Why We Chose The Worst School In The District

In my last article asking whether we should conceal our wealth, I mentioned the high poverty school that our children attend.  We had a choice of many different elementary schools, and decided to go with the objectively worst school available based on traditional measures like test scores, percent of students in poverty, percent of students with limited English proficiency, and other demographics that most would say indicate a failing school.  What persuaded us to choose this “failing school” was the direction it was headed and the fact that it was in our neighborhood only a few blocks away.

Before I dive into our rationale, I’ll preface this article with a caveat.  I think you should send kids to objectively good schools if that is the best choice overall.  The decision of which school to send your kids to is complex.  Tuition costs (public or private), travel time and expense, how your children learn, and the kind of school environment you want for them all play a part in the question of “what is the best school?”.


What’s the point of school, anyway?

Let’s start out by putting school in the context of life as a whole.  Life works better with education.  Schools are a great place to get an education, but not the only place.  They have no monopoly on learning.

I view traditional schooling as nothing more than one part of a proper education.  So much learning happens outside of the classroom.  If it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with you or your kid.  Children should be observing the world around them, asking questions about it, and satiating their curiosity of how the world works one wikipedia article or youtube video at a time.

For most of my life, I thought school (and eventually college) was in charge of providing an education.  Then one day as I sat in the back of my child’s first grade classroom patiently waiting my turn for our quarterly parent-teacher meeting, I overheard something that completely changed my understanding of the role of school.

The parent in front of me was discussing their child’s progress in the class with the teacher.  After mentioning that her child wasn’t challenged enough with the class, the parent asked the teacher whether it was okay to give her own child homework assignments in addition to what the teacher gave.  To restate what just happened, a parent asked a teacher for permission to do something that the parent could do any time she wanted to.  The teacher appeared confused and then realized that the parent was deferring to the teacher’s authority as an educator.  The parent didn’t want to encroach on the teacher’s authority.

There was no reason to ask the teacher if it was okay.  The parent can, and should, raise her child in the best way possible.

Training this one year old future mechanical engineer in the art of lawnmower maintenance

That’s when it struck me – schools are there to provide instruction on whatever happens to be in the curriculum.  But that’s the beginning, not the end of a child’s education.  Learning can happen any time of the day, even on weekends or during the summer!  Kids learn from their peers, from television and internet videos, camp instructors, extracurricular activities, books they read, talking with adults, and empirical observations of the world around them.  The learning shouldn’t stop and the incessant “but why?” should be encouraged, not frowned upon.

If school is just one part of a well-rounded education, then the quality of the school can only affect the fraction of that child’s education obtained at school.  What kids are encouraged to do outside of school is up to the parent.

That’s my take on the role of school in the education of our children.  While the choice of school is important, it’s not the sole determinant of the overall education our children will receive.


Our Crappy School

Everyone wants what is best for their children.  We felt the same way when we started researching elementary schools for our kids as they approached kindergarten age.  The neighborhood elementary school was pretty good when we first moved into our house 11 years ago.  In the intervening six years before our daughter was ready for kindergarten, the school took a steep slide down hill.  I don’t know the full story behind what caused the slide, but we found out our neighborhood school was bad.  Very bad.  Only one out of 146 elementary schools in our district were worse than our school.

From looking at the historical test scores and demographics during the death spiral, it looked like a classic case of “white flight” at a school level.  What was a racially and socioeconomically balanced school turned into a high poverty, highly racially concentrated, low performing school in a short period of time.

After we dug deep into the test statistics and controlled for variables like race, education of parents, economic status, and English proficiency, it appeared that kids like our kids tended to have passing test scores just like all the other similar kids in the whole county (90-95% passing scores).  Even though we were at the 145th worst school out of 146 elementary schools, kids with “good” socioeconomic backgrounds managed to succeed.  This fact led me to not rule out our convenient neighborhood elementary school.

The school itself isn’t really that bad.  We like it.  It’s in the neighborhood, our kids can walk to it, and they don’t want to switch schools.  Ignoring the below average test scores you would expect from a high poverty school, it’s a great place by many measures.  Looking at the latest data available and comparing our school to the average school in our reasonably good school district, our school is slightly safer, offers twice as many books per pupil, and three times as many “digital learning devices” per pupil.  Class sizes are 25% smaller than the average district school (17 kids per class on average).  Factor in all the supplemental teachers providing extra help for those that need it, and there are only ten kids per licensed teacher.  Getting individual instruction or learning in small groups of a few students isn’t a rarity in other words.  For example, there is a half-time dedicated “academically and intellectually gifted” teacher to tend to the needs of the thirteen AIG identified kids at the school (one of which is my daughter).

Why is a high poverty school so well endowed?  It comes from being one of the poorest schools in a relatively wealthy school district.  They back the money truck up to the loading dock and stock the school with extra teachers, supplemental training, and tons of technology.  Is it successful?  That’s hard to say.  I know it would be a lot worse without the extra resources, but without digging deep into the data and looking at comparable schools without the extra resources, I can’t really say what $1 of extra spending brings in terms of better performance.

