Enrollment letters for SFUSD schools have recently gone out. Based on acceptance numbers in the district, most parents are either excited about their placement (that’s me–Yipee!), and some will be bummed and go for Round 2 waiting pools. There will also be a pretty decent number of families who just aren’t sure… I’ve gotten a HUGE positive response to this post I wrote almost 5 years ago: Don’t Freak Out! Your Kindergartener Will Get into a GREAT Public School! and I still stand by it! We are so lucky to have some AMAZING public schools in our city.
Nonetheless… for those of you still on the fence, or unsure about whether to stay put or try for a preferred school via the waiting pool, I’ve penned a post for you!
How Do You Go About Evaluating a School?
As a former public school teacher, school improvement coach and education consultant, I have lots of experience evaluating instruction. That has felt like a HUGE asset as my family goes through the process of choosing schools for our girls.
Nonetheless, one thing I have been struck by as I’ve gone through this process is how LITTLE most parents know about some of the great educational options our public schools provide. I often hear some really uninformed (and frankly racist) comments about why families think a school is “good” or “bad”. Trying to separate the fears from the facts about our public schools has been one of my primary motivations for writing this blog.
That said, I recently had the opportunity to talk with my former boss Ritu Khanna, the Assistant Superintendent of the district Research, Planning & Accountability Office. Basically, Ritu is a “Data Diva” who knows everything about slicing and dicing school performance data and is also one of the smartest people I know. If anyone knows how to evaluate “good” vs. “bad” schools, she’d be the one to talk to.
In speaking with her about our shared frustration around how most parents evaluate (read: choose a school for their kids), she gave me some nuggets of wisdom, which I’d like to share…
“Good” vs. “Bad” is BAD
First off, the whole good vs. bad is a little simplistic don’t you think? When we evaluate schools, we should be looking for a good school for OUR KIDS and families. For example, a big school (even if it was AMAZING) would never have worked out for my girls who entered kindergarten at the ripe old age of 4! They were just too little and “sensitive” and needed a small school that would guarantee they would both be in the same class through 3rd grade (At my daughters’ school there is only one general education class per grade.) With that in mind, Sherman, which is a great school for a lot of my friends, would have been a BAD CHOICE for my girls.
Additionally, the 7:50 a.m. start time would have been a non-starter for our family. There was NO WAY I’d ever be able to get 4-year-old twins ready and to school on time each day at that time. (Similarly, I’ve hear families rave and rant about late start schools depending on their own specific needs and challenges.)
Also, on an even bigger picture level, the whole good/bad binary is totally whack. “Good” vs. “bad” fits into the “black” vs. “white” thinking which underpins a lot of implicit racism we perpetuate in our schools. Robin DiAngelo, an expert on “whiteness” states:
The most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people. If we are not aware of having negative thoughts about people of color, don’t tell racist jokes, are nice people, and even have friends of color, then we cannot be racist.
Think the “bad ol’ days” are far behind us? Not so, many families unwittingly feed segregation in our schools by avoiding schools with high English Learner populations or Black and Brown students. Think I’m exaggerating? My husband recently bumped into a neighbor who raved about our neighborhood feeder middle school and proclaimed as proof, “There are more and more white families going there!”
Regardless of our background or politics, as parents, we want the best for our kids. We secretly (or not so secretly wonder) “Can they get the best at a school where most of the kids are poor and not White?”
The truth is, even though we may rationally (read: consciously) know that “white” does not equate to “good” we may still harbor implicit bias to schools where there are majority low-income, Black, or Brown students. It’s important to question these feelings, because even if we are “good” people, most of us harbor racist thoughts and feelings based on the way we’ve all been socialized by media and our environment.
One Source of Information is Not Enough
Second, I asked Ritu to share her thoughts on popular school ratings systems like those found at GreatSchools.com. Not only do these SUCK for reliability reasons. Most importantly, they contribute to educational redlining. (But I’ll get to that in another post!)
Ritu advises that relying on a 1 – 10 scale like the ones found on the GreatSchools site are overly simplistic. Instead, parents should consider “multiple measures” when evaluating a school.
Just think, if you were going on luxury vacation, would you just rely on just one friend to tell you where to go? Would you rely on just the hotel website? Yelp reviews? A review from Frommers OR Time Out? Just imagine if you only relied on ONE SOURCE?
In many cases, when we choose a school many parents rely on sources that are too limited to make an informed decision. Even asking a few friends at the playground about a school’s neighborhood “buzz” is really a poor barometer of whether the school is actually good for your kid. As a teacher working in many AMAZING yet underrated schools, I can attest to this.
This is also true on the flip side. Sometimes schools that are highly coveted have a poor rating inside the district (those “in-the-know”) when it comes to leadership or school culture. Take Lowell for example, I have several friends who work there and have had several friends who’ve sent their kids there, so I know it can be a great school for some kids. Nonetheless, as one of the largest high schools in the district, I have often heard the school’s “competitive” culture described as unsupportive of Black and Brown students.
If my daughters wanted to go there, I know they would find some great educators there. Nonetheless, even though my girls like “high performing” academic environments, I’m not sure my girls would be happy there. They like a smaller “touchy-feely” environment, where culture and community are a real focus, and equity is a highly visible goal of the school. (In this regard, Mission gets high ratings… in fact, they have one of the highest college acceptance rates; higher than Lowell’s in fact… go figure!)
Data Should Answer Questions
That leads to the third kernel of knowledge I gleaned: Data is great (and don’t get me wrong, the office Ritu oversees has a strong LOVE for data!). Nonetheless, it is only useful in answering questions or testing theories we’ve already thought through.
What do I mean by this? Well, if you want to know if a school is “good” that’s too vague a question. You first have to refine your thinking a bit and ask: “How well does this school teach reading?” And to be even more specific, you’d want to ask: “How well does this school teach reading to English Learners?” or “… to kids who read above grade level?” Then you would look to several sources to answer this questions (remember, “multiple measures”!) Optimally, you’d want to get some quantitative data on this (SBAC tests, and Fountas and Pinell or Scholastic Reading Inventory are tests we use in our district to measure reading). Additionally, it’s not enough to look at numbers; you’d want to review qualitative data as well. This is where it would be important to talk with teachers, parents and students at the school.
In addition, Ritu advises, you’d want to see this data OVER TIME. How did the school do year-to-year? For example, how would you evaluate teaching and learning at a school where kids stayed reading at grade level after entering at grade level? How might this compare to a school where most students read at grade level after entering BELOW grade level? Obviously the latter is doing SOMETHING RIGHT if they are able to achieve these gains. When you look at it this way, two schools that might have looked similar based on one year’s performance, could look very different when looking at growth over time.
No matter what your choice… Don’t forget!
This is from the district website:
After the initial placement offer, we recommend that you register to secure enrollment at the school site. Even if you accept a placement offer, you can still choose to seek a higher choice school during any placement or waiting pool period.
In order to secure enrollment, you must go to the school and register by bringing your placement letter and proofs of birth and residency by the deadline date stated on the letter
Make sure to register at the school to which you were assigned! Registration dates are March 14-25, & April 4-8, 2016 for Round I and Round II respectively.
Do not make the same mistake as my good friend who decided to accept primary placement and FORGOT REGISTER at their assigned school!!! At the end of the summer, when he figured out his mistake, it was almost too late! (Luckily, he DID end up getting in again!)
Even if you register, you can try for another school via the waiting pool system. Just be forewarned, if do end up end up changing your mind and deciding to stay, once you sign up for a school waiting pool, it will be too late if your are selected, and you will automatically be moved to the new school without notification beforehand. Check the SFUSD enrollment website for more info.