How to choose a school district
January 13, 2014 2:31 PM   Subscribe

We're planning to buy our first house this summer and the neighborhoods we're interested in so far seem to have pretty different school systems in terms of test scores/sizes/demographics/everything externally obvious. I know nothing about education and am trying to figure out how best to evaluate these schools against each other.

Obviously this is a very personal decision, but I would love to hear from people about what factors you considered the most important when you were choosing a district, what process you used to research them, that sort of thing.

Also if anyone's got any recommendations for books (or blogs/articles/whatever) that could help us learn more about this, that'd be much appreciated too.

(For reference, we have little kids at the moment, but we're hoping to stay in this house for approximately a thousand years so we're thinking ahead to middle/high school as well. We have no gifted kids or kids with special needs or any special requirements that we know of so far.)

Thanks very much!
posted by gerstle to Education (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I know nothing about education and am trying to figure out how best to evaluate these schools against each other.

Is there any specific reason why you aren't just going to move to the school district with the highest test scores?

Does one district have magnet school programs that you want your children to partitcipate in eventually?

What are you trying to optimize for?
posted by deanc at 2:43 PM on January 13, 2014

WIthout knowing what you have done so far -

Check and the map function see what schools are there, along with ratings. Check also Self reporting so grains of salt, of course, but it's a start.

Check changing demographics. I have friends whose town in the space of a few years has gone heavily Chinese, drawn by the school ratings. It has made for more crowded classrooms.

Schools are funded locally, so check how stable the general population is and how deeply they are into funding schools. Sad to say, what looks great at kindergarten can change a lot by the time you reach highschool. Best of luck.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:44 PM on January 13, 2014

Be sure to choose a district that actually offers 5 full days of school per week. It would be a mistake to simply assume they all offer that: the district next to ours has a 2-hour "late start" every Monday as a cost-saving measure. (Yeah, not a very good school district.)

In which state/county are you looking?
posted by hush at 3:07 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you feel comfortable doing this, ask to visit the school. If they say no, that's information right there; although there can be concerns or policies about this, many schools will at least have open houses or something.

While you're there, look at the classrooms. Do they seem bright and cheerful? Is there student work on the walls? Is the building clean and cared for? Is it clear that learning happens there? Do the kids seem happy and, especially, safe?

Also, yeah, there are many (MANY!) problems with testing but the data is out there so you might as well look at it. If the scores are low that could mean any one of a number of things, but if your children are average and the scores are very low that might mean that, no matter how good the teachers are, they won't necessarily be teaching at a level that's most beneficial for your kids.

It's also worth figuring out what else you might want from a school -- do you need aftercare? Find out what programs are available first. Do you want to be super involved? Some schools have a lot of opportunities for parents (PTA, chaperoning field trips, stuff like that) and some don't. Also, if you can get in touch with some, it's worth asking other parents what they do and don't like about their schools. Maybe take your kids to a playground in the neighborhood and strike up a conversation being like "we're thinking about moving here. How are the schools?".

Finally, go with your gut! I know you've said you don't know a ton about this sort of thing but if you get the chance to visit a school you'll probably have a decent sense of whether or not you feel comfortable with your kid going there. Picture them walking into the building each day and figure out how that makes you feel.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 3:49 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This can be a huge question, and your attitudes toward the value of education and how a child should be educated will likely have an impact on which district is best for you. We researched schools in great detail for our daughter over the course of about a year and half, weighing private versus public schools. The things we considered included understanding her learning style, her emotional and social development, the diversity of the classroom, the school's approach to eduction and techniques used, and the school's attitude toward homework. We also took drive time/school bus time into consideration, as magnet schools in our district can be far from home. We applied for private schools and attended open-houses for public schools. She got into a great private school, but we decided it was much too structured for her learning style, and instead sent her to a magnet (public) Montessori school. We also took account the cut off age for kindergarten (her birthday is near the edge of the cutoff, and we had to decide if she should be the oldest or youngest kid in her class). So she was set. Except then she tested into a "high achievement" magnet, and after studying schools for over a year, we had 2 weeks to decide if she should change schools. Which we did, and it was a huge mistake. And now she's in a great private school.

