parents with two choices for public high school: registering in the neighbourhood high school or choosing a District Specified Alternative Program. The alternative programs in this study are those that are designed to provide an enriched academic program for students who demonstrate high potential and talent - the mini schools. Neighbourhood high schools serve all students in their catchment area and require no special application procedures. In order to attend a mini school, however, there is a lengthy admission process, typically involving a written application form, letters of recommendation from teachers and others who know the child's ability and motivation, a written admission exam, and a personal interview. Spaces are limited, so only a small number of students enter these programs. I studied parents of Grade 7 students in Vancouver as they considered their high school options. First, I interviewed Grade 7 teachers at two Vancouver elementary schools in order to identify the high school programs that tend to attract parents in each school and to understand the teachers' roles in providing information about high school options. I also attended parent information meetings for eight of the twelve District Specified Alternative Programs throughout the district. I administered a survey to Grade 7 parents at these schools, as they were completing the process of applying to high school programs. I followed this up by asking the elementary teachers about the high school programs in which the students at each school eventually enrolled. I found that, in these two Vancouver elementary schools, parents who chose alternative programs had higher levels of education, particularly on the east side of the city, and more prestigious occupations than those who chose to send their child to the neighbourhood high school. I also discovered that parents who chose alternative high school programs used a greater variety of sources of information to learn about high school programs than parents choosing regular programs in the neighbourhood school. They also considered criteria about programs and learning conditions to be more important when evaluating the programs available. I conclude that information should be made more equitably available to parents in Vancouver. Moreover, offering school choice through alternative programs in neighbourhood schools, as opposed to a system of magnet schools located throughout the city, seems to offer more possibilities for equity.

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