Third grade bridge building competion
Third grade bridge building competition

Four years after starting at this school, we are glad we chose the neighborhood school.  A new principal and almost all new staff have turned the school from the worst into a competitive school that turns away applicants.  Neighborhood kids are starting to return to school and newly enrolled kindergartners are choosing our school.  Just recently, the school was recognized as the top STEM elementary school in the state.

Our third and fourth graders are doing well above average.  There are some screw offs in their classes but for the most part it is a mix of students that want to learn and do well and they seem nice enough.

Benefits to being very close to the elementary school include more access to teachers and principals, easier volunteering opportunities, and huge built in social network in the neighborhood of the kids that go to our school.  We live near a few teachers and know them a little more than just seeing them quarterly in parent teacher conferences.  Other kids walk to school and we have gotten to know many of the families.

I am glad we didn’t abandon this school and choose one very distant from our house.  We wouldn’t really be a part of the social fabric if we had to drive 20 minutes to volunteer or go to PTA meetings.  Our kids would be worn out from hour long bus rides instead of leisurely ten minute walks or bike rides to school.

We also enjoy the fact that our kids don’t get the social pressure to have all kinds of fancy things that the rich kids have at more well to do schools. There isn’t much keeping up with the Joneses.

My advice would be to find a good enough school that is the best choice overall for your family.  Spending an extra few hundred thousand on a nicer house in a nicer area just to get access to better schools when the alternatives are perfectly acceptable doesn’t make sense to me.


Why take a risk on a crappy school?

Were we really willing to experiment with our kids?  The downside didn’t seem that bad and the potential upside seemed very positive.  We decided to go into the crappy school with an open mind with a willingness to evaluate it as a whole and not focus only on the negative aspects.  We knew that it wasn’t a permanent decision, since we could bail out and change schools after a year if we wanted to.  In the meantime, our kids could meet more local kids in the neighborhood and we could walk to the school.

Some of the perceived negatives are actually positives.  Lots of the kids at the school don’t come from the same socioeconomic background as our own kids.  Around half of the school comes from homes where English isn’t the first language spoken at home.  It’s a mix of Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and other languages beyond my recognition.

While still working, I had dreams of taking off on a trip around the world for a year or two and finding a school overseas where our kids could get cultural and language immersion.  My friend Jed at Bucking the Trend did exactly this when he packed up the family and went to Granada, Spain (here is his kids’ classroom experience in Spain). Our kids could see first hand how other societies live and maybe pick up some of the language.

Suddenly it hit me – our school just a short walk up the street from us WAS that overseas school.  Right here in our own neighborhood.  We could enjoy all of the comforts of home plus have this little hidden nugget of cultural treasure right here underneath our noses.

We knew going into this school that the following was true:

  • Immigrants don’t bite
  • Lower income people don’t bite
  • Racial minorities don’t bite
  • People who don’t speak English very well don’t bite

We are comfortable enough around people who are different from us that the diversity didn’t bother us or scare us away from this little gem of a school.  We are in our fifth year at the school and it keeps getting better.



What was your school like growing up?  Are we making a mistake choosing this school?



// cover photo credit to Paradox 56 @ flickr

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  1. Well said Justin, particularly on the point that learning should not stop at the school gates.

    If you compare high flying parents with little time who are pretty much outsourcing their children’s education (and upbringing?!) completely to the expensive “good” schools, with your own situation of a more balanced education and time spent with parents I know what one I’d rather have for my (future) kid(s)!

  2. I have a feeling that it really would not matter where your kids went to school.
    There is so much love and caring coming through your “Good” blog
    We grew up in a very racially explosive town. There was lots of racism in our home and I guess I just rebelled against it.
    Some of my most treasured moments is when I worked with people of different colors, languages, and social habits.
    Your kids are fortunate to be in a family like yours.
    Congratulations on your school choice.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Don!

      I prefer to think of myself as a rational, analytical realist when it comes to these issues, but I could see how that might be misconstrued as loving and caring. 😉

      I think you are right – our kids will probably turn out okay regardless of which school they attend.

  3. I have compared the education my husband received (he went to a school in a very well off area) and I received (lower income, immigrant population), I received just as great as an education if not better. I had amazing teachers and I was in a great academic program (IB). http://www.ibo.org/ if you want to check out the program.
    I think the most challenging part in a low income, immigrant population is that kids often don’t have their parents support for education or the parents don’t know how to support their education.

    1. We have a number of IB programs in our local schools here, too. My nieces and nephews all attended an IB elementary school. My high school just started the IB program as I was moving through the grades, but I stuck on the AP track instead.

      You’re right about the parental involvement. I see a mix of parents among the immigrant families. You can tell some are really involved and concerned but don’t always have the language skills to help out. Others just don’t show up for whatever reason. I think we can all guess which kids are more successful. And for our own kids, it’s a great lesson in “effort=success”. It’s also a great place to observe the American Dream still alive and well.

  4. I unfortunately agree with SFL above, the biggest weakness typically with a lower income school is that the parents are not as involved and engaged (typically because their work is so demanding and less flexible), so too much of the parenting workload falls on the teacher and school, which brings the whole class down. But I don’t have all the answers, some children rise above the challenge and go on to really appreciate that they had to struggle. In our case, our children work very hard at school, but are only in the top 25% of their class. We have debated if we should move to an ‘easier’ school district where they could be in the top 10% (and automatically be accepted to the in-state, Texas college of their choice)…

    1. Agreed, and the parents are often working long hours at minimum wage (or maybe less since I assume some might be working informally without documentation).

