These questions were among a host of others we were asked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help them answer. So, we engaged community activists in our effort to convene residents in one of Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Harlem Park. We designed what is known as a 21st Century Town Hall meeting—a forum held in a local church that was part focus group, part town hall meeting, part real-time poll. The 21st Century Town Hall meeting allowed us to engage 40 rising 8th graders and a representative from their families in a candid conversation about school choice.
We entered the conversation with a series of questions:
- What do families know about their school options?
- What school characteristics are most important to families?
- What information and other resources are, or could be, most helpful?
- How consistent are family needs and preferences across different areas of the city?
- How involved are students in the process?
- How can we use this information to improve outcomes for students?
The anticipation in the community for the meeting was so high we had to turn people away at the door. The meeting provided us with a comprehensive look into the decision-making process of 8th graders and their families. We analyzed our findings and wrote a report that we presented to the Casey Foundation and its education reform partners.