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9 Ways to pick the right public school district

We say we are buying a house. But for most of us parents, the house is not the whole story. It is the local public school we are investing in, and sometimes it can be a very daunting financial and personal decision.

How do parents evaluate the schools their children may attend and escape the heartbreak of buying a great house that turns out to be in the attendance zone of a flawed school? Here are 10 ways to make the right choice, in descending importance. Feel free to re-prioritize them based on your personal tendencies:

1. Go with your gut. This sounds unscientific, but I don’t care. After you have analyzed all the data and had the conversations outlined below, you still have to make a decision. Consider how you react emotionally to a school. Consult your viscera. If you’re not feeling it, don’t send your kids there. They will sense you have doubts at a time when they need to believe that this is the place for them.

2. Talk to parents. If strangers knocked on your door and asked what you thought of the local school, would you tell them? Of course you would. An unspoken code of honor exists among parents on such occasions. Ask the school for the names and numbers of a few PTA officers, or check with the neighbors and ring the bell of a house with kids that go to that school. Be polite. Listen carefully. They might even invite you in for coffee. You will learn much from those chats, even though the other parents may ask for deniability.

3. Visit the school and ask to speak to the principal. Picking up the vibes within the building is useful. Is it well-maintained? Do the walls have lots of recent schoolwork? But trying to see the principal is crucial. If he or she has no time to see you, beware. Even if an assistant principal agrees to answer your questions, an unreachable principal is a danger sign. The best principals I know are delighted to talk to new, and even potential, school parents. Act as if the principal were applying for a job at your office. Ask about philosophy. Discuss your child’s interests and needs. Make sure you spend at least 30 minutes. The school leader makes or breaks the place.

4. Listen to your kids. We think we do this all the time, but we don’t. We assume our children share our values, but sometimes they don’t. Elementary school students won’t have much to offer, but ask them anyway. Middle and high school students may have significant views. Be particularly careful to pick a school that offers extracurricular activities in which they are interested.

6. Make sure the middle school encourages study of algebra. The school’s math teachers should be trying to prepare as many children as possible to take Algebra I by the eighth grade. Nationally, an average of 25 percent of eighth graders leave middle school having completed Algebra I or a higher course. If the middle school doesn’t meet at least that standard, look elsewhere. Fifty percent is much better. Beware of schools that say only students with 90 percent or better averages may take algebra in eighth grade. If the school has good teachers, they can do much with B students, and even some C students. Mastering algebra is important to starting high school on a good note.

7. Check the data. Visit the state education department’s Web site and look for the school’s profile. In general, a school in a wealthy area will have high test scores, and a school in a low-income area will not. Compare its average scores to schools in similar neighborhoods. You may find something that will influence your decision. But . . .

8. If an elementary school passes tests Nos. 1 through 6 above, don’t worry if it has low test scores. There are plenty of elementary schools in vibrant but lower-income neighborhoods that have great teachers and raise the achievement of every child. Usually they have some middle-class children whose parents have realized the school’s value and stayed. Consider joining them.

9. If the district has gone through several superintendents recently, be careful. It is not an absolute deal-killer, but it is not a good sign.

10. Don’t count on a prestigious, competitive high school to get your child into the Ivy League. I don’t think attending an ultra-selective college is important, which is why this tip comes last. For those of you who do care, the data show that the more brilliant the student body of the high school your child attends, the more likely he or she will lose out in the competition for the most prestigious colleges. But those high schools will give your kid a terrific education, which is all that should concern you.

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