      Your point about the “easier” schools districts and performing at a higher level is a good one. I went to a very competitive high school and graduated 125th or something. With a 4.6 GPA I think and 2 years of college credit under my belt. The “smart” kids were mindblowingly smart and much more dedicated to doing well than I was! Being at a competitive school meant many scholarships were out of reach if they only offer 1-2 per school. And I heard the scholarship committees at our state schools like to spread the wealth. Applicants from rural, lower performing counties didn’t have to excel as much as those of us in the “rich” high performing counties. I think there is some merit in picking a school that would guarantee a scholarship if in the top 10%, as long as the school still meets the needs of your student and the commute to school isn’t bad. We don’t have the top 10% thing here, for better or worse.

  5. Back before our kids started their schooling, my wife questioned whether we should send them to the local school in our neighborhood (one of the older, ‘poorer’ parts of town), or look into private schooling. I’m of the opinion that if you raise your kids the right way – to be respectful, driven, etc – that it doesn’t really matter what school they attend, they’ll succeed. We did stick with the local school, and our kids loved it. They loved their little bit of freedom in walking to school (about a block away) as they’ve gotten older, and they both excel with the formal education, and more importantly, seem to be leaders and help others.

    Great post.

    1. Glad to hear it’s working out BGM!

      Thanks for mentioning the leadership aspect. After we returned from our cruise, our oldest daughter mentioned that her classmates were very glad to have her back in class to help them out. Some might view that as “bringing her down to their level”, but the truth is that developing skills to lead a group and explain the subject matter in a simple form are invaluable later in school and in a career (and life in general for that matter).

  6. I went to a pretty terrible high school. The kids who wanted to learn still managed to do so, especially since most larger schools essentially have a track within school for AP or IB that let’s you get the more advanced work you need. Certainly worked out ok for me.

    1. I had the same experience in HS. It was like two different worlds that only occasionally intersected. The kids who barely passed each grade and were borderline illiterate and on the other side, the kids in AP/IB. By the second year of HS, I didn’t have any real exposure to the kids in the former group (other than passing by them in the halls).

  7. Great article. I love seeing people actually look behind the numbers and figure out what’s going on.

    Here’s my problem. The only two factors that I’ve ever seen studies illustrating actually making a difference are 1) parental involvement and maybe 2) physical exercise/activity.

    Similar to Don’s comment, I think it simply would not matter where your children went to school because you’re heavily involved in their education. And that’s the key variable.

    I’ve never seen any data (although it certainly may exist and I’d love to see it if anyone knows) showing that class size makes a difference, educational level of teachers, spending per student, portable buildings vs. permanent, books/technology/etc. spending, or any of the other things we throw money at.

    Parental involvement seems to be the one and only variable that matters. And yet the government system (as illustrated by your anecdote) seems to discourage parental involvement to a high degree. (I believe the individual teachers strongly encourage parental involvement as do some principals/administrators.) They know it gets results. But the system itself is generally structured against it.

    And yet, tragically, this is what is often lacking the most in the poorer schools.

    1. The issue of “does more money result in better education outcomes” is one where I haven’t done a lot of research (although I’m sure there are encyclopedias of knowledge on the subject!). In our situation of a school with hugely disparate skill sets in a given grade, I have to assume the extra money spent on extra teachers pays off. The kids that don’t speak English very well get pulled out to ESL classes. The kids who need extra help in reading or math get pulled out. The gifted kids get pulled to enrichment classes. The alternative would be a less individualized instructional curriculum and the lowest performing would probably get left behind while the highest performing wouldn’t be challenged. In this sense, the extra funding for additional teachers focused on those in need of special instruction probably pays off.

      As for parent involvement, I know our school places a high priority on that. Plenty of parents don’t speak English and most school wide meetings are bilingual (English and Spanish) with extra translators for the lesser spoken languages. They constantly reinforce that learning should take place at home and parents are encouraged to engage kids in what they are learning and get them to read at home. Do the parents do their job? Some do, some don’t. I’m sure a lot of parents doing physical labor jobs want something better for their kids and eat up anything the school can give them that will help their kids. Other parents probably shouldn’t have reproduced in the first place, although you rarely see those kinds of parents at school events because they just don’t show up.

      It’s a tricky job managing institutional education yet enfranchising the parents to play an active role. I think our school and district do the job pretty well, but so much of it goes back to the parents needing to care and place education as a high priority.

      1. I found this very interesting because I went to a private school and one of the reasons I think it was so important for me in getting a good education is my mom was a single working mom who worked about 40-60/week and did not have much time for enrichment. The support that came from private was invaluable.

    1. Hopefully. At the least, they will see a bunch of different ways of living life and maybe figure out how other families’ life choices impact their kids and what the families can do.

      I feel like if we lived in a gated community and sent our kids to a private school with other gated community residents, that our kids would be in for a rude awakening when they get out on their own and have to interact with a broad spectrum of the public, most of whom didn’t grow up in gated communities attending private schools.

