As the 2020 school shopping season begins, narrowing the list can seem easy. A quick internet search will yield ratings from services such as Niche and GreatSchools, and North Carolina grades its public schools on a handy A-to-F scale.
But some researchers, educators and families say those ratings, which are primarily based on student test scores, say more about students' race and family income than the quality of education.
Because of that, Wake County Public Schools has urged parents not to use them: "When you see a letter grade attached to the school, it's almost entirely a reflection of the household income level of the children that attend that school. ... The letter grade won't tell you how your child will perform."
In Charlotte, Melani Harris McNinch and Shamaiye Haynes have both been warned away from schools based on information they now consider flawed.
When McNinch’s daughter approached school age, the word was out in Huntingtowne Farms: The neighborhood school isn’t a good option.
When Haynes moved from Cincinnati she says she got an even broader warning from real estate agents: "They steered me away from CMS altogether and actually promoted very heavily the Union County school district."
Defying The Warnings
Both mothers defied the advice, though McNinch tried a magnet and a charter school before enrolling her daughter in Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, their south Charlotte neighborhood school.
Haynes moved to the Thomasboro-Hoskins neighborhood in northwest Charlotte and sent her children to public school there. She says she loves the community, and neighborhood schools are a part of that.
"I always tell people, start with your neighborhood school first," says Haynes, who's active in the Westside Education Think Tank. "Don't listen to rumors. Go up there, talk to the principal, see what he or she is about."
Haynes and McNinch are now among a chorus of educators, public officials and families who say school choice can be a good thing … but it also creates winners and losers.
Magnet, charter, neighborhood and private schools are just starting to compete for 2020 enrollment. There’s more than school pride at stake: Underfilled schools can lose teachers. And once a school gets a bad reputation, it can be hard to rebuild.
McNinch says Huntingtowne Farms was once viewed as a desirable neighborhood school. But as families in that neighborhood opted for magnets – and new families filled the gap -- a cycle began that made it tough to sell the school. More than 70% of Huntingtowne Farm’s students are now Hispanic, and many come from homes where their parents don’t speak English.
Schools with large numbers of low-income and non-white students can be at a disadvantage when parents rely on state letter grades.
"I was kind of in that camp," McNinch recalls, saying she wondered, "How great can this school be? It’s a C and it’s been a C for some time."
The C is based mostly on the proficiency levels of students taking state reading and math exams.
Huntingtowne Farms is near the SouthPark area, where many nearby neighborhood and magnet schools have less poverty, more native English speakers … and higher grades. And that, McNinch says, can make for a tough choice. Besides trying to attract students who live in the zone, Huntingtowne offers an International Baccalaureate magnet program.
McNinch says it took a neighbor’s insistence to get her to embrace the message she’s now pitching to others: "We’ve got this great resource literally right in the middle of our neighborhood. All the things you’re looking for elsewhere? Take a look. They’re right here."
The strong connection between race, family income and school ratings that are based on test scores has been repeatedly documented by researchers, advocates and journalists. State legislators of both parties say the state’s grading system penalizes high-poverty schools, even if they have great teachers and principals.
Schools that earn A’s are often low poverty and majority white … or diverse but selective magnet schools. D and F schools generally serve mostly students of color and poverty.
Top school grades can be a plus, but even Shannon Stein – superintendent of the A-rated Lake Norman Charter School – says families shouldn’t rely too heavily on that.
She and many other educators say there’s no simple hierarchy of best schools. What’s great for one child may not be right for the kid across the street – or even in the same family.
"I think it starts with them understanding what they value as a family and what they think is the best fit," Stein says, "and then taking opportunities to educate themselves."
Choosing Community Over Grades
When Haynes moved to west Charlotte, she enrolled her son at Thomasboro Academy, a high-poverty K-8 school that’s part of CMS. She chose to disregard a string of D grades.
"You could be in a great school with phenomenal teachers. However, the school could have a 30% transient population," Haynes says. "That can sometimes make that letter grade go down."
Her son moved up to high school three years ago – and Haynes says he did his own research to choose the IB magnet at West Charlotte High, another high-poverty, mostly black school. Haynes decided Thomasboro wasn’t right for her daughter, who is in fourth grade now. In 2017 she took a chance on Movement School, a charter school that was opening in west Charlotte.
Movement also got a D this year, but Haynes says that’s not her main focus.
"I didn’t want it to be a school that would exclude our neighbors," she says. "I didn’t want it to be a school that was for profit. I wanted it to be a school that was there for the right reasons."
North Carolina's school report cards and online databases offer detailed reports that can serve as a starting point for school searches. For instance, parents can look past the school averages to examine proficiency and growth broken out by race and economic status, or for students who are gifted or disabled. There’s also information about teacher qualifications and student discipline.
But experts and parents agree: No amount of data can reveal the heart of a school. McNinch and Haynes both say things like personal attention, a welcoming environment and creative ways of meeting students’ needs can’t be crunched into numbers.
McNinch, the Huntingtowne Farms mom, took her daughter to spend a day there before making the decision.
"There’s nothing you can do to actually take the place of actually being in the school and seeing what is happening on a day-to-day basis," she says.
With applications opening up for 2020, most district, charter and private schools are currently hosting open houses, tours and individual visits. Here are some resources: