First Person

Thoughts on choosing a good school

I’ve written before about the odds of getting into schools that have consistently high test scores. These are generally schools where parents are lining up to get their kids in—some even hiring consultants to help them navigate the enrollment process.

The reason is obvious: few parents want to send their kids to a school where the majority of kids are not reading or doing math at grade level (assuming that they know this!).  Parents, regardless of income or ethnicity want the best for their kids and want them to be successful adults.

But parents also know that not all schools are equal academically or philosophically: attitudes, techniques, teachers, students, leadership, character development, etc. vary widely across schools.

In the past, middle and upper income parents have looked to teacher-student ratios as an indication of quality. But a growing number now recognize that class size matters little after third grade.  It turns out that a school’s culture, expectations, and practice can make nearly as much difference in a student’s life as their parents’ education and income. With hundreds of factors to look at, prioritizing and evaluating schools can be overwhelming.

Why are there so many choices?  Two main reasons: open enrollment and more more new schools with different instructional approaches.

First, parents are no longer restricted to the schools in their geographic boundary. In the past, only middle or upper income families had options – which they exercised when they bought their home.

Second, schools now have flexibility available to them in how they are organized, bringing about variation among schools. Some schools might value project-based or student-centered learning while others insist on a more traditional teacher-centric approach. Both can be done well or poorly, and the burden to investigate is on the parent. Here are a few ideas for sorting through the myriad of options.

Narrowing your search online

First, look at the data, which takes about an hour. The best websites are Colorado School Grades, the Colorado Department of Education’s SchoolView and, in Denver, the Denver Public Schools district School Performance Framework. Look for schools where:

  1. Students are reading, writing and understanding math and science on grade level (look at the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced);
  2. Students are learning at the same or faster rate as peers at other schools (the growth percentile should be over 50 –the state average);
  3. Kids that come from a similar demographic background as your child are doing well. The state collects test scores by sex, race, income and ethnicity. One place to find this information by school is here; and
  4. Programming fits your child’s interests. Some schools have great theater programs while others focus on science or guitar. This may be very important or not at all important to you. It’s important to find a school that does a few things well that meet your families needs rather than find the school that claims to do everything well.

The hard part

Next, set aside time to visit schools – maybe one to two days. Call every school on your short list and schedule a visit for at least an hour. Some schools are used to having visitors and have a routine, set hours and days. Other schools that are not used to giving tours and scheduling a visit might take more work. You may have to call a couple of times, but eventually you will get an appointment or access to an open house. Be sure to say that you want to talk to the principal and visit classrooms.

It can be really useful to visit a number of excellent schools even if you don’t want or can’t afford to send your child there. Understanding the scope of options is helpful in knowing what you do and don’t want from a school. Good schools can be public, charter, private, student centered/project-based, or more traditional. Here are a few examples of schools with fairly different instructional strategies and philosophical orientations,

High schools

Denver School of Science and Technology (public charter) Great all round academics with a mix of traditional and project based instruction tied to strong character development program. (Economically and ethnically diverse student population).

East High School (public non charter) Traditional comprehensive high school, The college-prep track is very good but students taking lower level programing has similar performance profile to many other Denver high schools. (Economically and ethnically diverse student population) 

Arrupe Jesuit High School (private) Jesuit high school with strong academic and character development focus that successfully sends all of its graduates to college. Arrupe has one of the among the highest Daniels and Boettcher scholarship percentages in the state. (Primarily low-income student population).

Middle schools

KIPP or STRIVE Prep (public charter) These are both college-preparatory schools with a fairly traditional approach to instruction. The day and year are both extended. (Primarily low-income student population). 

Slavens (public non-charter) Excellent traditional public K-8 district managed school. (Mostly white and middle/high income population).

Girls Athletic Leadership School (public charter) Public girls school that focuses on building confidence and self-advocacy. (Diverse student population of girls) .

Elementary schools

Steck (public non-charter) Traditional district elementary school with strong test scores. (Mostly white and middle/high income students)

Odyssey (public charter) Progressive project-based charter school with a focus on developing self-learners and character. (Somewhat diverse student body)

Denver Waldorf School (private) Based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, Waldorf tudents graduate with outstanding writing and thinking skills. (Mostly white and middle/high income student body)

Swigert (public non-charter) International Baccalaureate focus. (Mostly white and middle/high income student population)

University Prep (public charter) Strong academic program with a focus on skills in early years and traditional character development. (Mostly low-income and students of color).

How to visit

You may have a slew of your own questions, but feel free to borrow any of these.

  1. Do students write?  How much do they write?  How many drafts are students typically asked to do? And what does typical student writing look at particular grade levels?
  2.  Are students regularly asked to provide evidence for an argument in most of their courses? Can you see this in what students are asked to do for homework?  How are students supported to develop these habits in math, social studies, social studies, English and science? And how are they graded in these courses? 
  3. Does the school have a focus on character development?  If so, how?  Does the school evaluate a student’s character? Again if so, how?
  4. How will I know if my student is not on grade level? What do you do if they are below grade level? Above?
  5. Where do most students from this school go to high school? College?
  6. What is your art program? Music? Athletics? We don’t think they have to offer everything under the sun, but should have some options—even if they are a club, after school program, etc.
  7. What does the school ask of its parents? How much homework should a student expect? Do they use packets? Is there a parent contract? What will I be invited to?

Visual observations

  1. What is on the walls in the halls and classrooms? Is it student work? If so, what is the quality? Does the school have mostly generic posters or sayings? Or are there more meaningful indicators of the schools mission and what students should know and do?
  2. One other critical indicator of a good school is the quality of the students’ bathrooms. This may seem relatively minor, but the truth is that you can tell a great deal about the culture of a school by visiting the student bathrooms. Are students treated with respect by having mirrors, working stalls with privacy, hand towels, toilet paper etc? Do students treat their bathrooms with respect?    Do students perceive their bathrooms as safe and clean?
  3. How do students and adults treat each other? Do they greet one another by name? Do adults treat students respectfully and vice versa?

In the classroom

  1. Are students engaged? How do you know?
  2. Are wrong answers corrected? Does the teacher ensure that all of the students understand how to arrive at an answer?
  3. Is the teacher a good communicator?
  4. What do students say about their work?  Is it challenging? If so, how?
  5. Does the structure fit your child’s style?
  6. What do they tell you their plans are after high school?

What not to insist on

One of the biggest mistakes that many parents make is wanting their student’s school to be good at everything rather than great at a few things. Schools should also be aware of the areas they are working to improve. Excellent schools are honest and transparently self-conscious about their strengths and weaknesses. If a school claims to be great in all academic areas, athletics, character development, etc., it is probably not.

There are more and more options available to parents and students than in past years. Hopefully this post will prove helpful. Good luck.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.