Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Where Should I Send My Student?

Last week, on the online community website NextDoor, a parent asked for feedback on our school district (Union School District) and the nearby Los Gatos Elementary School District. All of the schools had a 10 API rating, they shared. How was one to make the decision of where to send their children to school for the next 12 years?

Various community members chimed in. One realtor gave advice to buy a home in the more expensive Los Gatos area and attend the Los Gatos schools. Another parent suggested looking into the API scores of the middle and high schools, to which a third community member responded that there was more to a school than just an API number. Instead, they suggested that any parent interested in joining a particular school district make an appointment with their would-be principal and "get the real scoop on what is going on" at that elementary school. A different parent chimed in that meeting the principals is a good idea so you can get an idea of their leadership qualities. Knowing how challenging these spring months can be for a school principal, I replied on the thread, sharing concern about making appointments to see a prospective school's principal. I wrote (blue added as emphasis):

Hi everybody... I thought I'd chime in here...

I'm the principal of Union Middle School and love our school district. Our parent community is incredibly supportive through donations, their time, and any parcel taxes or bonds. We do a great job (and yes, I'm biased) with the funds we have and I don't think our students receive any less of an education than our neighbors in Los Gatos. In fact, you may say they get a better education at Union Middle. (Yes, definitely biased) :)  And if you care about API scores, Union Middle did happen to score a few points higher than Fisher Middle did the last time scores were counted. 

I think I can sum up the difference from the eyes of a student who transferred from Fisher about what she likes and dislikes about Union Middle.

Likes: the kids are nicer, much less bullying, I like school more now

Dislikes: I wish I could follow the fisher dress code where I could wear whatever I wanted. (Disclaimer: UMS has a dress code that we enforce. We rarely have to remind kids about the dress code. They just follow it for the most part. Students from other middle schools comment regularly how the dress code isn't enforced at their old schools; again, no proof, just their perception.)

As far as the high schools, I am a huge fan of Los Gatos High School. I visited LGHs for their Distinguished School Nomination. I saw some great teaching, some cool kid conversations, and they're led by a great front office staff and principal. (Edit: One community member felt by only talking about Los Gatos High School, I was implying that I was negative toward Leigh. I later posted and expressed that I'm supportive of Leigh High School as well and would have no problem sending my own child to either school.)

Our three feeder elementary schools are all awesome. They are all equally best prepared for middle school. Truly, you can't go wrong. 

I'm not as familiar with LG's elementary and middle schools but I've had nothing but great interactions with their staff and administrators. When there was an issue between our sports teams, the Fisher principal had the entire fisher team send an apology letter to our kids about their behavior. It was very cool to see a principal who teaches these important lessons. 

Just some thoughts. 

Also, while there is a suggestion to visit the schools and meet the principals, I would like to caution anyone from using this advice. Simply put, we are a public school. We take everyone who lives within our boundaries. As a principal, I want to spend my time with our current kids and make sure they have the best experience. I know it is important to welcome prospective students prior to their arrival, but we just don't have the time to meet with every parent and student who are thinking of moving into our neighborhood and attending our school. I say this as politely as possible and with much care of our current Union Middle kids. 


I later received an email from a prospective USD/LG parent about the last paragraph from my post on the Nextdoor thread. He asked, given that my suggestion was to not attempt to schedule a meeting with the principal of an elementary school your child may go to, what could a family do to learn more about the different schools. He cited how expensive the houses have become in our area (true), how they wanted to do their research before buying said house (smart), and just needed to somehow acquire a better sense of what the schools and kids' "day-to-day learning" was like at each school. All good points, to which I replied (indicated in blue):

Thanks for the email. I would recommend talking with realtors in the area, perhaps visiting the campus on off-hours (just walking around, getting a vibe), check out websites, look at greatschools.org for recent comments, talk to any parent communities, maybe attend a PTA/HSC meeting, and so forth. 

The truth of the matter is that I don't want parents contacting a school principal in this area and getting frustrated that they're not able to have a chat with them. I like to think I'm a bit more welcoming than the average principal and I myself won't entertain these conversations. We are a public school. I know it's a hard decision on where to purchase a house (I did the same thing a while back) but as a public school, we just accept anyone and everyone who lives in our school boundaries. 

And you really can't go wrong with the local schools anywhere up and down the bay area. I live in Palo Alto right now and if my family didn't live there, I'd entertain moving to the USD school district area based on how impressed I am with this district.

Also, a lot can change in a school based on the staff, principal, or clientele. A good school can struggle with the wrong principal (and we do rotate around a good bit - our school life span is usually 1-5 years). Sometimes, a few poor hires can cause a huge disruption at a school. The opposite (of having teachers who are veteran staff members and disengaged) can also be problematic. These changes can happen overnight at a school. Generally speaking, choosing an area where the schools are good, the neighborhood is safe, and there are supports (friends/playgrounds/work) nearby is the best advice I can give.

Because at the end of the day, the difference for your student at Carlton vs Blossom Hill may be minimal or dependent on something you couldn't have planned for (such as a bully in their classroom or a teacher our on maternity leave).

And thanks again for the email. Time for parking lot duty!

My goal in my communication with this parent was to hopefully help guide the thought process behind one of the biggest decisions they'll make over the next few years. The choice of where to plant roots directly leads into which school your student will one day attend.

Truthfully, for the strong majority of the students at any school, they will be more than fine. In fact, they'll thrive at any school in either district. Instead of trying to figure out the differences between a Fisher and a Union, I would instead suggest looking at what community you want to live in, where can you best afford a house that best suits your family and finances, and which area is closer and more convenient to your work to give you the most time not on the road but instead at your house with your family. These should be the big determining factors for any family because between the Los Gatos Elementary School District and the Union School District, you can't go wrong.

And if you join the Union School District, I'm excited to meet you at our incoming 6th grade parent night in May prior to the start of your student's school year. We will take great care of them.

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