Greater Greater Washington

How do you choose a school?

Schools are important. That's what everyone says, at least. But while much of the public discourse revolves around big picture school reform issues, parents just need to find a good school for their child.


Photo by Sint Smeding on Flickr.

Every parent in the country has school choice to a certain extent, but for the overwhelming majority of them it involves an expensive decision to move to a better school district. Washington residents can avail themselves of that option, and many do, but the bar is radically lower in the District thanks to both charter schools and the DCPS out-of-boundary lottery.

There's been quite a bit of discussion recently about charters vs. DCPS, but that has little to do with the main decision for most parents: picking a school for their child. Most parents don't send their kids to "a charter" or "DCPS"; they pick a specific school. There are any number of advocates saying what they think schools should be, parents have to deal with what schools are today.

With this brave new world of school choice, how should a parent choose a school? There is a wealth of data out there, like the DCPS school profiles and DC Public Charter School Board resources. The problem, of course, is that numbers often don't reflect how "good" a school is. So what should a parent look for?

Here are a few data points that I, and many of my fellow parents, have found useful. It is in no way comprehensive. It is geared to DC public and charter schools, so there is no weighting for cost (if you are considering private schools) or time (if you are thinking of homeschooling).

Nor does it include geographical proximity, as I assume that's a given (and it should be) in evaluating school choices. Finally, there is an inevitable bias towards elementary schools here, as that's where my, and the majority of my compatriots', experience lies.

Here are 7 tips that can help screen school choices.

Wait lists: This may be the very worst single number metric to use to choose a school, except for all the others. After all, you're not looking for the best overall school, you're looking for the school that is the best fit for your child. This is doubly true if you have a special needs child, but you certainly don't need me to tell you that. But, in the big picture, if there's demand for school A and not for school B, that's a sign that school A is worth investigating more deeply.

Morning drop off: Schools are at their most open when children are being dropped off. Is the principal out and engaging with parents and students? Does he or she know their names? Is the process orderly? (It won't be, by the way, but can you find order in the chaos?)

Are the kids eager to go to school? Are they greeting their friends and are parents stopping to chat with each other? A school is a community, not a building. Take this time to chat with teachers, parents, and the principal, if you can do so without getting in their way.

Reach out to them: Drop the principal a note. She's a busy person, but if she doesn't respond personally to you within a day as a prospective parent, she probably won't to an attending parent, either. Your child will almost certainly have an issue or problem of some sort in the many years he attends the school. Do you get a response? Not agreement with your position, necessarily, but an honest engagement with you?

The principal may hand you off to a current parent to answer some of your questions. This isn't a bad thing, but it's another data point for you to evaluate. How smoothly was it done, and do you feel that you are still being engaged or is the buck being passed? Good delegation skills are important, and this is a chance to see if the principal is ducking you or using a strong parent community as the asset it is.

Parents: The other parents will be your allies and often your friends for the next few years. Are the PTA meetings well-attended? In general, I place little stock in the utility of meetings per se, but they are a good indicator of how many people care enough to show up. Talk to friends and friends of friends whose kids attend the school. Find the cheerleaders, and find the complainers. All schools have both, and they both have quite a bit to share.

Library: Frankly, this didn't even occur to me, until a friend of mine, a former DCPS librarian pointed it out. He noted, quite correctly, that the library is a microcosm of the school. Does a librarian greet you, or is the library locked up and only accessible at certain hours? Does the school provide a library budget (some don't)?

Are the books new, or old and worn out? That's a good indicator of how involved the school and/or parents are with the library. In these days of test scores, libraries, and especially school librarians, can easily be regarded as "fat" to be cut, to pay for focused reading instructors for student test takers. Is that the school's priority?

Curriculum: Many parents care deeply about curriculum, and have priorities on this topic before kids even go to school. If that's you, you probably already have a list of questions written already. If it's not you, don't feel left out. But know what you are getting into.

Some schools have strong parental involvement in developing curriculum, some already have it scripted out, and most fall into a spectrum somewhere in the middle. When you talk to the principal and teachers, note if they are engaging in a conversation with you about it, or if they are just telling you what the curriculum is. There are pros and cons about both approaches, but know before you go what you're getting into.

Finally, don't bother: As I noted, wait lists are often a metric of a good school, as is an energetic, noisy parent community. So, nearly by definition, you're not going to get your child into all the schools you're interested in.

Apply to as many as the DCPS lottery will allow, throw in the charters you have your eye on, and walk away. Just walk away. Many a parent has been driven mad by this process. Don't join them.

If your child gets into multiple excellent schools, then start winnowing them down. But you're going to want to keep that to yourself, as other parents are going to view you like a deer that walked in front of the Donner party.

You know what didn't make the cut? Test scores. Because I don't care. As a parent, I don't have to, and I don't want to. The teacher has my child for 8 hours a day, if they can't tell me how she's doing without relying on a yearly standardized test, we've got bigger issues. Relying on test scores to choose a school is like picking a spouse based on taking someone's pulse on a first date.

These are but a few data points I use and recommend to choose a school. Do you have others? Middle schools are coming up for my child, and I'm looking for tips.

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Among his many non-paying gigs, Tim Krepp is a a tour guide, conducting tours mainly in DC and New York. He also runs his own blog, DC Like a Local, which attempts to make some sense of the DC trip for our wayward visitors, and as a Capitol Hill resident contributes regularly to The Hill is Home. All of these are mere distractions to his main job as a stay at home dad. 

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This is an excellent list. I would especially pay attention to the responsiviness of administration and level of parent involvement/participation. And, when it is a charter school, the responsiviness of the Board -- are Board meetings announce, open, are parent board members open and available to other parents.

On libraries, don't "judge a book by its cover". Some newer charter schools may not yet have space and budget for a beautiful library, but will encourage reading/love of books in other ways (trips to local DC libaray for example).

As a parent who has already been through this, I think this is a great piece.

by DCmom on Jan 24, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

Outstanding summary of the gauntlet DC school parents face. Keep readers apprised of your middle school quest. Many of us are in the same boat--or will be soon.

by JFMAMJJASON on Jan 24, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

WOW! I'm not a parent but knowing those who've gone through the whole process, this is a very good list.

But w/one small exception. Knowing a few principals around the area, responding w/24hours is a huge feat.

by HogWash on Jan 24, 2013 12:43 pm • linkreport

Tim: How much does distance play into your metric? You say geographic proximity should be a given (and I think it would clearly be a big deal for me), but I just wonder how many people don't worry about that at all.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 24, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

All good tips. One additional point re wait-lists that applies only to DCPS (at the moment):

I believe kids are only able to aply to 6 DCPS schools. It's a good idea to look at the wait lists in previous years and see if it's worth it. Many of the highly regarded DCPS schools have mammoth wait lists, only let in one or two OOB kids. Some don't let in any. If I were applying this year, I wouldn't be inclined to waste one of my six spots on a school my kid had NO chance of getting into, no matter how much I liked the other factors. In fact, I wouldn't even get to the other factors, because I wouldn't waste the time researching the school.

by dcd on Jan 24, 2013 1:05 pm • linkreport

Re: geographical proximity. It IS a big deal. There's no busing in DCPS elementary schools so you're going to be dropping off and picking up your kid every day.

I left it out, as I think it's going to be pretty well drilled into most parents by the time they hit DCPS. At this point, they've had 3-5 years of schlepping kids to nursery school, nanny share, or whatever their childcare arraignment was before that so school proximity will pretty high on their list already. Or they're like me; a stay at home parent. And I'm pretty sure no one needs to tell a stay at home parent much about the importance of physical proximity for kids!

Another thing to consider is not just the actual distance, but transportation in general. Can you drive to school and park on the street (i.e. in the same Ward)? Is there a metro stop or bus line nearby you use? Are there busy streets to cross? Is there a bikeshare nearby (not for the kid obviously, but I bikeshare while my kids ride their bikes)?

by Tim Krepp on Jan 24, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

Great piece, although I agree with DC Mom's comments about the library and dcd's points on DCPS (especially now that you really have to determine your preference early). I do think that there are a few additional criteria to consider.

Philosophy. Maybe that isn't the best word, but it is something more than curriculum. Curriculum is the set of topics that they will learn, whereas the philosophy (as I'm using it) is the rubric within which those are taught. In DC, this is more apparent than so many other places, especially in the charter world, and the philosophy of the school should be a major deciding point, and needs to be viewed with regard to your family and the specific child. Immersion is an easy example. If you don't like kids to learn a foreign language and concentrate on a foreign culture, you should skip immersion schools entirely, regardless of whether it is considered a good school (many ignore this, and it is never a good fit). Mundo Verde has a sustainability focus that concentrates on good eating habits; don't send your kids there if you don't value these ideas in the same way. KIPP has long, structured days; if that isn't your philosophy, skip it. Basically, make sure that the school fits your family and beliefs.

