Somerville has this quasi-choice thing. In January there are three days for parents to tour schools; there are seven elementary schools. Parents get to list there top five choices of schools when they turn in their paperwork, hopefully ahead of the lottery in mid-April. The district uses the choices and the lottery to assign students. You get preference for your "proximity" school, though it's kind of unclear from any of the materials online exactly what that means. There's also sibling preference, so presumably I won't have to cart kids to three entirely different schools in the district unless I make an effort to put myself in exactly that predicament. (1) The upshot of the whole thing is that if you do your paperwork on time and get lucky in the lottery you get to choose your school, otherwise you're going where you get put, most likely your neighborhood school. Failing that you can do what we did, and put in for the wait-list for your favorite school right away when you fail to get your first choice, which gives you another shot at it. Squeaky wheels and grease, as the saying goes.
So there I was, nearly a year ago, looking at schools for my girl and eventually her two little brothers. I actually hired a baby sitter so that I could visit schools without an entourage of three small children who would interfere with my ability to concentrate on anything else. The schools were open for four or five hours for tours on three days in January. Three especially cold days last January as it happened. I ended up visiting six of the seven elementary schools in the district, armed with a notepad and the latest MCAS scores. (2)
First on my list was our "proximity" school, West Somerville Community School (WSCS). I ended up going there three different times, twice on my own and once with Warren. I wanted to like WSCS. It's a block from our house, a very long block, but still completely walkable for a five-year-old. The building is pretty new, having been completely re-done in the 1990s, and is a pleasant brick place. I wanted to like the principal, who had been principal at the Brown school. I did like the teachers, and they really seemed to want me to like them. I liked their community liason person who gave the tours. I so wanted something in the tour to contradict the MCAS numbers I had in front of me, and say that there was hidden excellence here, or that this place would Eclipse Brown as the desirable school in the district in the next few years, but alas it was not so. I'm am confident that the teachers are dedicated and caring, but whenever I talked about test scores and my concern for academics, they talked about analyzing the results and figure out how to bring the kids who were doing poorly up. This was exactly what I did not want to hear. Perhaps it is hubris, perhaps I am just assuming that what was true for me will be true for my daughter, but my concern was more that the gifted kids be challenged and not ignored and left to fend for themselves, reading books under their desks or staring off into space daydreaming as the teachers try to get everyone else to remember basic concepts. Also, much as I wanted to like the principal, when we talked about parent involvement in the school her answer boiled down to a very polite version of 'don't call us, we'll call you.'
Next up on my list of schools to visit was Brown. It has by far the best test scores in the district; by my rough analysis of the MCAS scores was that they were twice as good as anywhere else in the district. The school also has the reputation as the conventional-wisdom good school in the district. According to Google Maps the Brown school is 0.9 miles walking distance from our house, making it the second closest school to us. I visited there twice, and Warren went once on his own. At Brown there were 5th graders assigned to greet people and sign them in, and parents from the PTA gave the tours. Brown was easy to love. First stop on the tour was the principal, then class rooms. etc. All the administrative folks were warm and friendly. A few of the teachers were a little less so, but the sense I got from them was that the tours were a distraction from their work of dealing with their own students, an attitude that I applaud. Also, Warren pointed out that at Brown the attitude seemed to be that it was the teacher's job to help the students learn, instead of to teach them. It's a subtle, but important-to-us distinction. It seemed like a great place. On my second tour the parent giving the tour apologized for some of the "shortcomings" that the Brown building has. It was built in 1900 and is a lovely (in my opinion) brick school. There is no gym and no cafeteria. The library is in the attic, the heating is a touch idiosyncratic, and the kindergarten classrooms are in the basement (which has large windows and plenty of natural light). None of these things is a negative to me. No gym, no problem. I hated gym anyway. No cafeteria? So much the better, going to the cafeteria for lunch was not a positive experience for me in elementary school, quite the contrary. My little girl spending her day in a basement? It's an old-fashioned basement that's only half below ground and has plenty of light, so who cares if she's getting a better education. I was fine with the premises, I like most old buildings and found Brown charming, and the people in it dedicated to education.
Next I visited the Kennedy school. I was familiar with the premises somewhat from bringing Margaret to swimming lessons. Kennedy is 1.3 miles from our house, which makes it the third closest, and it is very close to where I used to live before I was married, so I know the area well. The building is very modern, like most of the elementary schools. Obviously this is where the pool is, and there are plenty of other nice features. At Kennedy the tours were given by 8th graders. This was one of those things that seemed like a good idea, but really wasn't. I applaud the desire behind it, but when you have a shy and retiring teenaged boy trying to deal with a tigerish mom who asks pointed questions it's really not the best thing for either party. Since I was the grown-up I curbed myself, but that meant I didn't get a great tour, and no doubt the flustered eight grader felt put-upon even though I put a lid on myself when my asking questions he didn't have a script for bothered him. The tour ended at a room with refreshments and the principal. I liked the principal a lot. She seemed engaged and talked a bit about the after school program, including adding specific things to it based on parent demand.
