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The Anatomy of School Choice

The average cost of a high school in Florida is $40 million. But finding the funding for such a project is only the beginning. Creating a new attendance zone and assigning the student population is both a lengthy and very public process, prone to heated debate and hurt feelings. The School Board of Manatee County, Florida learned how technology of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) could be applied in a scientific manner to produce a politically and socially acceptable solution to a series of interrelated problems.

In 1996, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring each of the 67 county school districts in the state to develop a school choice proposal. In a perfect world, the concept of school choice is quite simple. Let parents and students choose the school to attend when they prefer a school other than what school district officials have assigned. In reality, issues such as transportation, classroom overcrowding, racial balancing and equality of resources from one campus to another affect the free flow of student choice.


The Manatee County School Board submitted their plan in June 1997. The next month a panel of 35 school administrators, teachers, parents, national school choice experts, delegates from the National Advancement of Colored People, Parent Teacher Association and governor's office met at the state capitol in Tallahassee. They reviewed the proposals. Each school choice plan was assigned a grade.

A maximum score of 45 points was possible. The Manatee plan was one of ten to receive a score of 0.

In September, the administration at Manatee returned with a new plan adressing the legislative requirements and providing a concrete timetable for implementation. School Superintendent Gene Denisar said, "We realized we would have to move more than 2,500 students to rezone the district with our new high school, Lakewood Ranch, set to open in the fall. Rather than having the school administration force students to relocate to a new school, a good school choice plan could allow students and parents the ability to make the decisions themselves."

GIS Articulates Solution
At this point, GIS technology became the medium for articulating the solution. GeoChoice represents the culmination of a 3 year evolution in the mutual understanding of the Manatee staff about GIS and the staff of International Computer Works, Inc.(ICW) about redistricting problems.

In July of 1995 (ICW) Temple Terrace, FL, started working with the Manatee staff. The initial process included the delivery of MapInfo Corporation (Troy, NY), training services, data creation and analysis. Geocoding 26,000 students using the 1995 TIGER/Line files required almost two weeks to complete.

Census blocks were created from streets wherever possible. When the students were geocoded, an object was added to the map about 30 feet off the street centerline. This allowed ICW to tabulate the student at the block level, such as hspopwhite, hspopblack and hspophispanic, using the students that fell into each respective block. The tabulation was performed at all three levels of attendance.

The census blocks were then used in conjunction with the MapInfo Redistrict function to aggregate and disaggregate blocks, creating balanced attendance zones for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. "This was a remarkable planning tool", says Mike McCann, then-coordinator of student accounting. "We were using computers and electronic maps to solve very controversial redistricting problems with data at our fingertips."

In September of 1995, ICW was awarded a contract from the Secretary of State of Wyoming to provide their county clerks with a suite of software, TIGERUS with which to make topologically correct edits to the US Census TIGER/Line Files. This software would subsequently enable Manatee to take their project to the next level.

Recognizing the need to reduce the time to geocode updated enrollment data from the School Board Registrar, The Manatee Student Accounting Department initiated a TIGERUS project. Using TIGERUS, Terry Secret, the District Demographer, was able to conflate the TIGER/Line Files to an address-attributed street line map provided by Dale Friendly of the Manatee County Property Appraiser's Office. With the enhanced base map, geocoding was reduced to two days, while enrollment swelled to 32,000 students.

As Secret completed the conflation process, ICW developed GeoSchools, a module that works with MapInfo and TIGERUS to automate the tabulation process. Among the functionality offered by GeoSchools, the Block Split function allows planners the flexibility to modify census geography where a block does not follow a school attendance zone.

GeoSchools also builds a dictionary that can be used on the school mainframe as a lookup table to validate student residential addresses as they are entered by the registrar at each campus. With the new street network, a block table that matched, updated student files easily geocoded, and GeoSchools to automate otherwise tedious and repetitive functions numerous redistricting plans could be prepared for public debate. During the year, school attendance zones were redistricted and new plans were approved through a series of public meetings and several news articles.


After successfully completing the high school redistricting, which defined the five attendance zones for the fall of 1998, ICW worked with McCann to design an automated methodology for conducting controlled choice. This work was aimed at creating a plan that would replace a choice plan earlier rejected by Department of Education(DOE). The program had to work with capacity constraints, minority ratios, and maintain the neighborhood school concept where possible. The collaborators believed that given the number of variables and students involved, an iterative process using GIS technology, taking into account spatial and temporal issues could work. They could build this upon the foundation the redistricting work represented. GeoChoice was conceived during these planning sessions. McCann could then propose a school choice plan with the knowledge that not only would it succeed, it was a natural evolution of the prior work.

In the fall of 1997, Mike McCann was joined by Dan Lundeen, Supervisor of Student Accounting for Manatee Schools. They met with members of the DOE to present their new concept of School Choice. The results of that meeting were announced on the front page of the Manatee/AM Edition of the Sarasota Herald Tribune on October 31, 1997: "New Choice Plan Ranks Among Best." The paper reported that the Manatee County School District school choice program, which "state education officials originally deemed one of the worst school choice programs in the state was worthy of serving as a model."

"I'm really fired up, really excited," said superintendent Gene Denisar, "I think it's great ... I'm pleased with DOE for looking at our plan and giving us a chance. It is a tribute for all of the people who have worked not only on the choice programs, but also on high school rezoning and all of the variables and aspects of it."

On the same day, the headlines of the Bradenton Herald newspaper read, "State, Feds To Award Manatee $18,000 for School Choice Plan." The article went on to say: The Manatee County plan caught the eye of the state and federal officials because it would be the only school choice plan in the state that starts on the high school level. If all goes well in Manatee County, state officials are likely to use the district as an example of how to start school choice on the high school level.

Now that they had their funding, the real work could commence.

Census blocks were created from streets wherever possible. When the students were geocoded, an object was added to the map about 30 feet off the street centerline for tabulating the student at the block level. Blocks were then aggregated and disaggregated, creating balanced attendance zones for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. Working with McCann and Lundeen, ICW developed GeoChoice. GeoChoice works with redistricted school boundaries between years, two mile walk zones, and student files. Students completing Choice applications are scored based upon their grade and geographic proximity to a two mile walk zone. Additional points are assigned if the student falls into the area of transition of zones between years. Working with minimum and maximum minority population levels and capacity constraints, GeoChoice uses a random selection process working on the highest scoring candidates to the lowest allocate choices.

Of the approximately 8,795 high school students projected to be in attendance for the 1998-99 school year, it was estimated that 1,500 would be affected by redistricting.

In late December 1997, all parents of high schoolers in the county received notices informing them what school their child has been assigned to for fall 1998. In the end, only 953 elected to chose a school other than their primary assignment. The Choice application for each of the students who returned an application was entered into GeoChoice through the Add Record function.

Once the database was complete, the operator was able to use the Apply Score function, giving each student a score based upon the values defined by the administrator with the Parameters function of GeoChoice.

Of the 953 students who submitted applications, 825 were assigned to their first-choice school, meaning that 98.55% of the students in all of the Manatee High School system received their first choice.

The 128 students who did not receive their first choice could decide to stay in their assigned school or try their chances in a second lottery in March.

The Workflow of School Choice

it all begins with the map. TIGERUS consists of the MapEdit ToolKit and TMT. The MapEdit ToolKit facilitates making topologically correct edits to a mapped database of TIGER/Line files. These edits include aligning the TIGERs to a local base map, correcting street names, address ranges, ZIP Codes, and adding missing streets or even entire subdivisions. Once the TIGER maps have been updated, MapEdit regenerates the TIGER/Line files spatially enhanced and attribute enriched.

Using TMT, 17 to 24 map layers are created from the updated TIGERs. A road map is one of the layers. The road map is used to geocode students to specific locations. With Campuses added to the map, walk zones can be created in accordance with local policy.

Another map layer created by TMT consists of census blocks. GeoSchools tabulates the student demographics at the block level. This map of blocks illustrates the number of students that reside in each block. The data comes from the preceding pin map. The blocks can be used to define attendance districts that meet the socioeconomic and capacity goals of the community

GeoChoice will conduct a lottery, allocating students based upon attendance preferences while factoring in capacity and demographic constraints. GeoChoice will facilitate zoned or open choice plans. Students can be assigned scores based upon variables such as grade level or location. Table driven, GeoChoice can be easily adapted to meet varying community needs.

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