Unfortunately, cost is a factor even within the DCPS or charter system. Do you need aftercare? If so, how much is it? Can you afford it? Do you qualify for reduced cost?

Quality of aftercare. If you are going to use aftercare, how is it? Is it glorified babysitting? Do they put the kids in front of a TV all afternoon? Or do they do actual activities and keep them focussed. If it isn't up to snuff, will you have other options.

I think parents should concentrate on all these issues first and apply broadly. Please don't start writing the principals until you are accepted. They are very busy, and they don't need extra work. Go to the open houses, and ask questions there. If you get accepted, then certainly you can ask to speak to the principal.

by Danielle on Jan 24, 2013 2:26 pm • linkreport

Meet the teachers and principal and find out about the rate of teacher turnover. A good principal will retain good teachers. A school's quality is not much more than its teachers.

Average (standardized) test sores matter if you are trying to pick a good peer group. High test scores mean kids with higher ability, whether they got it from their homes or prior schools or whatever.

Of course, for elementary school you want to know that the physical structure is comfortable (HVAC, etc.) so your delicate little flower will not suffer during the day.

If your child has special needs, then the method for screening schools is totally different. You really want to do your homework, especially with charter schools.

As for geography, (this advice is for financially secure families), pick your school first and then move. Think ahead to middle and high school. It's a lot like choosing a job location. You get your job first and then figure out how long a commute you can handle. Kids' school shouldn't be any different. It's like a joint location decision for husband and wife's job, but there is a third (or fourth if you have more kids of very different ages) person to consider.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 24, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

@Geoffrey, Proximity is a big deal. My older kid is going to high school next year and we considered Walls and Wilson. Wilson seems like the best fit for our kid for a variety of reasons, but it did not help that our kid would have had to ride a bus to the Metro and then ride two trains, or one train and then walk from Farragut North, to get to Walls each day (the new campus at Francis would make the trip a little faster).

School choice is great, but the downside of a long commute can limit school choice.

Our kids have had the benefit of local schooling with most of the kids in their classes from our neighborhood. Not only is commuting easier, but play dates are much simpler and its easier for families to get to school for different community events. My kids invariably see their classmates when they go to the neighborhood park or local stores on weekends. I am always amazed at how much driving my neighbors do with kids in private school. Much easier to walk or drive a few blocks (the downside is local schools tend to be less diverse).

by Turtleshell on Jan 24, 2013 5:09 pm • linkreport

Great piece, Tim.

I also think facilities are important. The building is part of the first impression, and like libraries, can be a tell-tale sign of a school staff's attention to detail. I also think parents are willing to bet on the come a little bit more if they know that an aging school is scheduled for renovation and renewal.

What you didn't mention is also interesting--the functionality of the school system itself. 10 years ago most of us would not have even looked closely at a DCPS school because they couldn't get books out of their warehouse to schools on time for the school year, or even keep the heat on for that matter. DCPS is not perfect, but my how times have changed, and for the better!

Brian P-DCPS parent

by BC Pâté on Jan 24, 2013 11:18 pm • linkreport

Tim, As a parent of a 3 year old child who is about to enter the DC school system, I found your article very informative. I recently attended the charter school conference and felt like a deer in the headlights. It was only after getting some personal guidance on site from a school board member that I was able to be efficient in my search for information. Your thoughts on how to make a choice were clear and concise. You understand that the process can be maddening. Your suggestion of "walk away" to avoid joining in the madness is greatly appreciated. All DC should read your article. It's great. Your next coffee at Peregrine is on me.

by Charles on Jan 25, 2013 6:20 am • linkreport

the library is a microcosm of the school

This is a DCPS-centric list because many (most?) charters do not have a library. What is next, something about the school nurse?

You know what didn't make the cut? Test scores.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] I must say this is silly. To ignore the test scores is like interviewing for a job and not ask about the salary.

by goldfish on Jan 25, 2013 8:16 am • linkreport

@Tim - yes, relying solely on test scores and discounting all other considerations is silly. But I'm not sure completely ignorint test scores is the right way to go, either.

