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Picking a School Is a Multiple-Choice Question

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page SM24

Washington area parents enjoy an increasing choice of schools for their children. There are regular public schools, magnet public schools, charter public schools and, for parents with enough money, private schools, some faith-oriented and some not.

More choice is supposed to be good, but sometimes it can be a headache. How can ordinary parents without research staffs at their disposal be sure they are picking the right school? Many families moving into the Washington area select their new homes based on the quality of the nearest schools, so being unable to find the right school can turn an already difficult relocation into a nightmare.

Local graduates, such as those in Loudoun County High School's class of 2004, have reason to celebrate. Many of the region's schools are among the nation's best. (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Yet there are fairly simple things that parents can do, particularly if they have access to the Internet. Here are 10 tips on how to pick a good school, in no particular order, offered to help parents focus on what is important.

1. Buy an expensive house and you can be almost sure that the local school will be good. Newcomers often say to themselves, "Let's find a school or school district we like and then find the house.'' However, most school districts in this area are so good, and parental affluence is so closely tied to educational quality, that if you buy a pricey house, the nearest school is almost guaranteed to be excellent. My personal opinion, based on 22 years of visiting schools and looking at data, is that the two largest school districts in the Washington area, Fairfax and Montgomery counties, are so well run that even their low-income neighborhoods have schools and teachers that compare with the best in the country. I think the same is true for the public schools in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, and the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria. All the D.C. schools west of Rock Creek Park are, I think, as good as those in the suburbs. Other local school systems have some good public schools, but you have to look more carefully to find them.

2. Look at the data. In the Internet age, there are plenty of ways to check the achievement levels of schools that interest you. The Washington Post's Web site, www.washingtonpost.com, has a "School Guide" page with exclusive information on public schools in most local jurisdictions at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/schoolguide/. All the major school districts have Web sites that provide information on the courses, extracurricular activities and strengths of each of their schools.

The state education Web sites, www.marylandpublicschools.org/msde and www.pen.k12.va.us/, as well as the D.C. schools Web site, www.k12.dc.us/dcps/home.html, offer the latest test passing rates for each school, as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Of course, you need more than test scores to make a decision, so your next step should be to:

3. Talk to parents of at least two unrelated children in different grades already enrolled in a school that you are considering. Your real estate agent might know some parents you can call, or the school principal's secretary will have the names and numbers of a few PTA leaders happy to talk to parents. Ask them about the school's strengths and its weaknesses. Find out how well the school serves children whose interests are similar to your children's, and always ask what they think of the principal.

4. Visit the school and ask to speak to the principal. I think checking any school you find attractive should include at least a 30-minute conversation with the principal. He or she is the person who is most responsible for the quality of the teaching, the atmosphere in the halls and whether your child will be looking forward to going to that building every day. Ask this person what the school's strengths and weaknesses are, what should be changed and what the school can offer a child like yours. Ask yourself, "Would I hire this person to work in my office?" If the answer is no or, even worse, if the principal has no time to see you, beware.

5. Listen to your kids. Many of us, in our conscientious desire to find the best schools for our children, sometimes forget to ask them whether they want to go to the place at the top of our list. Many elementary and middle school students are going to find the question mystifying or boring, but high schoolers are old enough to have useful things to say. If they are putting up a fuss about your choice and have in mind an alternative that is not significantly more expensive and passes the tests in points 3 and 4, you might seriously consider letting them go there.

6. The most competitive high schools do not necessarily lead to acceptance at the most selective colleges. Many parents think that if their kids can get into the private school where all the Supreme Court justices sent their children, or into the public magnet school that rejects 80 percent of its applicants, their child is guaranteed admission into the Ivy League. The opposite is true. A 1997 survey of more than 1 million high school seniors by Paul Attewell of the City University of New York Graduate Center found that, except for a few superstars, attending a very competitive high school hurt students' chances of getting into a very selective college. The reason is that selective colleges take only a few students from each school. A student with a 2200 SAT score is not going to stand out at high school with several 2300s, but will be at the top of Yale's list in a school that has only one or two seniors who score over 2100. (The top score is now 2400.) Of course, those competitive high schools will still give your child a great education, and perhaps that is more important than which college sticker you get to put on your car.

7. Don't worry about elementary school. The fact that you have read this far means you are an energetic parent who puts great emphasis on education and who, I would guess, has been reading and talking to your children since they were infants. You have filled your house with books. You make learning exciting. All the studies show that you are going to have much more influence over your child's academic achievement through sixth grade than the elementary school you choose. So as long as the school is safe and you like it, it really doesn't matter whether its test scores are not the highest in the city. Your child is still getting a great education because of you.

8. There are no good middle schools. It is an itchy age, pre-adolescence. You will discover that no one will have many nice things to say about whatever middle school you pick, even the one full of millionaires' kids. Children that age are just too difficult to teach. So look beyond the weariness of the teachers and parents who have to deal with those raging hormones and look at how hard the school tries to get every student through Algebra I by the end of eighth grade. If at least half the students reach that goal, it is a very good school. If fewer than 25 percent of a school's students meet this benchmark, you might want to look elsewhere.

9. Look for challenging high schools. These days, that means schools that have many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, and that encourage all interested students, no matter what their grade-point averages, to take those courses and the independently written and scored AP or IB tests. For a list of which local high schools do this best, look at washingtonpost.com's Challenge Index page, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/kto12/challengeindex/.

10. Listen to your heart. You can read all the charts, interview all the neighbors, decide the principal is a saint and still not like one school as much as another. Go with your instincts, not the statistics. You have to be happy with the choice if you are ever to hope that your children will be in a mood to learn.

Jay Mathews covers schools for the Washington Post and is the author of "Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools" and the just published "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools." You can reach him at mathewsj@washpost.com.

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