K-12 Enrollment

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?

Enrollment letters for SFUSD schools will go out March 16, 2018. Based on acceptance numbers in the district, most parents are either excited about their placement, and some will be bummed and go for Round 2 wait 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… if you’re still on the fence, or unsure about whether to stay put or try for a preferred school via the wait pool, this post is 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 has gone 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, it’s Ritu.

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…

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?: “Good” vs. “Bad” is BAD

First off, the whole good vs. bad thing 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.

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?:

(Take away: SIZE MATTERS.)

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.)

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?:


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!”

An SF parent/blogger by the name of  wrote a great piece about this titled, “But would you send your kids 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 ourselves, because even if we are “good” people, most of us harbor biased thoughts and feelings based on the way we’ve all been socialized our environment and influenced by media. How we evaluate schools (and the children in them) is one way we may potentially pass these prejudices onto our children, and that’s definitely not ‘good’.

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?:


How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?: 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. (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 only on hotel websites? Yelp reviews? A review from Frommers OR Time Out? I mean, you’d really investigate.  Well, your child’s education deserves way more scrutiny than just checking one source.

Do your homework. Don’t be one of the many parents that rely on limited sources to make an informed, important decision. And asking a few friends at the playground about a school’s “buzz” isn’t the best barometer on whether a school is actually a good fit for your child. You could be misinformed.

To this point, sometimes schools that are highly coveted have a weaker reputation inside the district (those “in-the-know”) when it comes to leadership or school culture. And sometimes the flipside is true where great schools are misrepresented.  As a teacher working in many AMAZING yet underrated schools, I can attest to this.

For example, large high school’s can offer students more academic options because they have more to choose from. Nonetheless, they might also feel more impersonal and kids might get lost. A “high performing’ school may be a great environment for students to find challenge. But, the”competitive” culture there might also be unsupportive to underrepresented sstudents.

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?: 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.

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?: 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

How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?: Note;

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.

So, how are you evaluating whether a school is a “good choice” for your kid? Share thoughts and resources in the comments below!

“How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?” Related reads:

4 thoughts on “How Do You Know if it’s a “Good” School?

  1. Perhaps you should check out Lowell for yourself instead of relying only on hearsay. It is very academically challenging and offers the most AP courses of about any high school in the state. The school recently performed the hit musical Guys and Dolls, which I found to be one of the best productions I’ve ever seen, giving School of the Arts some competition. Your own daughters may in fact want to attend this outstanding school someday — I just hope that you don’t allow your own prejudices to get in the way of their wishes or their education. Please try to keep an open mind, especially since you tell everyone else to do the same.

    1. I am truly happy you and your child love Lowell. And, you are right, it can be a great school for some students. I have friends who work at Lowell whom I very much respect–there are GREAT educators there. I also know several parents who’ve sent their children there who had a good overall experience.

      Nonetheless, I am reporting more than hearsay when I hear an overwhelming number of Black parents state (some of them educators) Lowell is a good school, but “not for Black students.” And recent protests at Lowell confirm these experiences.

      That said, I DO agree we should all keep an open mind. A school can change a lot in three years (which is the time my girls will be applying for high schools.) I hope this renewed focus on making Lowell a more inclusive school and along with work and advocacy from current Lowell parents like you, can help make it a school we’d want to consider. 🙂

  2. I’m glad you’re willing to consider Lowell in the future for your own daughters. If it’s the right fit for a student, it can be an excellent school. From my previous post, I want to clarify what I mean about hearsay. By hearsay, I mean comments and gossip by people outside of Lowell. The concerns and experiences of Lowell African American students and their families are very serious and are of great concern to me and others at Lowell They are being addressed by our principal, faculty and broader school community. Some of the concerns and demands made are issues that must be addressed at the Board of Ed and superintendent level, e.g., hiring more African American teachers and offering African American-related courses within the curriculum. Some issues are specific to the school. All are taken seriously and are being addressed.

    Per the principal, since 2008, Lowell has engaged in pro-active out reach to under-represented minority student populations of African Americans and Latinos, specifically for recruitment and retention. In 2012/2013, a specially designed program to support African American students was formulated, and implemented, to examine data, engage African American students, build community, and provide support and mentorship. Steady gains in academic achievement and increased enrollment in AP courses have been achieved each year. Starting in 2012, the staff has been further engaged in looking beyond test score data to examine the role that racism and cultural exclusion may play in the classroom. Faculty meetings have been devoted to creating a more culturally sensitive climate at the school. Student panels have addressed the entire faculty and discussions have been held to bring our community closer to understanding the perspective of students in the minority at Lowell. This work is ongoing, but we need to do more.

    Since 2001, I have volunteered many hours at the school site level, especially in elementary and middle schools. I have worked side by side with parents of all races over many years — we would never have dreamed of calling one another racists or elitists. The current environment within the SFUSD seems quite mean and nasty. I’m grateful for the goodwill we had and all that we accomplished because of it. Good luck to you. For the sake of all students, I hope things improve.

    1. To be clear: Naming racism is not the same thing as calling someone a racist. I’m not sure where anyone has called anyone a racist. Racist systems and practices abound however and it’s all our job to fix that.

      I appreciate your interest in supporting racial equity at Lowell. Apparently if this work has been ongoing since 2008 and then again in 2012/2013 and students are STILL feeling like racism pervades the school (their words, not mine) THAT’s a problem. Listening to Black Lowell alumni speak at the Board Meeting last month it was upsetting to think that this culture may not have changed much over the years.

      Let’s hope that instead of doubling down on ineffective strategies from the past. If we really want to change things we have to actually CHANGE things. I’m happy the district has eliminated racially segregated tracking through honors English and Math classes (which apparently some parents, students and staff are still vehemently fighting for) I’d think we could do even more if we re-structured exam-based enrollment policies (which research shows favor White and Asian students from higher socio-economic backgrounds).

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