  8. I went to private school 1st-8th grade and then I attended the worst public high school in the city. I had a really great experience in public school! The class sizes were very small, which meant that the teachers were very involved with the students. I was also in the advanced curriculum, so my class sizes were even smaller than other classes. The only bad class I had was 9th grade history. At that time, the school didn’t offer advanced 9th grade history, so I was stuck in the regular class. Most of the students didn’t appear to read, so I would spend the entire class period reading aloud from the textbook. My mom talked to the principal, and shortly afterwards, the school added an advanced history class. Education wise, I had a really great experience. Student wise, the bad language and obscene conversation topics were hard for me after coming from a private school. I know I got a great education, but I wanted to escape the student environment. After the experience that I had in high school, I chose to go to a private college.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I can see how the older kids in high school could be negative influences on my own kids. Although I think that identifying the negative people and then figuring out why that’s not the best type of person to emulate is a great life lesson in itself. At the elementary level, most of the kids that will turn out to be rough kids are merely a little misguided. My kids are quickly figuring out that the kids that sit and cry when they can’t figure things out or those that make emotional outbursts or “don’t play well with others” tend to have a really hard time in elementary school. Probably plenty of lessons in middle and high school too.

      I don’t think our district has any high poverty middle or high schools (they are larger and fewer in number therefore the law of averages means the middle and high schools are more socioeconomically balanced). But I’m curious how we’ll react once we do get to that level of schooling.

  9. I went to a low income school and I really treasure those moments of growing up with people from different backgrounds. When I hear a story about a struggling kid, it reminds me of my friends growing up. It’s not people relying on government handouts — it’s my friend who grew up in the ghetto and worked SO HARD to get out. It’s shaped my perspective on the world and I really appreciate it.

    For my last two years of high school I went to a really good school. (NCSSM since you are from the area). I also learned an incredible amount there that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. The kids that went to better schools before NCSSM were ahead of me academically.

    I’m not sure what I will do when I have kids. I wish there was a way to do both.

    1. Yeah, being exposed to people of different backgrounds helps put concepts like “poverty” in context. You can’t paint ’em with the same broad brush once you realize some of them want to get out of poverty and succeed way more than you ever did!

      Yes, I know NCSSM pretty well. Many of my high school classmates bailed and went there. Some for the social aspects (getting away from parents) and others for the academics. I started applying and took and passed some screening tests but lost interest and dropped my application. I figured between the AP courses and college early release and college classes taught in our HS (NC State professor came each morning for Calc III and Differential equations), it would be roughly similar to NCSSM or possibly even more advanced due to access to college early release.

    2. SC GSSM alumni here! I visited NCSSM once on a field trip and was so jealous of your mega campus and more freedom over our school.

  10. I’d bet you’d take some * for this from the average person who thinks you’re “depriving” your children, but I applaud you. It absolutely sounds like the best decision for the whole family.

    1. Yeah, I probably would. I’m honestly surprised no one has given me shit here in the comments (yet). Since you’re an educator you probably get what I’m saying pretty well. And it’s probably frustrating to watch smart kids not do as well as they could since their parents are apathetic toward their kid’s education.

  11. With Mini Maroon #1 quickly approaching three years old, Mr. Maroon and I discuss the umpteen zillion education options available to us over and over. I must say that on the surface, most people – me included – would question your decision to use the worst school in the district. But I’m so glad that you delved deeper and found so many positives about the choice, in many ways making it better than other options. You have opened my eyes to keep digging and find out more and more about everything, but particularly something as important as education.

    I attended private school for 14 years. In contrast, Mr. Maroon attended public school for that period. Academically, I think we were equally prepared for college. Despite both being engineers, we vary considerably in our approach to education and problem-solving. I’m certain it’s a large combination of our own personalities and parenting styles as compared to education background. In the end, a child will be as successful has his parents encourage and assist along the way. The social setting of school is also really important. I’m impressed by all of the benefits in that arena that your children enjoy. All the smarts in the world can only get you so far if you don’t have the social skills to function in society.

    So thanks for sharing all of these details. You’ve certainly given me plenty to think on for the day. And I imagine it will dominate the dinner table conversation tonight – assuming Mini doesn’t take over by pondering life’s real mysteries…

    1. You are welcome! The job of finding a perfect school isn’t easy. And it’s not always the best test scores. Good luck in whatever you end up choosing. And I’m sure your kiddo will do just fine anywhere!

  12. With my kids, so much of the learning was happening outside of the school – despite them being tired after the school day – that we went to homeschooling. Much different pace of life now, and our family at least is better off for it.

    1. I think they get a lot out of traditional school, so we’re happy leaving them in for now. Don’t tell anyone but I think I’m too lazy to home school my three kids. 🙂

      We are lucky to have the school here in the neighborhood, so we walk out the door at 8 and they are back home by 3:15 or so. Very little travel time. They do okay after school with homework and tend to have some time each day for play time.

      The biggest down side for traditional schooling in my mind is the rigid calendar. We pull them out of school to travel occasionally, but it’s always a balancing act.

  13. I think the optimal path is average schooling at the elementary and middle school levels (where let’s face it, everybody gets pretty much the same foundational content) followed by elite high school/AP track and college. This allows kids to form an identity in the real world with the exposures you’re talking about, but later benefit from the peer connections with successful classmates. This is the path I took, and I like to think it prepared me to interact well and be a leader in general society while being able to relate to the well-educated upper class without being too pretentious about it.

