Choosing my kid's school based on its good rating was a big mistake
No house will ever hold a candle to the first home I purchased with my husband. It was a foreclosure and a total dump: tiny, dated, laid out in a confusing and inefficient fashion and with a furnace that had to be replaced before we even moved in. "This thing has been on fire," the inspector said of the appliance in question. "Twice." I loved that house.
It wasn't the actual building, really, as much as it was the huge park a block away, the gigantic trees outside, and the tight-knit but not cliquey community. Might I be seeing this through rose-colored lenses? Yeah, maybe. But one thing I'm not imagining is what drew us to the little house with our 5-year-old daughter: the schools.
Elementary, middle and high, all anywhere from one to four blocks away. As far as school districts went, it's not as though we had an insane amount of choices. Our town was small enough that it didn't even have a dedicated district. I don't think we even checked the ratings on our kid's elementary school back then. But it all seemed pretty legit; in the afternoons, kids flooded into the street and walked to their respective apartment complexes and subdivisions. Teenagers literally purchased shakes with their awkward dates from a place called Shake's, and every afternoon at 4:15, I could sit in my backyard and hear the marching band practice. By June, they were even good at it.
I really wanted to stay there forever. But I didn't, obviously.
Instead, we ended up having to sell one home and purchase another in the space of two weeks. My husband's notoriously volatile industry had screwed us in a really spectacular way, and the company he worked for eventually closed for good after not paying employees for months. Fortunately, he got another job right away. Unfortunately, it was not in Austin. Sort of fortunately, it at least wasn't in Houston. (Just kidding, Houstonites! Houstonians?)
House-hunting in the summer in the Dallas suburbs is something akin to a bloodbath, where the prize for being the last man standing is 30 years of debt and having to move to the Dallas suburbs. Where we had had six years to find a neighborhood in Austin that we wanted to live in, we had just two weeks in Dallas, a place we knew almost nothing about.
After our first marathon house hunting sesh, we knew a little more, but came away with two things: Don't live east of the highway, and school ratings matter.
These two things confused us. East of the highway in the far north of Dallas looked OK to us, plus the homes were older, which meant they were cheaper and had been built before clear-cutting the already scrubby Texas landscape and allotting every home a small hankie of "yard" was common practice.
But since we didn't know anything about the area, we had to rely on someone who already lived here to tell us where the getting was good. We were trying to avoid landfill funk, traffic bottlenecks and an overabundance of Walmarts. We quickly learned that even if those three parameters were met, we would still be warned away from a house. Our realtor would flick on her phone and scroll down to the school rating in red. "See?" She might lower her voice and add, "Plus, I hear they're letting people use Section 8 vouchers here now." It took me a moment to realize that should horrify me. Maybe I was so slow on the uptake because of my shitty education obtained in a crappy school district near my own childhood federally subsidized home.
If we tried to object, or say we didn't mind taking a school with a lower rating, we got a lot of "Trust me's" and "You want to be able to sell, don't you's?" We had to do the first because of the second. I know that if my husband ever comes home with the news that we're moving cities again, we'll go back to renting, but yes, not being able to sell a home scared us. We had more than a few friends who worked in his industry who ended up broke and bankrupt after not being able to sell their homes in time for their cross-country moves. So we ended up picking a house that we knew we could sell, and that increasingly means a home in a well-rated district zoned to a well-rated school.
I have friends who are educators who joke about those ratings, calling them code for "white kids who test well." I always thought they were being facetious, but it turns out that there's a hell of a lot more truth to that than you might think. Here in the Dallas area, "good schools" are typically synonymous with affluence, which is statistically synonymous with whiteness. The actual disparities between "good" and "bad" schools even made the news here recently. (As did the town we chose, although that was more of a national embarrassment than a human-interest piece.) And as people increasingly use tools like Zillow's school ratings, licensed from GreatSchools.org, neighborhoods are becoming more segregated.
Bad enough, but easily filed under "human nature tends towards raging dumpster flames," right? I mean, I'm not judging. I stand before you a woman who scrolled to the "nearby schools" section on a listing before even checking out the house.
Turns out GreatSchools has faced criticism for their ratings because they only take testing into consideration. Well, that's not totally true. In 12 states, they do measure other forms of student achievement. But their unintentionally hilarious methodology map shows just how heavily they rely on standardized test scores to hand out those all-important red, yellow and green circles. And that's a problem, because standardized tests are not the only — and far from the best — way to measure the worth of a school.
I like my house now, and I do like my kid's school. The teachers and principal are harder to get to know than the small ragtag administration and faculty at my kid's old school was. The new school is awesome; don't get me wrong. But as you might imagine from a school that boasts a green circle for testing well, testing is very important there. I've got a kid with that magical combination of giftedness and ADHD that would make a Jack Russell terrier on speed look attentive. Testing? Not really her jam, though she does try as hard as she can.
As for the neighborhood, everyone stays inside their own home or on their allotted square of what could be called grass, if one was feeling charitable. There is a sense of distrust and competition both there and with the other parents at school. Who has the biggest house? The nicest landscaping? Whose kid is getting the best grades? Winning Passing the most tests? The house feels big and kind of empty, and it backs up to a Walgreens, not a green space. When I can't make it to a school event because I'm at work, I can always expect two or three texts from a mom or dad whose name I don't even really know. "Your daughter cried when you had to leave the library early. You should talk to her about appropriate expression."
Once, a text like that might have read, "Your daughter cried when you had to go early. We chilled until she felt better. Playdate soon?"
So that school rating? From here, it seems less like an indication of an amazing school and more like what it is: a way to market real estate. And honestly, a school can be made of alabaster and gold with chocolate textbooks and teachers with tons of letters behind their name, but if you don't put the work in at home, it won't ever matter. The opposite is also true; a school with fewer resources doesn't have to mean a subpar education. Parental involvement matters, and no matter how many hours I work or volunteer opportunities I have to leave early, I am an involved parent.
Would a lower-rated school have made a difference? Hard to know, really. I do know that when I was working on this piece, I finally checked out her old school out of sheer curiosity, and learned that it rests comfortably at a solid yellow four.
I know that in the panic, fear and flat-out sadness I felt when I learned that we were going to have to uproot our family and leave our friends and the town we loved behind, I didn't always make the most rational, reasoned decisions. Plus, focusing on something that wasn't how awful I felt was a nice way to pass the summer from hell. I picked a house that would make leaving easy if I ever had to do it again. If I had a chance at a do-over, I would have looked for a place that made wanting to stay easy instead.