How to evaluate a school district

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  February 25, 2009 12:35 AM

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A 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. Which programs in your district receive the most funding? Have the facilities been updated recently? How much are parents expected to shell out in additional fees (for sports, arts, transportation, lunches, etc.)? Have any of the schools been identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring?

4.) 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.

Readers, have any of you had to evaluate (or re-evaluate) your school districts before a recent move? What advice do you have to share?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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15 comments so far...
  1. I would check local and town-level newspaper coverage of school issues (try wickedlocal, for one) - it's a good way to get the scuttlebutt that no one wants to reveal to "outsiders" during school visits. Don't neglect reading letters to the editor! You may find out about big trouble brewing, redistricting changes, upcoming or recent cuts, gripes that go below the shiny surfaces of good test results, etc. Also, try hanging out in the parking lot at dismissal time and strike up conversations with other parents, or go to a playground near the potential school (if the weather is good) and try approaching parents.

    Posted by Alix Woznick February 25, 09 11:51 AM
  1. Meet the principal. Ask the principal what he/she does to keep teacher morale high, and what happens when a teacher is underperforming. Trust your gut about the "feel" of the school, and your impression of the principal. It's a bad sign when the principal is unwilling to meet with prospective parents. The principal is the public face of the school, and its chief advocate.

    Posted by MrsDalloway February 25, 09 12:51 PM
  1. Alix, that is very good advice. MCAS scores (whether they be high or middle-of-the-road) and reputation often don't tell the whole story. Local newspapers are definitely a good place to start getting a sense of what's going on within a town or district and what controversies you might want to avoid (such as budget battles, overcrowding, etc.). I agree that it's also a great idea to chat with as many parents as you can, as long as you keep in mind the fact that negative people always seem to be the loudest and most willing to share their thoughts.

    Posted by Molly829 February 25, 09 12:51 PM
  1. A really important attribute of my kids' schools has been the percentage of kids going on to a 4-year college. Having peers that all expect to go on to college reinforces an atmosphere in which kids do their homework and take school seriously. I would also follow up with the school system to find out which colleges their recent graduates attend to gauge how well their graduates are perceived by colleges and universities. Don't settle for anecdotal information, get a list. Finally, find out what percentage of the high school kids take AP courses. Good high schools push all of their students to try AP, not just those with high GPAs. We picked the town we moved to when our kids were 4 and 7 years old, respectively, using these criteria.They are now both in colleges and we have no regrets!

    Posted by Western 'burb Mom February 25, 09 01:00 PM
  1. The worst possible scenario regarding MCAS is being realized in the spring at the High School Graduation ceremonies across the state, when hard working students are denied their Diploma, because they can not pass the MCAS Test. How does this bode when President Obama discussed those kids that Dropped out & the need for them to Stay in School & go on to at least one year in college, otherwise they are failing not only themselves, but they are failing this nation? What happens to the students that stay in school & are just not able to pass these tests? I grew up knowing several kids throughout my school years that always had difficulty with tests. These policies regarding MCAS need to be changed

    Posted by Dave Z February 25, 09 02:16 PM
  1. Once you've picked a town, you'll also want to learn about differences among individual grammar schools. We moved to Belmont because it has great schools, but have since learned that some are better than others.

    We also didn't grow up around here and wish we knew more of this before signing up for the big 30 year mortgage. Also, see if you can find people in your target town who don't use the public schools -- why would they choose private over public? Helps to ferret out some additional info -- do families get turned off by middle school and look elsewhere, for example?

    Ask parents what they could change about their school system if they could change just one thing.

    Posted by Mom of two February 25, 09 02:19 PM
  1. I would also look for town support of the public library. I see this as a "canary in the coal mine." Many towns have severely limited the hours, cut staff and even closed libraries. In many respects this is "easier" than cutting school costs, but I view it as a big red flag.

    I would also look for the extra-curricular activities. Do you think your kids would be interested in a good music, drama, or sports program. These are often first cuts.

    Posted by Mark February 25, 09 02:22 PM
  1. Another question to ask - does your prospective hometown have a private education foundation that supports the school system? Even excellent systems like Newton, Brookline and Winchester rely heavily on private grants for funding for everything from professional development to classroom projects. Google "town name" and "Education foundation," most have websites that will list trustess who would be happy to tell you about the school system in questions.

    Posted by Caren Connelly February 25, 09 02:45 PM
  1. All of the above are good indicators, but one might also want to look at access to charter schools. Often they are at the top academically. This enables you to not sink a fortune into a home, but get the best public education available in MA. Check out the recent Harvard/MIT studies on Boston charters, which performed as well as Brookline public.

    Posted by Diezil February 25, 09 02:58 PM
  1. Look at the arts/music programs. If those are well-developed, then the school has a substantial budget and great priorities.

    Posted by SaraCW February 25, 09 04:45 PM
  1. Your article is INCORRECT - the Mass. DESE does provide profile information for every school district on its website for FREE (the websites you provided charge fees or require you to "join"). The link for the DESE profile page is
    http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/ and from there you can choose any Mass. District.

    Thanks for the link, Mike. Actually, what I wrote is that the Mass DESE does not make district *report cards* available -- that statement is on the DESE website, too. But the profiles you mention are indeed there (and I linked to them farther down in the post). It's good to have the site itself, though, so thanks! -- LMA

    Posted by mike February 25, 09 04:53 PM
  1. this is a smidgen off topic, but notice how they spelled "evaluating" in the URL adress above. Interesting how they misspell a common word on an EDUCATION article!! Maybe we all should take the English Language Arts MCAS test, just as a refresher.

    Thanks for your comment, thanksEZ. The URLs are automatically generated, but we can go in and fix them manually, and I'll do that right away. -- LMA. P.S. You spelled "address" wrong in your comment. Good point about the MCAS!

    Posted by thanksEZ February 25, 09 08:20 PM
  1. As a former teacher I would strongly encourage you to delve into what curricula they are using for Math and English. There are some trendy Math programs, such as TERC or Everyday Math that are widely used but with which you may not feel comfortable having your child learn Math. Ditto on English. There are entire that we have written off because of this for our own children.

    Beyond that, there are districts where the reputation is good now, but funding cuts will be hurting the district for years to come. The failure of the Newton override comes to mind. This year Newton's class sizes are bigger than Boston's because their teacher's union contract has no language about class size, unlike Boston's.

    Posted by kn March 5, 09 08:41 AM
  1. Good ideas presented here. I would add: Parent involvement is a good indicator of how important schools are to the community. I would suggest finding the time to attend a PTO/PTA meeting where parents are involved and willing to talk to you.

    Posted by BG March 26, 09 08:44 AM
  1. hey this is a very interesting article!

    Posted by KeHoeff May 28, 09 03:53 PM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. I would check local and town-level newspaper coverage of school issues (try wickedlocal, for one) - it's a good way to get the scuttlebutt that no one wants to reveal to "outsiders" during school visits. Don't neglect reading letters to the editor! You may find out about big trouble brewing, redistricting changes, upcoming or recent cuts, gripes that go below the shiny surfaces of good test results, etc. Also, try hanging out in the parking lot at dismissal time and strike up conversations with other parents, or go to a playground near the potential school (if the weather is good) and try approaching parents.

    Posted by Alix Woznick February 25, 09 11:51 AM
  1. Meet the principal. Ask the principal what he/she does to keep teacher morale high, and what happens when a teacher is underperforming. Trust your gut about the "feel" of the school, and your impression of the principal. It's a bad sign when the principal is unwilling to meet with prospective parents. The principal is the public face of the school, and its chief advocate.

    Posted by MrsDalloway February 25, 09 12:51 PM
  1. Alix, that is very good advice. MCAS scores (whether they be high or middle-of-the-road) and reputation often don't tell the whole story. Local newspapers are definitely a good place to start getting a sense of what's going on within a town or district and what controversies you might want to avoid (such as budget battles, overcrowding, etc.). I agree that it's also a great idea to chat with as many parents as you can, as long as you keep in mind the fact that negative people always seem to be the loudest and most willing to share their thoughts.

    Posted by Molly829 February 25, 09 12:51 PM
  1. A really important attribute of my kids' schools has been the percentage of kids going on to a 4-year college. Having peers that all expect to go on to college reinforces an atmosphere in which kids do their homework and take school seriously. I would also follow up with the school system to find out which colleges their recent graduates attend to gauge how well their graduates are perceived by colleges and universities. Don't settle for anecdotal information, get a list. Finally, find out what percentage of the high school kids take AP courses. Good high schools push all of their students to try AP, not just those with high GPAs. We picked the town we moved to when our kids were 4 and 7 years old, respectively, using these criteria.They are now both in colleges and we have no regrets!