    People need a solid grounding, and it sounds like your kids are getting that.

    1. This is roughly the path my kids will follow. The middle schools in our county’s district are all pretty good, and we’re thinking about sending them to the very competitive middle school since that’s when the real differentiated “tracks” start. It’s in the middle of downtown, but not really any further than other middle school options. It’s magnet, so also a lottery as to whether we get in.

      All the high schools in our county district are varying forms of good or great and all offer the AP track (with many also offering IB track as well).

    2. I don’t think everyone gets the same foundation. Many of friend who went to public school learn about the same events, in that happen but in my private school we learned about why and in which more depth. For example, we all learned about the native people being given blanket with viruses on them but my school went into what the viruses did, why we don’t have them now and so on, my friends in public school, “Indians got blankets with virus that were native to Europe, so the Indians died”, that was it. Now maybe it was just my school but comparing my base to the base of friends from across the country, my base was stronger.

  14. We live in what many consider one of the “worst” school pyramid in a top-notch school district. We thought it was silly to choose schools based mainly on SAT scores, the number of kids who need help learning English, and the number of kids who need help buying their meals at school.

    Before enrolling our kids, it struck us that everyone who trashed the schools did not have kids enrolled there and knew nothing about the schools. I spoke to a former principal at one of the schools who became a school district administrator; he said that all the schools in the school district followed the same challenging curriculum, the only difference was the students enrolled at each school. What really sealed it for us was that so many high school students who could have afforded to go to private schools said they really liked the public school.

    Fast forward a couple of decades, and I can honestly say that we never regretted our decision. Both of our children have received a wonderful public education. My son got into the college he wanted to go to (also subsidized generously by our fellow state taxpayers) and my daughter really enjoys high school. Advantages to our kids have included: smaller classrooms; more flexible teachers and staff (they deal with so many situations outside the norm that, for example, my son writing a book report on a t-shirt and wearing it to class was no big deal 🙂 ); appreciation of diversity – rather than talk about it, they live it every day; more guidance with things like organizing schoolwork and applying to college; working part-time during the school year is viewed as a real option because so many of their classmates also work; no whining about wanting their own cars or other outrageous expensive stuff; more opportunities to join school sport teams because apparently not as many students try out…I think I could go on and on!

    1. It’s great to hear it’s working out for you!

      I have the same reservation about the parents trashing the schools just because the test scores are low. I’ve read the online comments about our school and it’s usually along the lines of wondering why anyone would ever send their kids to a school where the scores are so bad. Like so many things in life, those are averages. Some kids are well below the average and some are well above the average. It was the same way at my high school where half the kids didn’t do very well at all on things like the SAT, and then the top quarter or so scored in the 1300’s to 1500’s (back when 1600 was the max). Our test score average was well above the county and state average, but nothing spectacular.

  15. Picking a school for your kids is a big choice. I am sending my kids to a private school because I want them to have more opportunity than I had. I just skated by at school and was never encouraged. My school had a very high immigrant level and English was primarily the second language for over half of my school. That alone took away from extra curricular activities offered and more more time toward the ESL students.

    Biggest reason why I went private is the class size, from 30+ in public down to 15 in private. This alone I think its enough to make a difference. One on one teacher time will ensure my kids do not fall through the cracks like I did.

    Nothing wrong with public systems especially with active involved parents. You just have to spend more time coordinating extra activities the schools may be deficient in.

    1. From your experience, it sounds like we are lucky to have all the resources dumped into our school. The ESL kids get pulled out for ESL and my kid gets sent to Academically and Intellectually gifted pullout at the same time. Apparently all but two kids in the class get pulled out for something, and as a result, the entire school has a dedicated “pull out” time so it doesn’t interrupt teaching the regular curriculum.

      And the class size at our kids school is better than most private schools. In kindergarten, there were only 12 kids for each class, with a full time dedicated teacher’s assistant and an extra teacher floating between 4 classes. In higher grades, they have had around 15-18 kids in each class, with this year in 3rd grade being the largest ever with 20 kids. That’s not the norm at most public schools in the area I gather. I’ve heard reports of the 30+ students in a class and literally running out of desks and other horizontal surfaces, but haven’t seen it first hand (yet!).

  16. Sounds like you’ve got a great situation going on. I’m also a fan of neighborhood public schools and we definitely plan to send our future kids to one. And, your insights about learning outside of school really resonate with me too. The fact that you’re able to be such a full-time, hands-on parent is awesome and is surely the greatest education your kids could possibly have. We hope to emulate this model one day :)!

    1. Go for it. You can turn just about any experience into a learning opportunity. Right now with the 2 year old, we are on a clandestine hunt for anything with ABC’s on it. Sometimes that means stopping in the middle of the street as he marvels at the “S” and the “T” and the “O”h crap there’s a car coming, run!

  17. Great discussion, and yes once you mix in poverty and diversity, all of a sudden a school is labeled bad. If you do some research and interview the teachers to see how a new student will experience learning. I assure you it will not be as bad as those ratings suggest. I agree we as parents have to teach our kids even more than what they learn in school.

