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Beyond School Rankings: A More Holistic Approach to School Ratings


Carrie DuBois, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in San Carlos, has heard all the questions potential home buyers have about local schools when they are deciding where to live:

  • Is the local school “good”?

  • Is the local school safe?

  • What is the school’s ranking on GreatSchools.org?

  • Why does this school have high test scores? Why doesn’t this other school have higher test scores?

  • Is my child guaranteed a spot in my neighborhood school?

  • If my child is a native English speaker, will he or she learn if there are a lot of students learning English at the school?

  • If my child is not a native English speaker will he or she gain the fluency they need to be successful in high school, college, and career?

  • If I don’t want to attend the school in my neighborhood, can I attend a different school?

If you are a parent in the Redwood City School District (RCSD), you certainly had some or all of these questions yourself at one point. Once you know a school and grow to love it, it’s easy to forget how anxiety-producing it is for parents of an incoming student to decide which school best meets their needs.

DuBois, who also serves as a trustee on the Board of Trustees of the Sequoia Union High School District -- the district that RCSD students feed into for high school -- is well aware that parents don’t always have the information they need to find a school that is a good fit for their family.

“Parents bring their hopes and their fears about their child’s education to the decision about where to live,” said Ms. Dubois.  “Too often, parents rely on third-party rankings that don’t tell the whole story about a school.”

DuBois cites a visit she made as a member of the San Mateo County School Board’s Association award evaluation team to an RCSD school that is rated 6 on GreatSchools.org. 

“Many of my clients hesitate to purchase a home if the assigned school is ranked less than 8-10 on GreatSchools, but this was one of the most exciting school visits I have ever experienced,” said DuBois. “On my visit I met a 4th grader who speaks five languages, I watched kindergartners head off to the symphony, I talked to parents who love the school, I observed the STEAM program and talked to students about coding and art, I saw the Makers Space program, and I saw compassion, as a student who was having a bad day was comforted and cared for.”

The San Mateo County School Boards Association (SMCSBA) focused on the topic of school ratings at a recent meeting, and considered the challenge of how to help parents evaluate schools more holistically. DuBois urges her clients to consider a broad range of factors if schools are an important part of their home purchasing decision.

“Most important is to visit the school,” she said. “Before your visit, sit down and make a list of what is important to you. Are you looking for a school with a strong music program, one that offers a language program, or that has a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM)?  Do you want a school with cultural diversity?  What is the parent community like?”  

A new book, “Beyond Test Scores, A Better Measure of School Quality,” by Jack Schneider, urges parents to consider a wider range of measures, though he acknowledges that requires time and effort. Schneider provides parents with questions to ask of the principal, teachers, and other parents when considering a school, such as:
 

Ask Principals:

  • What does the school do to build trust among community members?

  • How does the school help students feel at home here?

  • How does the school encourage students to meet high expectations?

  • How involved are parents at this school?


Ask teachers:

  • How connected are students to this school? Can you tell me any stories?

  • How strong are relationships between teachers and students here? Why are things that way?

  • How should I interpret this school’s test scores? What are they telling me and not telling me?

  • How engaged are students in a typical class? What does that engagement look like?


Ask Other Parents:

  • What is your child’s attitude toward school? Can you tell me any stories?

  • What does your child say about his or her teachers?

  • What kinds of projects and assignments do you remember your child completing?

  • How happy is your child? How has the school played a role in that?

“We believe our schools have so much to offer that is not reflected in the rankings by third-party apps,” said Superintendent John Baker.  “We invite and encourage local families who are not enrolled in our schools to visit and see for themselves the great work that is going on.”