Families have started to consider moves beyond the big city and into more spacious, suburban homes in less populated areas. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted recent booms in the housing market outside of New York City and other urban areas as buyers are concerned about possible second wave of COVID-19 restrictions. Yet, no matter what area you may be moving from, whether you are leaving New York and moving to Westchester, moving to Fairfield County, or moving outside of San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C., or Boston, a significant consideration for all families will be finding the right school district for your children.
Assuming you’ve narrowed your neighborhood search to areas with housing options that are within your price range, commutable to your place of work, and consider other essential items on your checklist, the question of how to select the best school district for your student is likely still a mystery. With so many options, data, and perspectives, it’s often difficult to know where to begin. Intuitively, many parents will seek out the opinions of a school’s current families in an attempt to gauge an understanding of the district’s performance as a whole. Your immediate challenge will be the reliability of the information in the context of a regional comparison. While parent perspectives may be helpful to understand more specific intricacies of a school’s program offerings or academic options, and even thoughtful autobiographical perspectives, they will often be biased and limited in value without enough comparative context. In fact, a Teachers College Record research study found that those with more familiarity with a school district were more likely to rate the school performance positively, regardless of its merit. Many will likely not consider a more global or even national understanding of their school’s relative performance, as we have but one lens through which to view our own experiences. The challenge is with the methodology of how we evaluate schools, not the thoughtful perspectives our peers offer. So, start with data, and then incorporate parent personal accounts of their experiences to help break a tie.
Parents should aim to evaluate schools based on a mix of quantitative and qualitative data. The U.S News & World Report rankings of high schools across the country is one of the best places to start. Providing national, state-wide, and area-wide rankings of each school, parents can gain a clear understanding of the local schools that perform highly in preparing students for college, graduation rates, and test scores. Using these benchmarks, however, we are not implying that parents should simply choose the school with the highest overall ranking. Though we wish it were that simple, the process of district selection is more nuanced, requiring families to dig deeper into the statistics provided in relation to what they and their student value and require to succeed. Consider measures such as AP course participation, as well as AP exam performance, assessing not only how many students access these advanced courses, but how well they are able to succeed. Look at diversity rankings, assessing the degree of inclusivity and multiplicity of perspectives that may comprise your child’s learning environment.
Beyond the overall academic rankings U.S News & World Report rankings, evaluate each school’s budget and programming to see not only what academic or extracurricular options are available, but which are actively prioritized through resource allocation. Certain schools may have slightly lower overall rankings, but may offer robust programs in the arts, athletics, sciences, or other areas that may be in line with what your student is looking for in their educational experience. Other schools may be highly ranked but may not be as strong in theater, film, or in supporting students with 504 or IEP plans.
For families with younger students, grade school rankings can be difficult to find and often unable to provide enough information. Websites like greatschools.org are helpful, but are only relative to that district, and not to the state or region. An 8 on Great Schools is not equal in all areas, and a middle school or elementary school is a composite of what the high school ends up being, quite often, except for any families that opt for private high schools who were previously in the system. Therefore, what is more helpful is to utilize rankings and information about the district’s high school will be able to provide an excellent proxy for elementary and middle school academic performance. After all, what standardized test can compare relative performance of kindergarten self portraits using elbow macaronis? That’s why older student data is more reliable.
When it comes to choosing the best school district for your family, it is a complex decision that should be based uniquely on your student’s needs. Taking the time to collect a number of appropriate and varied research points will most importantly help your family make an informed, educated decision that will likely meet or exceed expectations and put your student on track for future success. Feel welcome to contact us with any questions you may have as we have experience with districts surrounding New York and many other cities.