After my husband and I bought our East Dallas starter home five years ago, we turned our second bedroom into what we called “the stoner’s lounge,” complete with a lava lamp and guitar collection (note: a stiff Manhattan was the hardest thing ever consumed in this lounge because certain substances make my husband’s “legs hurt”). Needless to say, we had no idea that we would soon be trading out the low-slung love seat for a Jenny Lind crib. Our neighborhood’s schools did not play into our purchase in the slightest.
So, as I’ve been watching the debate over the new Texas Education Agency’s A-to-F campus grading system play out, I realized that I still have no idea what my son will be stepping into in when he starts kindergarten in a year-and-a-half. In fact, I don’t even know what I should be asking. How do I determine if a school is good for my kid, and how helpful are these grades for house hunters and parents?
Looking at the TEA’s preliminary grades, I see that my school, Hexter Elementary, earned three B’s and one C—which doesn’t look fantastic to someone like me, someone who’s never seen a C on a report card except for one time in fourth grade P.E. class because field day is bullshit. But as I’ve asked around, at this point it seems no one really understands what these grades mean. And that’s one of the reasons why school administrators are currently in full-on freak-out mode.
Highland Park ISD, via spokesman Jon Dahlander, has been especially vocal in the campaign against the grading scale. “If you were a pilot and your plane is up in the air, does that mean you deserve an ‘A’? Well, not if it’s heading downward at 500 miles an hour,” says Dahlander. “There’s a number of indicators a pilot is looking at—gauges in the cockpit that will give them altitude or the amount of fuel or how the engines are running. All of those things go into determining how a plane is running and the same is true for a school. To try to boil that down to a single grade is a disservice to the schools and districts themselves.”
So I asked Dahlander, if the single grade isn’t going to give me the full picture, what should I, the parent, be looking at? He pointed me to the Texas Academic Performance Reports, where I can scroll through 12 pages of info on each school. What I look for depends on what I value, he says. On the Hexter report, I see the school received five distinctions last year, including one in academic achievement in English/Language arts/Reading. There’s also the STAAR percentages, attendance rates, average class size, and the number of teachers with masters, among other info.
Coming across Rob Thornell’s story is also enlightening. The Northwest ISD assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction wrote a much-shared post about his kids’ amazing experiences at schools that, according to last week’s grades, are failing campuses. I asked him the same question. If the TEA grades aren’t to be trusted, what should I look for? STAAR scores? That’s what the popular website GreatSchools bases its ratings on.
“Rarely, if ever, have I had parents say they look at the test scores,” says Thornell. “More often they ask about the programs that they offer, things like do they have orchestra? Do you teach Spanish or art at the elementary level? What is your gifted and talent program like? Athletics? Fine arts?”
My son’s future principal, Dr. Jennifer Jackson of Hexter Elementary, says that walking the school grounds will give me far more information than a letter grade and even a 12-page report. She recommends coming to one of the new parent meetings held the first Tuesday of every month and says she’s always happy to meet with people interested in moving to the neighborhood.
Some questions she suggests parents consider: What is the typical day like for a kid? Are they allowed to move around? Do they have a choice in what they learn? Is the building well maintained? How are the students taught to read? “Those are things that are hard to quantify,” says Jackson.
Indeed, nowhere in the TAPR report is there mention of Hexter’s school garden, wobble chairs for wiggle-worms, or the high level of PTA involvement. That’s the kind of stuff I’d have to investigate on my own, and it also happens to be the stuff that piques my parental interest.
So, as appealing as it may be to slack off and trust the TEA grades, it seems that, still, the best way to check out my son’s school is to do my homework.