  18. Interesting topic. You make some good points. Growing up as a child of immigrants, I definitely agree that immigrants and working class people don’t bite. As a matter of fact, some of them have a great work ethic…sometimes being born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world makes you take working hard for granted. In any case, my main concern with “bad” schools is that I did experience many bad apples (mainly in junior high school). There was some violence and certain classes really were held back by kids who just didn’t want to learn and teachers had to focus on controlling them rather than teaching. While teaching definitely extends outside of the classrooms, it is hard to catch up when a teacher is unable to do his/her job because other students are misbehaving.

    1. I wonder if the “bad kids” situations are less common in well to do schools? I know private schools theoretically have an easier time booting out “bad kids” but if the parent is paying their tuition or happens to be a wealthy benefactor of the school, I imagine there is some leeway for the kid.

      I know our public school doesn’t hesitate to give bad kids the boot. A classmate of our 4th grader just got suspended for having an emotional outburst and pushing a new kid. I imagine middle school is really where the bad behavior and dangerous violence starts, and in that regard I don’t think we have any “bad” middle schools in our district (just varying degrees of average to great).

      As far as immigrants and work ethic, I have a purely anecdotal theory that they have MORE work ethic on average than native born Americans. You have to work hard if you show up here with nothing. Like you mention, if you’re born comfortably middle class, you take wealth and stability for granted. And immigrants tend to be a self selecting lot. The ambitious “get on the boat”, while the apathetic ones stay in their home country.

  19. Another good thought piece Justin.

    I have a 2nd grader.

    Here is something fun we started just this week — Duolingo. Duolingo is a language program you can use on your phone, tab or computer. I had started Spanish myself and was impressed at how fun it was to learn in this manner and then one night my son jumped up on my lap and became immersed in the game like feel of the program.

    So now it is 30 minutes of dad and son playing (learning) Spanish together each night and stickers labeling everything in the house in Spanish.

    I think this will be a fun activity for the nest several years. (I call it our secret language)

    I highly suggest you and your readers try this.

    They have German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese, and a few I can’t recall.

    *Warning/Disclaimer – I have not skin in this program and it can be addictive.

    1. I’ve been using duolingo since I retired early 18 months ago. It’s a great tool. I got pretty far in the French section before traveling to French speaking Canada last summer. Next up for me is German, since I hope to visit Germany sooner rather than later.

      Our kids have started Spanish and dabbled in the Portuguese on duolingo. Although right now they are absorbed in Khan Academy. It’s like duolingo in that it makes learning almost game like (you get points, unlock new avatars, etc).

      The more I find cool tools and programs like these, the more I think that home schooling won’t be too difficult. 🙂

    2. Yes, my son and I are learning Japenese together on Duolingo. It is a great way to bond with your child and something we both look forward to at the end of everyday. There is another app called Memrise. We do this on also everyday. Great resources out there if you just look!:)

  20. Forgot to mention – In our rural small town school all the kids are thrown together. Kids without food at home. Kids whose parents are Doctors and millionaires. Kids whose parents and siblings are meth heads. Kids who go on to fabulous careers and success. Kids who end up as adults living off welfare in skanky trailers with head lice watching Jerry Springer.

    Most of the “expectation” paradigm is up to the parents in our case.

    1. Your kids are gonna grow up better because of this. Not because the school is better or worse but because through you being the kind of person who can make this decision and their experiences at a more economically and ethnically diverse school, they will learn resilience and independent thought. They will have a lot more inner tools than a kid who cries until they get an iPhone 6 and goes to the kind of school where it matters if their skis are two seasons old or hand me downs (horrors!)
      A lot of this will come from how you raise them. It’s not the school. It’s the fact that you are teaching them by your actions that you have thought about it and researched and realize that just like 3 year old skis work just as well as brand new ones and that a fancy label doesn’t make something better quality and worth 3x more. You aren’t buying into this disease in America where somehow coddling your kids and buying them everything they want somehow makes up for deficiencies in your childhood (“I want them to have it better than I did”) or guilt that you spend long periods ignoring them (working to buy more stuff, being divorced, just not being able to deal with their spoiled asses). PS, the bonus is that most kids at that elementary school will be vaccinated not having been so spoiled by parents who believe they are such special snowflakes that their own beliefs and feelings trump the common public good and hard scientific facts.

  21. RoG,

    I like to take the “but why?” situations and show the child where to find the information they’re looking for. I might answer the first or second question, but after that I like to start questioning back as to where they might find the information for themselves. That way, they learn not only to ask the question but also to actually “go to the books” or real life trial-and-error to find the answer.

    Take care!
    – Ryan from GRB

  22. Jason,
    Nice site and appreciate the article on “crappy schools.”

    Each state has different challenges and solutions. And there isn’t one solution. But always great to hear and consider all possibilities.

    My two kids are grown and in early careers (both under 30). Before they entered school we picked an affordable town in a well-off school district (NJ). The school district had three sending towns, call them A, B, and C. We picked this district because of the high school and student success rate. We moved out of the first town (C-boro) because it was too homogenous. We realized that many of our friends were diverse, and we had very different opinions from many of the C-townies.

    Before 4th grade for the older child, we moved to A-town. We lived near the wrong side of town, but our kids walked to elementary school, a major advantage. There were more computers, more events, and so on. Then on to the town middle school where we met many well-off people. Things became more competitive, for sure.

