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"Are the public schools good here?" This is the question on the lips of every parent with school-age children. Perhaps you're moving, and finding a top-notch school district is your first priority. Perhaps you just want to know how your school district stacks up against others. Or perhaps you live in a district that has instituted school choice – that is, it allows you to send your child to any school within its boundaries. (About 25 states have passed laws that give parents the option of sending their child to any school in the district, not just the one closest to home, with space the only consideration.) How can you go about getting reliable, up-to-date information about the local schools?
Here are some good sources of information:
Your state department of education. Many states rank their school districts, and offer other vital statistics to the public. You can get the phone number by calling directory assistance for your state capital.
Parent Teacher Associations. PTAs and PTOs (Parent Teacher Organizations) can be a great resource for inside information, such as state rankings. Contact your local school and ask to be put in touch with the PTA president or the school's PTA teacher liaison. If your school can't provide PTA contacts, call your state's PTA office or the National PTA's membership department at (800) 307-4782, or visit their Web site at www.pta.org.
Real estate agents. Many local realtors have the latest scoop on schools in the area and provide it to interested parents. For them, it's smart business to share their information, whether or not you use their services.
Local newspapers. Just about every local newspaper runs articles rating the local schools. Often these appear before school begins, in August or September, or whenever the state educational report card is issued. These newspapers also regularly feature articles about the schools and educational issues throughout the year. You can look up back issues either at the public library or sometimes by going to the newspaper's Web site.
SchoolMatch.com. This service supplies school ratings and information on elementary and secondary schools across the country. For $10, you can receive a brief profile on a specific private or public school; for $34, you can get a comprehensive profile.
American School Directory. This site supplies basic information for all 108,000 elementary and secondary schools in the United States.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children. This organization publishes pamphlets on how to choose a quality preschool, kindergarten, or elementary school for your child. Call them at (800) 424-2460 for more information or visit their Web site at www.naeyc.org.
The schools themselves. Call each school and ask to receive a school catalogue in the mail along with any other printed material available, particularly about how this school or district compares to others in the area. School calendars, newsletters, Web sites, and handbooks can all give you insight into the tone of the school and help you evaluate it. Then when you're ready, call back to make an appointment for a visit.
For more information on assessing schools, check out School Choice: How to Select the Best Schools for Your Children, by Harlow Unger (Checkmark Books, 1999).