    Posted by Western 'burb Mom February 25, 09 01:00 PM
  1. The worst possible scenario regarding MCAS is being realized in the spring at the High School Graduation ceremonies across the state, when hard working students are denied their Diploma, because they can not pass the MCAS Test. How does this bode when President Obama discussed those kids that Dropped out & the need for them to Stay in School & go on to at least one year in college, otherwise they are failing not only themselves, but they are failing this nation? What happens to the students that stay in school & are just not able to pass these tests? I grew up knowing several kids throughout my school years that always had difficulty with tests. These policies regarding MCAS need to be changed

    Posted by Dave Z February 25, 09 02:16 PM
  1. Once you've picked a town, you'll also want to learn about differences among individual grammar schools. We moved to Belmont because it has great schools, but have since learned that some are better than others.

    We also didn't grow up around here and wish we knew more of this before signing up for the big 30 year mortgage. Also, see if you can find people in your target town who don't use the public schools -- why would they choose private over public? Helps to ferret out some additional info -- do families get turned off by middle school and look elsewhere, for example?

    Ask parents what they could change about their school system if they could change just one thing.

    Posted by Mom of two February 25, 09 02:19 PM
  1. I would also look for town support of the public library. I see this as a "canary in the coal mine." Many towns have severely limited the hours, cut staff and even closed libraries. In many respects this is "easier" than cutting school costs, but I view it as a big red flag.

    I would also look for the extra-curricular activities. Do you think your kids would be interested in a good music, drama, or sports program. These are often first cuts.

    Posted by Mark February 25, 09 02:22 PM
  1. Another question to ask - does your prospective hometown have a private education foundation that supports the school system? Even excellent systems like Newton, Brookline and Winchester rely heavily on private grants for funding for everything from professional development to classroom projects. Google "town name" and "Education foundation," most have websites that will list trustess who would be happy to tell you about the school system in questions.

    Posted by Caren Connelly February 25, 09 02:45 PM
  1. All of the above are good indicators, but one might also want to look at access to charter schools. Often they are at the top academically. This enables you to not sink a fortune into a home, but get the best public education available in MA. Check out the recent Harvard/MIT studies on Boston charters, which performed as well as Brookline public.

    Posted by Diezil February 25, 09 02:58 PM
  1. Look at the arts/music programs. If those are well-developed, then the school has a substantial budget and great priorities.

    Posted by SaraCW February 25, 09 04:45 PM
  1. Your article is INCORRECT - the Mass. DESE does provide profile information for every school district on its website for FREE (the websites you provided charge fees or require you to "join"). The link for the DESE profile page is
    http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/ and from there you can choose any Mass. District.

    Thanks for the link, Mike. Actually, what I wrote is that the Mass DESE does not make district *report cards* available -- that statement is on the DESE website, too. But the profiles you mention are indeed there (and I linked to them farther down in the post). It's good to have the site itself, though, so thanks! -- LMA

    Posted by mike February 25, 09 04:53 PM
  1. this is a smidgen off topic, but notice how they spelled "evaluating" in the URL adress above. Interesting how they misspell a common word on an EDUCATION article!! Maybe we all should take the English Language Arts MCAS test, just as a refresher.

    Thanks for your comment, thanksEZ. The URLs are automatically generated, but we can go in and fix them manually, and I'll do that right away. -- LMA. P.S. You spelled "address" wrong in your comment. Good point about the MCAS!

    Posted by thanksEZ February 25, 09 08:20 PM
  1. As a former teacher I would strongly encourage you to delve into what curricula they are using for Math and English. There are some trendy Math programs, such as TERC or Everyday Math that are widely used but with which you may not feel comfortable having your child learn Math. Ditto on English. There are entire that we have written off because of this for our own children.

    Beyond that, there are districts where the reputation is good now, but funding cuts will be hurting the district for years to come. The failure of the Newton override comes to mind. This year Newton's class sizes are bigger than Boston's because their teacher's union contract has no language about class size, unlike Boston's.

    Posted by kn March 5, 09 08:41 AM
  1. Good ideas presented here. I would add: Parent involvement is a good indicator of how important schools are to the community. I would suggest finding the time to attend a PTO/PTA meeting where parents are involved and willing to talk to you.

    Posted by BG March 26, 09 08:44 AM
  1. hey this is a very interesting article!

    Posted by KeHoeff May 28, 09 03:53 PM
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