Live in a City? 5 Invaluable Tips on Finding the Best School

If you live in a vibrant urban area, finding great schools is not always easy. Author and expert Michael J. Petrilli offers helpful advice.
The first day of school is never easy. This is especially true if you are unsure about your child's school. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 29, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

A few years ago, Michael J. Petrilli and his wife decided to buy a bungalow in Takoma Park, Maryland. They loved the inner suburb adjacent to Washington, D.C. After all, it was close to work and had plenty of walkable urban amenities like the Metro station for quick downtown trips, a local library, and a farmers market. Most of all, they appreciated the diverse nature of the community.

Once their first son was born, the new parents started to wonder if the socioeconomically diverse (and academically spotty) neighborhood schools were really where they wanted to invest their children’s future.

Fortunately, Petrilli was in the right career to heavily investigate his concerns and options. In fact, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a K-12 educational policy think tank) and an executive editor of the Education Next journal has since written a book called The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. The book, as the title suggests, provides advice for parents who want to stay in a vibrant urban environment, but who are struggling with how to find a city school that is academically progressive.

TakePart caught up with Petrilli this week and asked him for five actions urban parents should take to find an appropriate school without automatically fleeing for the generally homogeneous suburbs:

1. List your priorities. Bill Jackson (CEO and founder) of GreatSchools, uses the model, “Screen, match and explore.” Really think hard about what your priorities are for your child’s education. It’s going to be hard to have it all. We have to have a gut check, what we want for our kids. Do you have your heart set on a certain style of education, like Waldorf, language immersion, Montessori, traditional? Anything about school size? That’s the first step.

Really think hard about the must haves. Is diversity a must have or a nice to have? Is living in the city a must have or a nice to have? Religious experience may be important. Really get serious about your priorities. Try to write them down because in the process, you might get more clarity.

2. Screen, screen, screen. Screen out the schools that don’t meet your priorities. is helpful. It’s got great data on there about the kinds of schools, and it also has the test scores. You have to be really careful. Don’t screen out a school because of overall rating and scores—those overall ratings may be misleading. Diverse schools may have lower test scores, but then you’ll really want to dig in [and make appropriate comparisons]. Use the data, but don’t screen out schools that could be a great fit just because of test scores.

3. Visit the schools on your list. In a socioeconomically diverse school, ask to meet with the principal. Ask some tough questions, like “How do you handle academic diversity if kids are coming in with prior experience and higher achievement levels?” Some kids may be coming in way behind and others way ahead. How does the school help and provide challenge? If they don’t have a good answer, or if they haven’t even thought about it, that’s a bad sign! That should be a question that’s front and center.

Also get a sense if this is a principal with the most political skills and social intelligence to bring a community together. There are not many places in America where we are trying to get people to come together in a personal and intimate way across lines of race and class. In these schools, we have low-income parents and upper-income parents working together for a common goal. To make that happen across vast cultural differences, is the principal up to the job? Ask about the PTA, how diverse are those meetings? What does the lunchroom look like? Do kids [of all races and backgrounds] all sit together and go to each other’s birthdays?

4. Talk to other parents. Ask the same kinds of questions to the current students’ parents. Does the school do a good job challenging kids to move ahead? Culture—is there tension? Does the school do a good job bringing kids and parents together? Ask if there are events to celebrate cultural backgrounds that will make the school a real community.

5. Study the statistics. When you really want to drill down into the academics, look at the test scores, do your leg work and get under the hood. If you are a white upper-middle-class parent, look at how whites are performing in the urban school compared to others. If 90 percent in state are passing because the tests are easy, look at the advanced level. It differs from school to school. Often, white students in urban schools are doing just as well as kids in the suburbs.

And what did Petrilli and his family—which now includes two small boys—end up doing? Well, he shares his ultimately difficult decision in his book’s epilogue. You can purchase the book at local bookstores or online here.

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