Greater Greater Washington

Education


How do you choose a DC public school?

Every parent wants the best for their children. But how do you find the best public school for your child? If you are considering where or whether to live in DC, how do you know if your nearby schools are any good?


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The growing pile of data can add to the confusion, since in many cases it isn't clear how achievement is being defined and what these numbers mean for students. In DC, the proliferation of charters and the out-of-boundary lottery only increase the complexity of the enrollment process.

It takes time and motivation to put in the necessary legwork and the result may still come down to some combination of geography and luck.

Still, being informed can make a difference. The needs of each family are unique, but here's how I would begin to weigh District schools:

Take advantage of the increasing amount of information on the web.

Oh, how I wish that the same folks responsible for New York City's Inside Schools database would inspire similarly robust models elsewhere. Great Schools does have some nice comparative features, but the info is much less insightful. However, as a starting point, it doesn't hurt to take a look at the basic stats within the DCPS school profiles. Let's use Oyster-Adams, the bilingual elementary school famously attended by ex-Chancellor Rhee's kids, as an example.

The student achievement section says the school has not met AYP in at least one subject two years in a row. In No Child Left Behind (NCLB) jargon, AYP means adequate yearly progress. Should a prospective parent be concerned? Maybe. But the fact is that three-quarters of their kids are doing just fine on annual assessments, which is far above the city average. That is, if you put much stock in the type of narrowly defined achievement these tests measure in the first place.

You should also consider that the tests aren't even administered until 3rd grade, and that a dip in one area isn't always indicative of a drop in overall performance. Apparently, last year the AYP issue was contained to one particular subgroup of special education students.

Along those lines, I'm very wary of the "teach a skill, then drill & kill" mentality that many schools fall into after succumbing to NCLB pressures. I'd prefer a well-rounded curriculum that integrates academic rigor into all subjects while leaving room for creativity and theme-driven units.

At Oyster-Adams, the dual-language focus does seem to provide a foundation for enhancements that go beyond rote skill acquisition. Since each class has two teachers who must work together to provide both Spanish and English instruction, I would guess that there is a commitment to effective collaboration.

A couple of other fun facts: the demographic data shows us that kids come from all over the city to attend this type of specialized program, and its size is reasonable considering it spans nine grades.

Where to next? The profile contains the school website, which gives a bit more of a personalized picture of the types of enrichment activities that make it special. Plus, for those of you still wondering about the kids who aren't achieving on grade-level, more detailed stats will help pinpoint the places where Oyster-Adams is falling short.

What do these numbers mean? At or above proficiency trends are charted over time, so you can see achievement trends. Little blips and slight dips are nothing to be too concerned about, but you should also take a look at the data by sub-group, where the gap between minority and white students is often revealed. Here, showing some progress is more important, because it can indicate how dedicated the staff is to addressing this particular issues.

Go with your gut.

It goes without saying that looking up statistics online is no substitute for making a visit in person. Schools offer open houses, but I would stop by during a normal day, too. This is when discerning parents can compare district-produced promotional materials to reality.

Ideally, I'd want a school to buzz with the sound of kids at worknot perfectly silent, but engaged and focused. I'd look to see if bulletin boards contained cookie-cutter worksheets or evidence of projects that required higher-order thinking.

Any overemphasis on math and literacy as isolated, skill-based subjects is going to suck all the fun out of learning. Guaranteed. Who does it benefit to focus on test prep most of the day? I'd argue that it's usually not the kids. Quality staff will be able to go beyond scripted, back-to-basics measures and make learning come alive for students.

I'd listen to the tone of voice of teachers in the halls. Do the adults in the building seem happy to be there, and do they truly enjoy working with children? Ask the office staff about the principal, and watch their faces for an initial reaction.

Try and meet school leaders while you're there, since their abilities will drive the on-the-ground implementation of curriculum and policy. They're understandably busy people, but if your child's principal isn't welcoming, that sends a big red flag.

Seek out advice from others and discuss your initial impressions.

DCPS has made an effort to get school news on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as part of their goal to recruit more families to stay in the District. Having these communication tools gives parents a chance to connect with each other electronically.

Hopefully, you'll be able to meet a few folks who can give you their honest impressions of their child's experience. Ask them what all that data means in terms of day-to-day instruction. Improvement is great, but it's relative, meaning that low achievement is still problematic even if things are getting better. Besides, although test scores seem like an easy way to gauge success, they don't even come close to capturing all the complexities of classroom life.

Think about your child's disposition and interests.

Would your child become easily overwhelmed in a larger school, or would he welcome the opportunity to make scores of friends? Would the availability of certain services make a real difference in his education? Would a long Metro ride to school take too much out of him?

Does little Junior already have his heart set on a career in science at the age of three, or would a solid, well-rounded curriculum take precedence over a magnet's focus? Also keep in mind that while charters, magnets and other specialized alternatives can provide a boost to the District's offerings, their quality varies just like regular public schools.

Of course, for every Oyster-Adams, there's a host of schools that aren't as appealing. DC schools often contend with limited resources, revolving leadership, and a combination of anything and everything that might plague a district. So, although I'd like to remain cautiously optimistic, if you're lucky enough to have some choice between schools, take the time to do your research.

And if you meet some of the teachers and administrators who do deeply care about kids and are making a better future possible, thank them for their incredibly hard work. They'll need your support and encouragement to get little Junior all the way to college.

Laura Gutmann has over a decade of experience working with schools in DC, New York City, and North Carolina as a teacher, nonprofit executive, consultant, and researcher. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Education. 

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For Capitol Hill parents, there is a big school info night at Eastern Market this Wednesday:

http://www.hillschoolinfonight.org/

by mch on Nov 29, 2010 12:57 pm • linkreport

About the best resource is the DC School Chooser put together each year by Fight for the Children (http://www.fightforchildren.org/pdf/GreatSchools_DCChooser-EngBook.pdf). I'd recommend you add this to the tools listed above. It's not perfect (but nothing is, as you illustrate) but it explains all the options (DCPS, charter, private) and begins the conversation. Deadlines and how-tos are included. Great resource!

We are in a public charter (not DCPS, but the charters ARE public) and the main reason: it's both a good school and a block from our home. That was a balance we could never hope for. Having school be walkable - just amazing!

by Jess on Nov 29, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

Jess,

That web link in interesting. People get soooo overwrought about getting their kids into the JKLM west of the park "5-star" schools. Our children are in one of the "4-star" "on the rise" schools and we're finding a really excellent classroom experience with some wonderful intangibles.

by Contrarian on Nov 29, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the thoughtful post! We'd encourage parents who would like help learning more about DCPS options and selecting a school for their child to feel free to contact our critical response team at 202-478-5738.

by DCPS on Nov 29, 2010 8:22 pm • linkreport

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