The biggest thing I would say is every--and I mean every--school has strengths and weaknesses, and supporters of a school, or those who are stuck in the school, will often play up how great it is. Once you get there, you will find things you don't like. After going to three completely different schools I see how they all could be okay. And the private school, which was my dream, isn't as perfect as I expected/hoped. So it's a toss-up. Ultimately, we just want her to be happy at school, and she finally is, so I'm happy with her school too.

I have a ton of thoughts on this, and have already rambled on too much. One thing I'd warn against is going to a newly formed school, because it's very difficult to on the frontline of figuring out how the school is going to work. Also, try to find out from other parents if the great speeches by the administrators you meet actually trickles down to results in the classroom.
posted by bluespark25 at 3:56 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Find some teachers and ask them. Bonus points if you get them slightly tipsy first.
posted by fshgrl at 4:43 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you have to find a culture that meshes with your family. Sure, one district might have sky-high test scores and all the kids get into Ivies, but only because the standard is outside tutoring, Saturday classes, math over arts, etc.. Or else the drama program is okay but most kids go to the local community college or join the Army. Do the schools start out strong in lower grades and then everyone goes to private school after 8th grade? Do the schools expect a lot of volunteer hours or do they never want to see parents, except on Parents' Night? There's a lot of variables. We lived in a place we really liked, and my kids went to a mixture of public and private schools, depending on the kid.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:52 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

We just did this and went with test scores and school visits, I felt pretty strongly that we as parents would be able to provide exposure to diversity and arts, but there's no way I'm teaching calc. Also, after visiting a couple I was totally clear on where I wanted my children to spend 8 hours a day.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:48 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was me two years ago! I was already unfamiliar with the US school system, having grown up in another country, and I'm a slightly obsessive research type person. I strongly second Mrs Pterodactyl's advice. I have strong opinions about schools (prefer Public to Private where possible, want diversity in the classroom, lots of testing is bad). I researched charter schools and magnet schools; the permitting and transfer options and their the point systems; the prices of private schools; the different education styles (Waldorf, Montessori, progressive, traditional, etc). So in the end we visited a bunch of schools to see what the reality was. Often things I liked on paper I did not like in reality.

For me, gut feel was the best indicator of a good match in the end. A lot of people (especially in LA I think) tend to think test scores are the only indicator of a good school, whereas I disagree with this. Its actually a great indicator of a catchment area full of middle and upper-middle class white people who speak English as a first language. That helps a lot, since your kids peers generally do well and provide peer pressure to do well, but sometimes it means the school can do a half-assed job and no-one notices because the kids have tutoring at home.

We ended up visiting an elementary school recommended by a friend, which is Title 1, in Program Improvement, and middling test scores. On paper its a terrible choice. But in reality it was friendly and welcoming, the principal and teachers are wonderful, Title 1 means its diverse which I like, and Program Improvement is inevitable for almost every Title 1 school out there. The Test Scores (and PI) are just the reality of a diverse student group, many of whom speak English as a second language, and don't have a lot of help at home due to poverty, parents working many jobs, or parents who are not present.

I haven't visited the middle fo high schools yet, but I have talked with parents who have their kids in those schools, and I am starting to get a good feel for what's in store.
posted by Joh at 5:54 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Good advice here, particularly from Mrs. Pterodactyl. I'll just jump in to point out that test scores mostly tell you who goes to school there: most schools with high scores serve middle-class students from English speaking families; lower test scores are strongly correlated with lower incomes and students who speak another language at home. I also agree with the priorities she mentions: we first wanted our children's school to be safe, then happy. Academic rigor was a distant third after those first two priorities.
posted by carterk at 8:57 PM on January 13, 2014

I always think that one of the best ways to evaluate schools is to figure out how high are the levels of parent involvement? Do lots of folks show up for 4th grade Reading Night (do they even offer things like this)? Are there volunteers in the library and classrooms? Are they welcoming when you visit?
posted by CathyG at 6:21 AM on January 14, 2014

What sort of community do you want to raise your children in? How much diversity are you looking for? How much does the community support public libraries? What is the school atmosphere not only at the elementary level but at the middle and high school levels? What sorts of social problems plague the upper years (bullying, violence, drug use, etc.)?

