Durham News: Opinion

Matt Sears: Shopping local this (school enrollment) season

By Matt Sears

This past fall, our family enrolled our oldest child in kindergarten – a BIG DEAL for us to say the least.

We learned that there was intense peer pressure to shop for the best school for our daughter among neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, homeschool, and transfers to another neighborhood school. Durham parents have options, and we are entering a period of information nights, tours, applications, lotteries, and eventually enrollments. The shopping season for schools has begun.

During the shopping frenzy, a local neighborhood school can seem like a last resort, especially when a negative school grade has been assigned to that school. With so many choices, many families rely on school grades for an easy and quick point of comparison to make this decision. However, these grades should be put into proper context and not relied upon as the summary of the local school’s merits.

Recently the Durham Public Schools Board of Education challenged the General Assembly to repeal legislation that attempts to boil down the work happening in our schools into one letter grade.

Using a formula that weights 80 percent on grade-level proficiency and 20 percent on how much children are learning each year (growth), Durham Public Schools had 10 schools receive an “F.”

When we locally generate the grades based on a 50 percent-50 percent formula or 80 percent-20 percent formula in favor of growth, however, DPS does not have any “F” schools. What this tells me is that our teachers are largely successful in making progress with children each year. And that’s what we want in our schools.

The data that matters in making choices is not what the General Assembly says; it’s what YOU say. It is what we say as a community. It is up to us to look to our own values about education, life experiences, diversity, and community.

After a lot of work in the fall/winter of 2014, our family decided to skip the school choice shopping season and did not enter any lotteries. In April we went to our neighborhood school, filled out an application, and enrolled. And our local school is high-poverty and carries the “low-performing” and “F” labels bestowed by the state. We decided that our neighborhood school would provide our daughter an excellent education, would offer the convenience of a nearby location just a short bus ride or walk away, and would allow our family to invest in our community through volunteering and advocacy.

Talk about what you want for your child BEFORE you search for schools and fill out any applications. Don’t let peers or the General Assembly dictate your values.

Define what you want for your family’s experience over the next several years and ask yourself if your local school can work for you. Then put the work in: go to your local school, meet with the principal and ask her/him about the positives and negatives, take a tour (and give the school your feedback), go to one or more evening events at the school, meet some teachers and ask for an honest assessment of the school, talk to current parents involved with the PTA to get a taste of the school community.

This season shop your local school first. We all want what’s best for our children, and often times it’s just down the street waiting for you to come in.

Matt Sears is a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education