The Power of Good Schools

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 26, 2009

In their quest to move out of their rented Rockville townhouse and buy a single-family home, Lisa Hollaender and her husband, Laurent, first considered the Carderock Springs neighborhood of Bethesda, then moved on to Potomac and later explored Olney. They also ventured across the Potomac to Vienna. But they haven't been to a single open house, let alone made an offer.

Hollaender is first finding the school she considers best suited for her son, who is both very bright and physically challenged.

"Ultimately school fit is number one, house location a far second," said Hollaender, whose son recently started kindergarten. The family has decided to stay put in Rockville this year and send him to a private school, but that's a temporary solution. "We cannot continue to pay for private school, plus buy our 'dream home,' " Hollaender said.

In the Washington area, with its uber-educated parents and high schools that perennially make it to the top tiers of national rankings, schools often rule when it comes to making home-buying decisions.

"People come armed with notebooks full of data and say, 'I want this school or that, and don't show me houses in these districts,' " said RE/MAX agent Mike Aubrey, who also hosts the new HGTV show "Real Estate Intervention," which focuses on home selling in the Washington area.

Under the Fair Housing Act, real estate agents aren't allowed to recommend schools or steer families into certain neighborhoods. Instead, they recommend that parents comb through the reams of data (from SAT scores to absenteeism rates) available on local school district Web sites and check out independent sources, such as GreatSchools.net.

Some agents also recommend that parents look at rankings by national magazines. For example, U.S. News and World Report's 2008 rankings placed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Fairfax County, No. 1 in the nation, while Walt Whitman High in Bethesda was No. 44, Thomas S. Wootton High in Rockville was 54, McLean High was 55 and Potomac's Winston Churchill High was 57, based on test scores, demographics and performance in AP classes.

Two years ago, Kristen Becker combed through the volumes of data on the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Web site, looking not just at test scores but also at teacher turnover, graduation rates, absenteeism and the availability of extracurricular activities.

"Our choice was not primarily based on academics, but more on safety, social conditions and the types of peer influence that our boys would have," said Becker, a Crofton mother of three sons, 4 to 16."I literally called a real estate agent and said, 'This is my budget, and here is the school.' "

When Lanna Broyles moved from Los Angeles to Virginia last year, she also compared school sites. She looked at the percentage of children who received subsidized lunches and also at the number of foreclosures and short sales in different neighborhoods, and said she often found lower test scores in areas where those numbers were high. She avoided those neighborhoods as she looked for a house in Prince William County, eventually buying one in Bristow.

But some parents say that schools are only one of myriad features they look at when buying a house -- and for some, they aren't a factor at all.

When Michael Reinemer remarried, he said he paid no attention to schools when buying a new house. Three of his children attended school in Arlington County. His youngest is now in elementary school in Annandale in the Fairfax County system.


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