Nthing that standardized test results should be taken with a grain of salt. How well does the district do with its advantaged students? Its disadvantaged students? How big of a deal is standardized testing made out to be? Do you prefer a district with lower test scores that does less "teaching to the test" than one with higher test scores that does more?

Another data point to compare is the district spending per student. You can find the data here or here. Your state's department of education website will also have more statistics.

What does the curriculum/ extracurricular situation look like? Are classes in art and music still available? What about sports? What math curriculum does the district use? When do students start a foreign language? Are there any charter/ magnet schools?

You might also want to search the archives of a local newspaper/ online forum/ blog for "letters to the editor" type articles to find out the issues affecting the district. How often during the past few years have district residents voted on a tax levy for the schools? Did the levy pass? How contentious was the issue? Is the district facing over crowding issues or closing down schools due to decreasing population? If the district is in a state that has begun the transition to the common core, how do parents feel the transition is going? Do parents feel that their voice is heard?
posted by oceano at 8:48 AM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I attended public schools my whole life, I taught in public school for two years, and I hate to say it, but public schools are failing, and continuing to fail and it's spiraling out of control.

I don't know that buying a house for the school system today, will serve you well in the future. If you don't currently have children, you are 5-7 years away from kindergarten, and that's a lifetime in the span of the decline of public schools!

Ten years ago, it was "no child left behind,". This Act pretty much changed education such that the only thing that mattered were test scores. I was a teacher then and assimilation of the material, ability to analyze the material and understanding of the material were not important, the only thing that was important were the standardized test scores. Nothing ever grew because it was measured. My students were marginal at best and did not flourish in an environment of learning how to take the FCAT.

Today it's "Common Core." These educational 'fads' have a profound effect on public schools and some teachers embrace them, some ignore them and some outright flaut them.

A public school system, or an individual school comes down to each teacher for each grade. Some teachers are amazing and are doing great work in terrible school districts. Some teachers suck, and may be working in some of the toniest school districts in the country. You have no way of knowing.

In California a lot of the 'enrichment' classes, like Art, Music etc, were ended because of changes to the tax code. In Dallas the schools are so terrible that most parents in affluent and even middle-class neighborhoods send their children to private schools. In Atlanta, most of our public schools in the Atlanta Public Schools district were involved in cheating on the state standardized tests. The schools in one of the counties here in GA lost accreditation. In Broward County, I taught in a classroom with 36 kids (over crowded by 12 kids) with asbestos, and an air conditioner that didn't quite work.

In my Atlanta/DeKalb neighborhood, our Elementary School offers Montessori, if parents would like it, we have a charter middle school that teaches in German and a charter high school that is incredibly diverse, has a brand new classroom building and boasts the highest test scores in the state.

So if I had a school aged child, I would have no qualms about putting this child in one of those schools.

One of my Godkids goes to a science charter school in North Carolina and really likes it.

It's a very fluid, weird and changable thing.

My advise is buy the house you like, in the neighborhood you like, and account for the fact that you may need extra money for private schooling if the public schools aren't up to snuff. If the schools are good, that's awesome, you can bank that dough for something else. If the schools suck, it's too bad, but at least you've set aside some money in a contingency for private school.

It's a real crap shoot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:32 AM on January 14, 2014

Thanks so much, everyone. It hadn't occurred to me that I could ask to visit schools, and you've given me a lot of good things to ask about as well. I appreciate the help!
posted by gerstle at 7:34 PM on January 14, 2014

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