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10 Ways to Pick the Right School

[This is a piece I did for our Real Estate section. It ran in the Sept. 26 Post.---Jay]

We say we are buying a house. But for most of us parents, the house is not the whole story. It is the local public school we are investing in, and sometimes it can be a very daunting financial and personal decision.

In the early 1990s, when my journalist wife was making what seemed to me big bucks as a television producer, we could afford to live in Scarsdale, N.Y. That village's public schools cost us about as much in real estate taxes as the tuition at the private schools our kids had attended in Pasadena, Calif. Fortunately, we got what we paid for in Scarsdale. That is not always the case.

How do parents evaluate the schools their children may attend and escape the heartbreak of buying a great house that turns out to be in the attendance zone of a flawed school? Here are 10 ways to make the right choice, in descending importance. Feel free to re-prioritize them based on your personal tendencies:

1. Go with your gut. This sounds unscientific, but I don't care. After you have analyzed all the data and had the conversations outlined below, you still have to make a decision. Consider how you react emotionally to a school. Consult your viscera. If you're not feeling it, don't send your kids there. They will sense you have doubts at a time when they need to believe that this is the place for them.

2. Talk to parents. If strangers knocked on your door and asked what you thought of the local school, would you tell them? Of course you would. An unspoken code of honor exists among parents on such occasions. Ask the school for the names and numbers of a few PTA officers, or check with the neighbors and ring the bell of a house with kids that go to that school. Be polite. Listen carefully. They might even invite you in for coffee. You will learn much from those chats, even though the other parents may ask for deniability.

3. Visit the school and ask to speak to the principal. Picking up the vibes within the building is useful. Is it well-maintained? Do the walls have lots of recent schoolwork? But trying to see the principal is crucial. If he or she has no time to see you, beware. Even if an assistant principal agrees to answer your questions, an unreachable principal is a danger sign. The best principals I know are delighted to talk to new, and even potential, school parents. Act as if the principal were applying for a job at your office. Ask about philosophy. Discuss your child's interests and needs. Make sure you spend at least 30 minutes. The school leader makes or breaks the place.

4. Listen to your kids. We think we do this all the time, but we don't. We assume our children share our values, but sometimes they don't. Elementary school students won't have much to offer, but ask them anyway. Middle and high school students may have significant views. Be particularly careful to pick a school that offers extracurricular activities in which they are interested.

5. Look for a challenging high school in the neighborhood. Here is the link to The Washington Post's Challenge Index rankings of all Washington area public high schools. Here is the Newsweek list of the top high schools nationally, ranked the same way . If you Google the Challenge Index, you will find pieces by me and others on this way of rating schools. I don't look at test scores, which I believe are just a measure of average parental income. I look at participation in college-level exams, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. No matter the neighborhood, if the high school rates highly on my list, it can be counted on to work hard to prepare your child for college.

6. Make sure the middle school encourages study of algebra. The school's math teachers should be trying to prepare as many children as possible to take Algebra I by the eighth grade. Nationally, an average of 25 percent of eighth graders leave middle school having completed Algebra I or a higher course. If the middle school doesn't meet at least that standard, look elsewhere. Fifty percent is much better. Beware of schools that say only students with 90 percent or better averages may take algebra in eighth grade. If the school has good teachers, they can do much with B students, and even some C students. Mastering algebra is important to starting high school on a good note.

7. Check the data. Visit the state education department's Web site and look for the school's profile. In general, a school in a wealthy area will have high test scores, and a school in a low-income area will not. Compare its average scores to schools in similar neighborhoods. You may find something that will influence your decision. But . . .

8. If an elementary school passes tests Nos. 1 through 6 above, don't worry if it has low test scores. There are plenty of elementary schools in vibrant but lower-income neighborhoods that have great teachers and raise the achievement of every child. Usually they have some middle-class children whose parents have realized the school's value and stayed. Consider joining them.

9. If the district has gone through several superintendents recently, be careful. It is not an absolute deal-killer, but it is not a good sign.

10. Don't count on a prestigious, competitive high school to get your child into the Ivy League. I don't think attending an ultra-selective college is important, which is why this tip comes last. For those of you who do care, the data show that the more brilliant the student body of the high school your child attends, the more likely he or she will lose out in the competition for the most prestigious colleges. But those high schools will give your kid a terrific education, which is all that should concern you.

By Jay Mathews  | September 28, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Next: A School-Picking Way for THIS Century


Best advice ever:
6. Make sure the middle school encourages study of algebra.

