Parents want to send their children to a good school, but just how good are the schools in your area? There are lots of signs that point to a good school district or at the very least a good local school, but do you really know what to look for? Consider elements of the schools that may not be immediately visible by digging around a bit in your area to get a real picture.
Disregard House Prices
We often (incorrectly) assume that house prices equate to school value. This is true to some degree, but it is certainly not a bona fide rule. Often the small neighborhood school surrounded by middle class homes is more effective than the brand new school surrounded by McMansions. While the quality of the neighborhood may be a starting point, it’s by no means definitive.
Check the Secret Stats
In our age of standardized testing, schools like to paint banners about how “Exemplary” or “Highly Recognized” they are. But what does that really mean? Sure it sounds good if a lot of kids pass the standardized test, but those results can be subjective – is the test a minimal skills test? Or is it a test of true grade level ability?
To really determine the value of the school rankings, dig into the state’s data on the school – how many kids actually passed to earn that ranking? What was the passing score? You may be shocked to discover that “passing” means getting half of the questions right and the school is “outstanding” with more than 20 percent of the students failing (missing more than half of the questions!)
The demographics that make you comfortable will be a personal choice, but the information on the breakdown of the school is likely available online. Look for how many students from each ethnic group are represented in the school.
Identify how many gifted and special needs students are on the campus. Note the number of kids in a free or reduced lunch situation as this indicates a few things including how many students are impoverished at the school, and the amount of funding the school receives from the government to help them.
Benchmark Your Data
It’s not enough to have dug up the dirt on one school. Now you need to compare that data set to information from other schools in the area. Compare a few different schools to get a clear picture of how the schools are broken up according to demographics and student needs.
Run a Visual
If you have an afternoon available, visit the school you’re considering for your child. Park somewhere close by (without getting arrested or in the way of the busses) and just watch. Look at how many children walk home. Look for how involved the teachers are. Watch how many students are in the school. Check out the demeanor of the older students. Now picture your child in the mix – is it a good fit?
Consider a Walkthrough
School security is tight, as it should be. But most schools are willing to give community members a tour of the facility if you ask nicely and show up at a good time. Bring your child along to get her impression and then just check things out. Look for how disciplined the student body is. Look for how involved administration is with the students. Get a feel for the style of the school – there are very different methodologies at work across the nation and across cities.
Check the Attendance Boundaries
Pull up a map of the attendance zones to see which kids are going to attend which school. Some schools are designed around neighborhoods, which is good for kids to build close relationships with neighbors, and others are more far reaching in a effort to balance demographics by bringing students from different neighborhoods together. There are benefits to this as well.
Determine the School Progression
This can be tricky if you’re new to an area, but you should be able to tell from the attendance maps which schools feed into secondary schools. This can be very telling. Most elementary schools are sound, but when they are pooled together in a junior high or intermediate problems become more apparently. A quick look at the testing and demographic data from the state testing can determine this. There are even more clues when you determine which high school you’re zoned to.
Talk to Teachers
Teachers are the best source of information if you can find one willing to talk. Teachers know the inner workings of the district and can tell you which schools they would be willing to send their own children to. Teachers can also give you elusive information about what it takes to do well on standardized tests, how the schools are run and how satisfied the teachers are with the administration – a very telling sign of how well a school is run. Keep in mind, there is never a perfect situation for everyone, but if you hear repeatedly about the lack of discipline at a school, you can expect a problem.
The best way to gather information about your local schools is to be actively involved in them. You don’t have to have a child attending the school to be involved, although it helps. You can learn quite a bit by hanging out in the teacher work room cutting out laminated pictures or making copies. Volunteer in the library or the lunchroom and you’ll soon have a very clear picture of what your schools really embrace – it’s often a very eye-opening experience.
Rebecca Garland is a freelance writer working hard to populate the internet with interesting, engaging material on topics ranging from family life to plastic surgery. With ten years teaching in public schools, she has a great deal of insight on what makes up these learning institutions.