The fourth school I visited was the Healey school. This was my first stop in the morning on my second day of touring schools. It's particularly relevant because the tours all took place during an especially cold week in January, and it was 11 degrees Fahrenheit when I parked my car. While the school itself was another well built modern building, the neighborhood was depressed. More to the point it took me five minutes to get someone to let me in, which was not a good first impression with my fingers going numb inside my gloves. I have a friend with a kid at Healey who likes the school, so I was inclined to view the place favorably, but with a limited time to get to know a place the slow response of the office staff during that freezing cold did not make a good impression. At Healey the tour was done by PTA parents, but the principal wasn't part of the tour. When I asked about that someone offered to see if she was available. I forget exactly what happened with that, but I was already feeling that Healey just wasn't as well organized as the other schools. I did hear a lot about their choice program, but as far as I could tell the main thing that is currently different about things at the Healey and things elsewhere is their program of having students with the same teacher for two years in a row. The Healey folks seemed to think this was a major bonus, and I do see how the continuity could be helpful, but then I flashed back to my own elementary school experience where the bad teachers outnumbered the good teachers. I would have loved two (or more) years with Ms. Ryan, my third grade teacher, but more than one year with Mrs. White or Mr. Hagardorn would have been a complete disaster. Based on my own childhood experience I felt that the looping grades program was just too much of a gamble if my kids drew one of the duds.
The fifth school I visited was the Argenziano school. This was the most stunning building, and I think the newest. Again the neighborhood was looking a bit run down when I parked my car. Again there were PTA parents giving tours. I think the principal was in the welcome & snacks room. It was pretty well run, but frankly at this point things were starting to blur a bit. The Argenziano school is big. Some of the grades have two regular classes plus two classes in the special program for kids still learning English. The kids apparently mix during the non-academic periods. I can see that being a real plus for people who value diversity. Overall it seemed like a pretty good school, but the bigness of it and the sheer distance from our house put it low on the rankings for me. It and the East Somerville Neighborhood School (which I did not get around to visiting) were the two furthest from our house.
The last school I managed to visit was the Winter Hill Community School. By the time I got to it late on the third day I'm afraid I was running out of time to really give it as much attention as the others. To make matters worse, I had a tough time finding the front door. You'd think that sort of thing should be obvious, but it wasn't. This school is of the concrete block style of architecture popular in the middle of the 20th century, and not only do I hate that style, but this particular school's appearance reminded me of my old junior high school, only worse. Obviously this in not a recommendation. Brown may be much older, but Winter Hill was where the built environment really bothered me. I did not get much of a tour of Winter Hill, and I have to admit I did not give the school a fair shake because the building troubled me so much. The people did seem really nice, though. This was the one school that handed out goodies (kid's sunglasses). I believe this school also has some grades where the separate classes for non-English speakers are housed. I don't know if there are plans to update the building at this school the way so many of the other school buildings have been thoroughly re-done, but I feel that the school would be way more attractive to other parents if the building were better.
The story the MCAS scores told of the school was that in Somerville there is Brown and then there is everywhere else. That's also the story that the school tours left me with. I ranked our choices for Margaret as Brown, WSCS, Kenedy, Argenziano, and Healey. I case you don't know how this turned out for us, we were assigned to WSCS and immediately put Margaret on the waiting list for Brown, where she stayed at #3 for most of the summer while we attended open houses in Newton, before she finally got a spot at Brown in mid-August. We're no longer going to open houses in Newton on a weekly basis, but we are still following the real estate market there because while we did get into the "good" school in Somerville, that good school in Somerville is comparable test-score wise to the bad schools in Newton, and as I said elsewhere, peer performance will have an impact on our kids. So far we still think we eventually got the best school we could get in the district.
I think I may actually have two more school related posts in me, both of them rants. One would be about all the reasons people I know seem to think I should not have gone with Brown, and one about how Somerville could be a better place to raise a family but isn't. We'll see if I ever find the time to write those.
(1) Actually, I will have kids in three different schools for two years if we stay in Somerville. Brown is the only K-6 elementary in the district, the rest are K-8, so the kids will have to go to another school for 7th and 8th grade, meaning that at some point I will have Margaret in the high school, Duncan doing 7th and 8th grade at some other school (probably WSCS), and Martin at Brown, but I'm thinking that a middle school aged kid can walk 0.3 miles down the sidewalk and across one intersection on their own, and I'm hoping that by high school the kids can take public transportation to school.
(2) Yes, yes, I've heard all the objections about high-stakes tests and how they are really not perfect at tracking student achievement or teaching ability. It is, however, the only quantitative data available to parents on the overall performance of the schools, and in my book some quantitative data, even if flawed, is better than all the well-meaning hand-waving in the world.