A Child Caring reader wrote to me recently, asking for some information. "One topic I would really love to see covered is how to evaluate a school district," she wrote. "Although I have some idea of how to research this on my own, I feel that I am at a disadvantage since I didn't grow up here."
I didn't grow up in the Boston area, either, and remember feeling more than a bit bewildered as my husband and I were trying to decide where to move. My tiny condo in Brookline was much too small for all of us (my husband came with three kids), and we couldn't afford a larger home there, but were loathe to leave the town's excellent schools.
When it comes to evaluating school districts, you first have to evaluate your family's needs. If full-day kindergarten is not available, what will you do for before- or after-school care? Are you willing to pay more for extracurricular activities? Do you have a child with special educational needs? Is your teenager looking for college-prep or vo-tech?
Once you've figured out your own requirements, here are a few things to consider when evaluating different school districts:
1.) Check out the school’s report card. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not make district report cards available to the public -- districts are supposed to provide the information to parents -- but you should be able to find the information on the school district's website (if not, call the superintendent to request it). You can get also find standardized testing results, student-to-teacher ratios, economic and ethnic data, and articles about why the numbers are (or aren’t) important at websites like GreatSchools.net and SchoolDataDirect.org.
2.) Take it to the state level. It's hard to tell what those standardized test results really mean unless you compare the district's results to the state as a whole. The No Child Left Behind Act report card for Massachusetts is a good place to start.
3.) Delve into the details. The Massachusetts Department of Education website has a wealth of information about the state's teachers, graduation rates, per-student spending, and more. But you should also dig as deeply as you can into the districts themselves. Have any of the schools been identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring?
4.) Find out about the finances. How much are parents expected to shell out in additional fees (for sports, arts, transportation, lunches, etc.)? Which programs in the district receive the most funding? Does the town rely on private foundations or grants to support the school, or is it entirely funded by state money? Any major projects recently completed or in the works (or have recently been put on hold)?
5.) Visit the school. If you have an idea about which school your child might attend, it’s a good idea to take the time to visit the school -- with and without your child -- while it is in session, if possible. Talk to the teachers and staff, find out if they can connect you with other parents who might be willing to talk about their experiences.
6.) Talk to the teachers and staff. Do they send their own kids there? Why or why not? What issues are they facing and how might they impact your child?
7.) Talk to parents, if possible. Ask the principal to connect you to parents of current students or, if you can, try to connect with a few on your own while they're waiting in the pickup line before the bell rings. Not comfortable with that? Ask the principal when the next PTO meeting is, and try to attend.
8.) Read up on local news. Check out the coverage of the school district in local newspapers, and be sure to take a look at the letters to the editor for feedback on what the locals are really saying.
9.) Consider your child's current and possible future needs. Does your child need any special services? How established are the ones offered by the school district? Are there new ones being considered, or any that have recently been eliminated? If services for your child are eliminated, will the state help you secure those services in a private or parochial school instead?
10.) Look for red flags. Districts often save money by cutting arts and music programs, or by increasing the fees for participation in sports. If class sizes are increasing while town populations are staying the same, that could signal a problem with school resources.
Want to know more? I've pulled together a check list at Work It, Mom! with 10 questions you should ask when evaulating a new school district.