One huge factor than many people consider when picking schools is FARM percentage. I'm curious if you gave that any consideration.

by dcd on Jan 25, 2013 9:19 am • linkreport

waitlists will indicate demand to some extent, but it's a low hurdle to gain a waitlist spot (1 application, 6 choices), and the popular schools develop big ones, especially for early childhood space. You should also note that for DCPS, a long waitlist without an inbound address, or other priority like sibs or proximity, will have virtually zero chance of gaining space in Ward 3 schools. In researching schools, it's worth getting a realistic pulse of the space availability up front, which allows parents to prioritize choices. Talk to principal or parents at schools of interest, don't just read DCPS published results from last year's lottery.

by anon_1 on Jan 25, 2013 9:51 am • linkreport

@dcd A few reasons I (almost) entirely ignore test scores

1. If you're sending your kids to Kindergarten or Pre-K, where most families start, why do you care how 3rd graders are reading and doing math?
2. This is especially true as test scores don't follow a cohort of students, but a particular grade. So if you're examining year over year scores, and see improvement, that doesn't mean a school is "improving" necessarily. More likely, it's demographic change moving who's sitting in the classroom.
3. I'm not impressed with what they're testing. It's a snapshot of only reading and math. I care about dozens of things about my kids education, and those are but two. Not always the two most important either.
4. Nor do I trust the numbers to be accurate. I've heard enough first hand (but off the record) accounts of either changing answers or "helping" students to find the right answers, that I don't place a lot of stock in them. I'm not satisfied that enough, or really anything, has been done to ensure the integrity of the testing system.
5. While I haven't heard of any cheating like I just described at my kid's school, there is a HUGE amount of gamesmanship about the tests. All non-testing classes have to vacate the school for test week, pep rallies, incentives, other teachers pulled off duties to coach the handful of on the cusp kids that might benefit, etc. Even without overt cheating (and again, I don't suspect any in our school), it's still about gaming the system.
6. I obviously know my kids' school well, and am reasonably familiar with a half dozen or so other nearby schools. The test scores of these schools don't "map" what I'd consider to be the spread of better to worse schools. If my thermometer said it was 80 degrees outside right now, I would trust the thermometer.

I'm not saying YOU shouldn't look at test scores. I'm saying I don't.

Re: FARM (free and reduced meal program). Yes, many people, including people I trust, use those numbers. Put bluntly, the more children that are eligible for free lunch, the more kids coming from poverty. The linkage between any number of negative educational issues and poverty is well documented (and I'm not getting into correlation vs. causation here).

So would I use it? It's complicated. I did send my kid to a school that had a high 90s FRAM percentage. My daughter had an excellent year. We jumped ship for a variety reasons, and not without misgivings (then and now). Several friends continued on, and they've done quite well.

So all this is an object lesson on why you should ignore FRAM, right? Well, not really either. The school is currently at 62% FRAM and falling. Demographic change is playing with those numbers as well. None of these are static pictures, and using FRAM, or test scores, tells you what it was like in the past.

And as every investor knows, past performance is no guarantee of future results. You're trying to predict how your kid will grow and what the school will be like in the future. Personally, I wouldn't assign a numerical value to any one of my kids attributes (she IS 85% likely not to have her shoes on on any given day however). So I'm cautious about using numbers of any sort to define a school.

I hope that's not too puff piece for Goldfish. I'd hate to disappoint him again.

by Tim Krepp on Jan 25, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

I would say another thing in general. There's a lot of great suggestions in the comments and many folks feel I've overweighted one thing or another. The point isn't to pick any ONE thing, be it test scores or libraries or whatever. It's to use enough data points to build a comprehensive picture or a model that you understand.

There's a great quote by the statistician George E. P. Box that I'd use here: "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful".

by Tim Krepp on Jan 25, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

I hope that's not too puff piece for Goldfish. I'd hate to disappoint him again.

I think in your original writing you mislead us readers. You gave the test scores a hard look and based on its improvement and giving due consideration to the FARM stats, decided to go with a school that currently has disappointing scores. Clearly you did consider the scores.

by goldfish on Jan 25, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

@Tim - all great points re FARM and test results (though I'm sure you meant to say that if your thermometer read 80 degrees now, you WOULDN'T trust it - unless you're on vacation somewhere). Re tests, there's another quote by the great Vin Scully that applies to this as much as baseball: "Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination."

by dcd on Jan 25, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Wait, what?

by Tim Krepp on Jan 25, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

@dcd er, right. Let's all just pretend I said "wouldn't". Thanks, good catch. And awesome quote, I never heard it.

by Tim Krepp on Jan 25, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

One thing to keep in mind with any model is its contingencies. While this is a good list for college educated parents with the ability to supplement their children's education, ignoring test scores may not be prudent for District residents leaning heavily on the school to teach the kind of hard skills that tests measure. The ability to ignore the test scores is the privilege of the educated middle class. That being said, we should all look beyond simple numbers to evaluate schools for our children.

by J Steele on Jan 26, 2013 8:10 am • linkreport

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