    This brings me to the turning point–high school. That is a very mixed bag, especially in a public high school. You think you know how things will turn out, but there are many surprises. Have you been to the high school? I can’t begin to enumerate the issues that every teenage parent faces. Build the best possible foundation with your kids, and know that is what gets you through the numerous challenges to come.

    1. I grew up here and Mrs. RoG and I both attended a nearby high school. We’ll have to apply to get our kids into it. I managed to pick up 2 years of college credit while attending this particular high school, so needless to say it’s pretty good for academics. It and most of the other schools around Raleigh offer a lot. There’s going to be nonsense anywhere of course (public or private), so I agree it’s good to start with a strong foundation.

      Since the high schools here are 5x as large as the elementary schools, they draw from a much broader area and therefore there won’t be as much of a concentration of low income people as we have at our elementary school (just the law of averages).

      There’s also a great charter school that is really hard to get into and it isn’t very far away either.

      We have a few decent private high schools, but I don’t think any strengths they might have outweigh those offered at the public or charter schools available to us (not because the private schools are bad, but because the public schools are good).

      By high school, the kids seem to self-select into two tracks. Lower performing kids end up stuck together and the higher performing kids stay too busy with AP courses that they don’t have time to get in trouble.

  23. I think your “data” is off. First of all, how well endowed a school is does not really have much to do with how well it educates children. If this were true, American school children would be much better educated. Second of all, the number of gadgets and books we have really has nothing to do with how well educated children are. There needs to be a good teacher, and teachers are much better when they have a community that supports them. As you said, education does not begin and end at school, but it is all about our identities as social individuals who come from families from a variety of backgrounds representing different values, lifestyles, cultures, Etc. You are going to find your childrens’ exposure to such things severely limited in a poverty stricken neighborhood; just as you might in a highly rated, high performing, primarily white and affluent neighborhood. I have gone to schools at both ends of the spectrum, and I have concluded that my children need to have a childhood; something incredibly undervalued and abused, not only in lower income schools, but in most American schools.

    Do yourself and your children a favor and do not choose their education based on convenience, PLEASE. I applaud your ability to think outside the box, but don’t throw the box in the wood-chipper; a point of reference is a good idea.

    1. Our school isn’t in a poverty stricken neighborhood at all – it’s in our own neighborhood with houses at 75% of the median house price and I imagine incomes just below area median incomes. Lots of blue and white collar folks, lots of retired folks (the latter of which probably pull the median income down!). Large socioeconomic diversity overall.

      The school is concentrated with poverty since it pulls kids from outside the neighborhood. Though it’s improving each year. It has won a few national awards in the past couple years (something we would have though impossible when we chose the school 6 years ago!).

      It’s a nice enough school now that they are actually turning away some applicants. We plan to send our rising pre-K student there in the fall (if he gets in!).

      It is the most convenient choice and also a very good one in hindsight (given how well our kids are doing). The kids have also picked up some Spanish along the way and also picked up a diverse set of friends.

      For middle school in the fall for the oldest kid, we aren’t choosing the near-worst school in the district (which is also the most convenient). Instead, we have applied for four schools that are farther away and 1-2 of them would require us to wake up very early and drive the kids to school. We have the time to drive them and the money to own a car and drive it there, and the educational opportunities are better at the non-worst middle school (though that may change in a few years since they are rebooting the nearby middle school).

      I also have to mention that the worst schools in our district just aren’t that bad. It’s not inner city rough schools at all, just schools with heavy poverty concentrations and a tough demographic that tends to perform poorly on tests.

  24. Thank you for a great post and sharing this much-needed subject. We are in an exact predicament that you were in a few years ago where the assigned neighbourhood school was decent at that time we moved into our home and no longer the case when our kid reached school age. We are still struggling with this but your post has helped shed lights on the issue.

    I do want to respond to Justin’s comment about a parent seemingly asking for the teacher’s permission to provide supplemental work to his/her own child: I can understand and appreciate the approach, and I believe it’s not so much about “asking for permission” but rather an attempt to align the education / teaching approach coming from school and at home. My kid went to a montessori school for pre-schools and kindergarten, and I was planning to sign up Kumon (kumon.com) for my child beginning first grade. The montessori teacher warned me that the teaching method at Kumon is direct opposite from the montessori teaching style and I should plan for a transition period to ease my kid into Kumon should I decided to proceed. I respect and appreciated that feedback.

    I believe home should be the primary environment for a child to learn and grow, with loving and involved parents the child will grow up in a solid foundation instilled with strong values and principles. My main concern with our less performing neighbourhood schools (elementary, middle, high) are gangsters, but moving into a more effluent school district or private schools tend to have drugs problems (coming from rich parents who aren’t as involved). With building a strong foundation for and bond with my child, my hope is that she will have the ability to determine right from wrong, identify the friends she should or should not be hanging out with, and be able to make the right decisions at critical times.

    As for academic preparedness, with the above said, kids will do fine in whatever schools they attend as long as there is a strong foundation at home. But if there are expectations for kids to attend Ivy League colleges I do believe school selection makes a difference.

