Evaluating a Public School

Archived Responses: 

How do you choose a school?

Feb 2012

I know this sounds like a totally generic question, but I'm at a loss. We are looking to buy a house in the southish Berkeley area or in Oakland, but am confused as to the seeming disconnect from the greatschools.com rating, the California school ratings (http://school-ratings.com/), and the effusive reviews that I see on greatschools and on BPN. For example, Melrose Leadership Academy gets a 3 out of 10 at greatschools, a 2 out of 10 from the Cal. schools ratings, but the reviews make it seem absolutely wonderful. What am I missing here? Is it the vibe you get when you visit? We don't want to buy a house where we hope to put down roots in the neighborhood, then feel stuck in the closest school if it's not meeting an average standard. I realize that you can apply to a different school in the district, but would guess that spots in the ''high performing'' schools (in neighborhoods we can't possibly afford) are at a premium and probably few and far between. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Confused parent

I'd live in Berkeley if you're going for public school. The bond measure passed several years ago protects our schools, and keeps class sizes small, equipment up to date, and teachers good, across the city. The zones used to vary quite a bit, and the schools within the zones. But nowadays there are very good schools in every zone, and there are no ''bad'' schools in Berkeley anymore. You can buy a house where you can afford one, and still have a chance to go to a school in a ''wealthy'' neighborhood, which is both good and bad. Having a school your kids can walk to is great, and your kids may very well be assigned to one quite far from your house. But it really makes all the schools even, as far as diversity and funding. Berkeley mom of 3

Hi -- I wanted to address your question about HOW and WHY to choose a particular school, in part b/c Melrose LA was on our very short list, but it is not where we enrolled out child.

We went through the search/enrollment process two years ago, for K enrollment, when she would have entered MLA as part of the year-2 cohort. We live in a neighborhood that is close to Melrose, but not walking distance. Both parents work in San Francisco, along the greater ''Van Ness'' corridor. Our choice was made by defining a workable ''school shed'' -- where the school was located was as important to us as the school scores. We also looked at scores, diversity, and if the school had a clear educational paradigm or philosophy we were comfortable with.

For Melrose: I really liked the parent-teacher community, they classroom vibe, the effective dual immersion, and the small schools paradigm. I knew that as a family where both parents work FT in SF, it would be VERY difficult to give the time and attention needed to a small evolving school. For Melrose, low scores come, I think, from MLA's history as a troubled low performing middle school The school has an unusual history, and the elementary school is new and literally ''untested'' -- the idea is to grow this community into an organic k-8 school. I found this VERY appealing.

Why did we not go with MLA? It did not work for us logistically as a family. The BEST SCHOOL will be a nightmare for the family if it does not work out at a practical and logistic level. I do not drive, and getting between my home, MLA and work in San Francisco on public transportation was not practical at all. My daughter was a young 4 y.o. kindergartener, and if she went to school in Oakland she would have an 11 hour day away from her parents. Faced with this we requested and got an inter-district transfer into the SFUSD; she is in our first choice school, which is equal distances between where I work and where my husband works (walking if necessary). The school she is at is very diverse, has a specific science/inquiry methodology, great stability of teaching staff, and incredible institutional longevity. The scores are high (not the highest, but the kids are performing at grade level on average). As it is, I leave the house before she wakes up in the morning. If she was in school in Oakland, I would not see her except for rushing her to get ready for bed. She commutes on BART and Muni in with my husband every day, and I pick her up from afterschool care, when we commute home on MUNI and BART. It is a long day for all of us, but we have time together which is so important. For us it came down to location, logistics, and finding a school that is ''good enough''.

I think the decision for Middle School will demand much greater attention to her needs -- academically and socially -- and demand more logistical sacrifice from my husband and me. For example, my daughter is still too young to walk around in our neighborhood alone, but when she is 9 it will be developmentally appropriate for her to want and need greater autonomy from us..... but it is NOT something I am comfortable with the idea of in our particular neighborhood. So, as you look for a new home, consider your comfort level at letting your child walk around alone or with friends at the age of 10-14, and consider your Middle School options very carefully. Sara


Earlier Advice

A site called greatschools.net provides the ability to search on individual public schools for their test scores. Last year I went through all the Oakland schools in my area (Hillcrest, Chabot, Thornhill and Joaquin Miller) and created a spreadsheet of the data so I could compare. I also looked over some of the other schools in Oakland to see how things stacked up. The previous posting is correct in stating these schools have extremely high scores compared to the rest of the city. There is so much disparity in fact that you quickly see why Oakland is and needs to be concerned about the state of public education here.


A website with listings, tests scores, etc. of Oakland public schools is www.greatschools.net. They will send you email updates and are very helpful if you need more information than what is available on their website.

October 2001

I would recommend (1) visiting the school; and/or (2) talking to parents. You should ask to sit in on one or two teachers' classes. You can get an idea of the kinds of curriculum and activities that the school uses, something that test scores do not measure at all, and also get a sense of how the teachers interact with the children. Many elementary school principals would probably be too busy to talk to you individually, but you should take it as a positive sign if the school has some kind of regular meeting or method for parent-school communication. Some elementary schools actually have parents who volunteer as community liaisons. Ilana

In order to get a feel for the elementary schools in our area I went to the scheduled events that many schools have that introduce you to some of the teachers, the principal, a few parents and some of the programs and activities that the school has to offer. The best gauge for me however was visiting the schools while they were in session. There's nothing like seeing the children and teachers in action. I'm content with the choice that I made and feel confident that this was the best method to choose our child's school. Even though her school does not have the best district scores she has done well and continues to thrive in the public school environment. Suzanna