How to select a school district is a difficult question for every parent. There are too many parameters involved. The most straightforward classification of schools are: Private and Public. Let us discuss a little bit about these two types of schools.
- Private schools: If you are leaning toward private schools then 90% of your problem is already solved. You choose the private school based on the ranking, what location is convenient for you, and of course how much you will be paying per year. Please make sure to talk to the principal and a few teachers and staffs before you sign a contract for the whole year. The tradeoff between a private school and a public school to us is basically a choice between the following two items: (a) securing lesser amount of college fund assuming that our child will be able to manage scholarships for college, and (b) securing a bigger college fund to make sure that we will be able to support undergraduate studies of our child in a good university when time will come. This tradeoff fits with most fixed and limited income families. (You now know one fact about us. We are a fixed and limited income family.) Also among the private schools, there are catholic and general schools. Answer to which school is preferable depends on the parents and of course on the grandparents.
- Public schools: All public schools are subsidized by the state and therefore they are more affordable for fixed/limited income families. School district is crucial when it comes to the point of public schools. We are, at this moment, mostly talking about elementary schools. High schools and middle schools have bigger geo-range and they have more flexibility in terms of district boundary. Elementary school districts are smaller in size and you do not have much choice but to send your child to the elementary school of the district where your residence is. Of course, you can send your child to another school district but there is a particular set of complexities associated with that. Parents may make a transfer agreement with a district but the receiving school district may charge a tuition fee in that case. The basic idea is, although Texas seems to have an open school district policy, the paperwork is not limited nor one-time. We heard from friends that the paperwork has to be submitted every year in case a different school district is chosen other than the school district of the residence. Texas Education Agency maintains a frequently asked questions page on school districts, which you might find very informative. I am sure all states have their own webpages.
Private versus public is a well-discussed debate that has been in the literature for quite some time. Please see the article in this link, published in greatschools.org to learn more about the public and private school conundrum. Anyway, the purpose of our article today is not to raise the debate again, rather to explain the options and let you know which path we are following. We will definitely NOT tell which school we have chosen but we will indeed say how we selected it. The most important idea is, all parents must do whatever they think is most appropriate for theirs kids and their family. No one else knows what is appropriate for a specific family. Therefore, the decision of which school to choose should be primarily driven by the analysis done by the parents.
In this post, we will explain the parameters we considered crucial when we chose a school district for our child. Yes, we decided that we will send our son to a public school. Note that, if you are in the mot suitable school district zone then you will have both the options open. You can first try the public school since you are already there. If you are not satisfied you can move to an affordable private school as well. Note that such strategy can be sometimes quite expensive. A house in the best school district zone may cost 10% to 30% more than a similar house in another area. If a family of fixed income purchases an expensive house to make sure that the children can go to the best public school, and afterwards being not satisfied with the public school sends the kids to a private school, the bag for college fund (and retirement) will become lighter. Anyway, let us keep the discussion on retirement funds and college funds for another day and focus on school districts for now.
Now, we know that private schools do not have much restrictions on the location of residence. Let us talk about the parameters involved in the selection of a public school, which can be used to rank private schools as well. We now assume that the parents are currently renting and willing to move to a school district of their liking. The move can be by renting a house or an apartment in the preferred school district or through a more permanent solution — buying a house or an apartment within the preferred school district. We planned that we will move to a house in the school district we choose. While the process of buying a house is a discussion for a later time, the process of school district analysis is something that we will discuss in the rest of this post.
Of course, the first thing is to come up with a short list of schools. We came up with a shortlist based on our job locations. Once we had the shortlist, we focused on the following items to evaluate the schools. One thing is, the evaluation is quite qualitative although we have some quantitative elements here.
Gifted Talented Education
What percentage of students enter the Gifted Talented (G/T) program? Every public school has a G/T program as required by the state. The G/T program picks a group of students based on some kind of aptitude test. It promotes self-directed learning, research abilities, and leadership skills of the selected students. Of course, the more students are allowed in the G/T program the better chances our child has to be in the program. Also, it is crucial to understand the curriculum of the general education for the students who do not enter the G/T program. There is no way one can predict whether a child will enter a G/T program before being admitted to the school. Therefore, we need to understand the quality of the curricula of both the general and the G/T programs. A good school’s general education is quite strong. A lesser number of G/T students cannot pull the average assessment scores of a good school down. That is, the percentage of G/T students in a school is not the only criteria to evaluate a school.
Every public school needs to maintain a standard. There are standard assessments monitored by state agencies. For Texas, Texas Education Agency monitors and keeps record of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The tests are designed to assess different quality parameters in different grades for multiple subjects including English, Math, and Science. We have provided median scores recorded in multiple years in several grades for some subjects for four Elementary schools in the table below. This is an analysis that we did based on our location preferences. Similar analyses can be performed by any family based on their preferences. Most of the information pieces are publicly available.
As we all know, diversity is one of the most powerful aspects of our nation. We believe that the more diversified the ethnicity of the students of a school is the better are the chances of learning from each other.
Student Teacher Ratio
This is a very important feature that indicates how much care a child will get in the classroom. Our finding is that this ratio does not vary too much from school to school in El Paso, at least not for the shortlisted schools we have. There is probably a strict requirement to maintain this ratio.
Many working parents like us are worried about childcare for two or three more hours after regular school hours. Some parents prefer sitters while others prefer group care. YWCA provides after-school care in many of the elementary schools in El Paso making it convenient for parents. The tuition fees in these after-school programs are quite affordable. Students will not need to leave the campus because childcare providers from YWCA will come to the campus everyday.
Analyzing the School Report Cards
Every school has a school report card that illustrates the performance of the school. For Texas, School Report Card are published by the Texas Education Agency. I am sure other states have agencies that publish similar school report cards. All the report cards (PDF format) for the 2014-2015 academic year for the four schools we shortlisted are provided in the links below.
- 2014-15 report card of Polk Elementary School
- 2014-15 report card of Marguerite J Lundy Elementary School
- 2014-15 report card of Tippin Elementary School
- 2014-15 report card of Mesita Elementary School
You can visit this link to retrieve the school report cards of the schools under your shortlist.
After our preliminary analysis, we decided that we will do a thorough comparative analysis between Polk Elementary School, Marguerite J Lundy Elementary School, Tippin Elementary School, and Mesita Elementary School. By the way, we live in El Paso, TX and therefore our preferred schools are all in this town. If you are from El Paso, you might have noticed that all these shortlisted schools are in the Westside of El Paso. This is because we work in the westside. As explained in the other article, Side Conundrum for New Settlers, choosing one region narrows down the analysis a lot. There are good schools in all regions of El Paso — East, West, Upper Valley, North East, Lower Valley, Downtown, Central and Ft.Bliss. Anyway, the process is more important than the area of our case study. We are presenting the process we used leveraging our town as a case study on school district conundrum.
Putting it all together
Internet is today’s best information provider. We collected most of the raw data about schools in El Paso from har.com and greatschools.org. We created an Excel file and came up with the following table. The table compares all the features side by side. Note that each family is different and may have many other additional parameters.
Once we created the table above and considered a few neighborhood-related preferences, it became easier for us to decide in which school zone we would like to settle into.
There are several Montessori school in El Paso which at first we considered for our child but later removed from out list because of the expense and college fund conundrum, as mentioned earlier. Moreover, after taking a look at a few of the Montessori schools we felt that we are leaning more toward traditional education style. This is why an analysis of the schools in El Paso became a necessity. 🙂
After we knew which school we will target we started searching for a house in that school zone. So far, we had been renting in another neighborhood. How to organize a house shopping effort is left for another time. Meantime, please feel free to ask us any question through the comments block below (via Facebook, or Google plus or comments through our site).
Note: The links that we found very helpful for our analysis are as follows:
- School District Locator FAQ (Relevant to Texas)
- Texas Education Agency (TEA), Performance Reporting Division (Relevant to Texas)
- HAR.COM school information search (You can obtain data for any state)
- GREATSCHOOLS.ORG school information search (You can obtain data for any state)
- El Paso Independent School District (Relevant to El Paso)
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