    We did spent a year (First Grade) at the neighbourhood school and the biggest challenge we faced was not having enough communication from the school on my child’s progress. The quarterly report card has only one comment and they were the same the entire year: “Your child is progressing as expected, no action is required at this time.” I attended a parent meeting and when introducing myself to the class teacher, he did not know my child (he was trying to recall). That was the defining moment for us to move on. My spouse did not want to move (to a better school district – another topic for another time) so we put our child to a private school – We get a weekly report on my child’s work in language, math, science, and social studies. The school provides each child a planner listing daily homework and quiz schedules. During my daily pick up, I often times would hear from teachers telling me that my child “talk a little too much in class lately”, or “was a great help in after class activities”. This private school is not perfect, it is 95% minority, speaking of diversity. The key is to figure out what’s important to you, what’s the most value you want from the school. I realize now that we need constant communication knowing that my child is being cared for at school, and from that communication I can decipher my child’s well-being and development – Public or Private.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      Good to hear your school choice is working out for you. It’s a difficult thing to entrust the care of your children to others.

      We are lucky that the elementary school we chose has improved significantly while our kids have attended for the past six years and the oldest recently got into the best middle school in the district which essentially guarantees her admission to the best high school (Mrs. RoG’s and my own alma mater!). Lots of grads ended up in Ivy League or other top tier schools (though we’re aiming for in state schools that are close to top tier or top tier in some disciplines).

  25. Interesting commentary on the subject and something we all care about as parents. In my situation we chose our home based on the school ratings which are some of the highest in the state and county when we were expecting out first child. Five years later they are still highly rated, but as our oldest will enter kindergarten next year we discovered financial appropriations to schools are based on the affluence of a neighboorhood. Since we now live in a “affluent area” our schools receive less funding. If we received the county average, our elementary and middle school would receive $11,000,000+ more per year in funding. The classes here are 24/1 vs 16/1 to 9/1 in the “less affluent” areas. We could have bought a home for twice the size for the same price in the other areas, or same size, half price. But this area is so family centric and focused on their children’s education it seems to make up the monetary difference the county sees fit to appropriate to other areas. What’s frustrating is working a full time job all these years and attain a graduate education level plus a part time job to afford a better rated school district and finding out that most of the extra money you pay in taxes is sent to the other side of the district. Seems fair if the county would just average the funds across all the schools. Still the best schools in the county, despite the disporpinate funding. Some folks mentioned the diversity element; well I guess our family and kids are providing that, but English is their first language.

    1. Sorry to be the ones that are receiving the benefit of your higher taxes. 🙂

      It’s kind of the same story here in Wake County. Richer areas pay more in school taxes (higher house value) but I bet the operating budget per student is higher in the poorer areas because of all the extra spending on resource teachers and magnet programs (though anyone can apply to the magnet programs in the whole county). However as you note, the higher income areas have more resources to support kids and families (it’s a struggle to raise just a few hundred $ for our PTA, for example).

      I think the redistribution of wealth helps to prevent the Balkanization of our county. I wouldn’t live where we do if the schools were absolutely horrible, and the neighborhood would almost certainly fall into urban decay if the schools were horrible and that was our only option for a free education. There aren’t any schools out of the 150 or so in our district that I wouldn’t send our kids to, although the base middle school we were assigned to (but managed to escape through the magnet program) comes close.

  26. GREAT article! We recently struggled with the decision to enroll our children in the lowest performing middle school in our city. We live in South Orange County California (San Juan Capistrano) and we intentionally enrolled both of our children at the only Title 1 middle school (google this if you don’t know what it means) in our area. Yes there are knuckleheads at the school that may not have the same upbringing as our own kids but this is what the reality is going to be once our kids go out into the real world! They are going to have to figure out how to deal with all kinds of folks that have different backgrounds. The sooner they learn how to do that, the better off they will be once they get to college and eventually the real world! I have heard too many stories of my friends kids who lived in a bubble throughout their middle school and high school years (private schools) and didn’t know how to interact with folks from all backgrounds in college. It takes a lot of communication with you and your child to have a solid relationship so that when your child is exposed to certain things in public schools they may otherwise not have been exposed to in private schools they feel comfortable talking to you about it. Not to say that everyone should send their kids to title 1 schools, it all comes down to what you as a parent are comfortable with and the type of personality your child has. All the teachers at our local middle school are outstanding. The principal Carrie Bertini has excellent leadership skills, the teachers really trust her. They maximize the time in the classroom with the children as they know they may not get additional learning when they go home since most of the children come from low income families who don’t have the resources to send their children to private tutoring. I have also noticed that most of the friends my children have made come from very humble and modest families. They aren’t as entitled as some of the kids from the surrounding cities (Ladera Ranch, San Clemente, Dana Point, Laguna Beach). This is just my personal experience.

    1. Good to hear your perspective. Our kids had a culture shock going from one of the poorest elementary schools to one of the richest middle schools. Tons of snobbery going around at the middle school that we didn’t see at the elementary level.

  27. Two years and a pandemic on from the last comment, how are the kids doing with their respective schools?

    Do you think the “haves” have a moral duty to enroll their kids in a “have less” school?

    1. Kids are doing great overall!

      I don’t think the haves have a moral duty to enroll their kids in a “have less” school but I also don’t think they should rule out a lower income school.

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