Last month U.S. News & World Report named the high school division of the St. Paul charter school Higher Ground Academy, where I teach, the 47th-best high school in Minnesota. At a recent middle school staff meeting, our principal said the award was cause for celebration for our entire school’s faculty. As a middle school teacher in my first year at the school, I don’t deserve any credit for the ranking, but it made me think about what school ratings really mean for students and their parents.
Parents in the Twin Cities area have plenty of schools to choose from, from St. Paul Public Schools to Minneapolis Public Schools to the wide variety of charter schools offering alternatives to those districts. What kind of information do you, parents, rely on when making one of the most important decisions of your child’s life? How do you determine what school is the best fit for your child?
At my school we offer traditional foods, prayer breaks during the day and culturally appropriate instruction for the nearly 100 percent East African and Muslim student body we serve. Those offerings alone are a big reason why many parents choose our school. Students have told me they were sometimes teased about their clothing when they attended more diverse schools, but here it is unusual to see a female student without a hijab. On the other hand, many students transfer out before high school in spite of being more comfortable here, because we lack the sports teams, extracurricular activities and class choices that larger schools have. My point: There are many components that affect our decision-making.
I wonder how much parents have researched our cultural considerations and academic expectations when they choose to send their children to my school. My school’s culture is unique in a lot of ways, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at school ratings alone. The U.S. News & World Report website provides our school’s enrollment data, test score proficiency and Advanced Placement participation. But it doesn’t report, for instance, how many of our students feel more accepted here than at their last school.
Academic achievement is an important consideration in school selection, but it’s not the only one. How can we, in Minnesota, best provide parents the information on how a school is performing, but also empower parents to explore a school’s culture and range of opportunities when selecting which school to send their child? And how do we answer the other questions that surface, such as “How is the school’s curriculum structured?” and “What sort of long-term improvements does the principal prioritize?”
All students and parents deserve access to high-quality and detailed information on the schools available to them so that they can make the best decision possible. Earlier this year MinnCAN announced the pilot year of its School Report Cards, which provide student achievement data for Minnesota public schools and districts, they invited community feedback on how to improve the report cards so that they truly capture what’s going on inside our public schools.
Here’s my feedback: I think meaningful school report cards should aim to surpass U.S. News & World Report rankings, which give just a vague ranking and some test scores. The number 47 does provide a glimpse into my school, but anyone can expand upon that glimpse by roaming our halls, sitting in on classes, and connecting with faculty and administrators. Truly meaningful school report cards will not only take an honest look at how a given school is advancing student learning and correcting educational disparities, they will inform parents about experiences happening inside the school, too.
Christina is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for MinnCAN and a sixth-grade teacher at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul.