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Ginger Spickler works with a parent at a recent charter school fair.

Ginger Spickler works with a parent at a recent charter school fair.

Memphis mother creates resource to help parents navigate school choices

Like many parents, Ginger Spickler anguished when she had to make a decision in 2010 about where to send her child to kindergarten.

“I felt like this was a huge decision that will drastically affect his life and that’s all up to me,” said Spickler, 39, who ultimately sent her son Walt to Peabody Elementary School, a public school a few blocks from her home in midtown Memphis.

With one of the largest private school sectors in the nation, a bourgeoning crop of charter schools, and six new municipal school districts, choosing a school in Memphis is now more complex than ever.

Last week, to help parents better navigate the county’s changing educational landscape, Spickler launched a website titled “Memphis School Guide: Your guide to Memphis and Shelby County K-12 school.” The site profiles about 230 out of the county’s 375 private, charter and traditional public schools. The profiles include demographic charts, program highlights, academic results and, when available, videos and photographs.

Spickler gathered the data during the last year using the state education report card and survey responses from school administrators. She plans to add other schools to the guide as more surveys are returned.

“There is no perfect school,” said Spickler, who now works as the communications coordinator for Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST), a nonprofit organization that provides private school scholarships to low-income children.

“Every school has good and bad points. There are great options for every child,” said Spickler, who advises parents to do their research on the front end.

While MOST supported the guide’s development, the project was funded by anonymous donors. Spickler oversees the website independently and hopes to launch a nonprofit organization to continue building and updating the resource.

Grassroots efforts across Tennessee have developed similar resources to help parents navigate school systems, especially in communities that have outdated websites, a dearth of literature and few school exploration fairs.

Last October, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a statewide school choice booklet designed to give parents access to information about private, charter, homeschool and virtual school options, but excluding traditional public schools. The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville, is a free-market think-tank that advocates for unfettered school choice, limited government and “individual liberty.”

In 2013, the state redesigned its annual report card in an effort to make its school information more relevant and user-friendly for parents. Proposals also have come before the Tennessee General Assembly to give letter grades to public schools, though critics worry that such efforts ultimately could lead to misinformation and confusion that could negatively impact traditional schools.

Research shows parents use a host of information when deciding where to send their children, with transportation, safety, after-school options and affordability among some of the biggest factors.

“Test scores need to be a bigger part of how parents evaluate the whole part but never should be the whole part,” Spickler said.  “Even schools that are struggling have great stuff going on in them. Those schools should be able to tell their stories that are not solely defined by numbers.”

As for Spickler, she now has two children in school. Walt is a fourth-grader and her youngest son is in kindergarten, both at Peabody Elementary School.

“When it came time to decide for our own kids, we chose our neighborhood school,” Spickler said. “But we wouldn’t have come to decision without doing research.”