Most parents, especially those of us with young kids, don't think about this. We're so preoccupied with the other 9 points and issues surrounding elementary school, we forget this key factor in their academic development. Good job.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 28, 2009 9:00 PM | Report abuse

Good advice.

I followed most of those points (although it was gut thing, and not following a checklist) when choosing my current home.

What I found was really good news - it was nearly impossible to go wrong in NoVA.

Point 8 above held true at most of the struggling elementary schools. Some friends who have moved to the area (from the Mid-West) have children enrolled at "struggling" elementary schools. They are thrilled with the education being provided.

Posted by: HerndonBiker | September 29, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

One advantage of challenging schools in less sought after neighborhoods is under enrollment. We chose a high school that makes Jay's index but is lower on the list than the others in our county (the President made a recent visit)

We did this in middle school as well. While the middle school's test scores are consistently challenged by students with limited English and/or home interest, teachers there seem to be motivated by the challenge.

We find that while the other schools are packed to capacity, having an under-enrolled school gives our sons the opportunity to have access to teachers and opportunities they might not have in the "most sought after" schools.

Posted by: KeyConcepts | September 29, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you never learn! You never even mentioned curriculum. And you've been writing about education for years! How can you still be so clueless?

Posted by: Nemessis | September 29, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Rule 11. Do all you can to stay in the same area until your kids graduate. Curricula can vary within the same county. (They aren't supposed to, but they sometimes do.) If you leave the state, something inevitably gets lost in the move.
Rule 12. Do what's right for your kid. Not all kids need to be prepared to step into a four-year college right out of high school. Some will do best by going to a community college for a year or two and then transferring, and there's no need to subject them to a high-pressure environment.

Posted by: jlhare1 | September 30, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I would add that the school should teach adding and multiplying fractions by 4th grade. I tutor high school kids in Algebra online and you would not believe the kids who cannot add 1/2 + 1/3. Its crippling when they get into Algebra and get problems like 4x/3 = 2x(2/3 + 4/5) solve for x, even though they could handle a similar problem that has no fractions quite well. I find the kids with the most problems with fractions are in the south and southwest. A solid math foundation by 4th grade is essential for higher math. Make sure the solid foundation exists in the school you pick.

Posted by: Fate1 | September 30, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

To Nemessis:

The reason that Mr. Matthews didn't mention curriculum is b/c HE DOESN"T CARE!!! The only relevant factor is how highly a school ranks on his B.S. "Challenge Index," which is calculated as the number of students who take AP tests divided by the number of graduating students. Score on these AP Exams are NOT of any consideration!

As a former AP teacher & reader (AP Test "grader"), I am WELL AWARE of (& have worked for) entire school systems (in the metropolitan DC area) where students are forced into AP classes for which they did not register, are not allowed to drop the classes, and are required to take the exam. No exceptions

Because Mr. Matthews does not take AP scores into account when calculating his rankings, a student's simply signing their name on the exam is enough for their test to qualify for the school, hence all of the pressure to take the classes & the exams, all in a misguided effort for their school to rank highly on the Index. I simply cannot tell you how often, as an AP reader, I was subjected to a treatise on how the student was forced to take the exam, didn't have a clue about the answer, & didn't care. Often times, I was simply treated to a lovely drawing rather than anything in writing (too bad I wasn't grading AP Art).

One hundred percent of your school student population receives free & reduced lunch, the ESOL population is through the roof, & they haven't made AYP since the high school assessments became a requirement? None of that matters, b/c the students have been forced into AP classes, & are required to take the exam for which they do not have to pay (did I mention free & reduced lunch for which College Board gives them a financial waiver - or the principal simply pays for the exam outright). This is enough for the school to rank highly on the Challenge Index, which is the only thing upon which Mr. Matthews believes that you should base curriculum decisions.

Posted by: marnie4bama | October 1, 2009 12:48 AM | Report abuse

#2 can be misleading. A recent Gallup poll found that 76% of public school parents are satisfied with their child's school. Yet 1/3 of U.S. students drop out before earning a high school diploma, and only a fraction of those who do manage to graduate are prepared for college. The longer our student stay in school, the worse they do on international comparisons.

There's a *HUGE* amount of parental delusion when it comes to the quality of the schools here in the U.S.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 2, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

When you talk to parents, try to find parents with the simialr values and educational goals. You'll be happier with your neighbors, and your children will be happier with the kids they meet in school.

Parents who really value sports may not care about the music program, for example.

Also, if you have a child with unusual academic needs, find parents of similar kids and listen to the tone of what they have to say.

Posted by: mom22 | October 5, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

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