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.