Houston School Options – Keep Calm and Stay Informed

If you’re a parent with a child to grades K, 6, or 9, you’re likely just catching your breath after getting your child started in a new school. You can relax a bit now….but not for too long because there are more choices to make on the horizon! For parents approaching these milestone grades or thinking about moving or changing schools, the school choice process is gearing up and the choice set continues to expand.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) now boosts more than 100 magnet schools—30 high schools, 37 middle schools and over 50 elementary schools. New themes and schools continue to be launched. For example, in 2011 two single-sex college prep high schools opened their doors and last year the Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion magnet in Bellaire joined the magnet school lineup. In addition to magnet schools, HISD operates charter schools that come in five different varieties (e.g., whole-campus,  school-within-a-school). Each charter school has an innovative focus that addresses a particular educational concept and/or student population. But these 23 district-run charter schools represent only a fraction of the charter school market in Houston. An additional 93 open enrollment charter schools are operated by entities other than HISD (e.g. 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations).  And, let’s not forget private schools. According to the most recent Private School Universe Survey, 219 private schools operate in the city of Houston.  The array of choices for Houston area parents is indeed dizzying!

If it’s any comfort, we Houstonians are not alone in our expanded choice set. Today Americans have more educational choices than at any point in our history. Over the last 20 years the percentage of children attending a school other than their assigned, neighborhood school increased from 11 to 16% and the number of students attending private schools increased from 9.1 percent to 11.3%. The number of students homeschooled also rose from 850,000 to approximately 1.5 million.  This mean that one in four students now attends a school other than his/her zoned school, and some 25 percent of parents have actively chosen a school for their child. And yet, these figures do not account for the most popular form of school choice in America: residential location. In 2007, the parents of 27% of public school students reported that they had moved to their current neighborhood so that their child could attend his/her current school. Taken together then, roughly half of parents in the U.S. are exercising some form of school choice.

If you’re feeling confused, overwhelmed you’re not alone. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for or how to weigh the myriad dimensions of schools, you’re in good company. In the Houston marketplace for K-12 schools, even the experts have trouble navigating the system, locating the breadcrumbs provided by HISD, piecing together the fuzzy “data” private schools so reluctantly (and infrequently) make available. Does it have to be this difficult? The answer is “No! It doesn’t!” But, you need stay calm and start doing your homework now.

The bad news is that when it comes to schools, there is no Consumer Reports, Angie’s List, or Zagat’s. Yes, the public schools in Texas have ratings, but since these changed this past year (Texas changed its standardized test from TAKs to STAAR) it’s actually more confusing than in the past. And, finding this kind of information on HISD’s or TEA’s (Texas Education Agency) is not always easy. If you’re trying to get any sort of rating for private schools, you’re out of luck—Texas private schools are not required to take standardized tests or make available any performance measures. The bad news is that many parents don’t know where to go to get good information. Far too many of us are uninformed or ill-informed and this can lead to poor decision making.

But don’t despair, there is good news as well—several sources of excellent information exist!

1. Children at Risk: This organization collects data on public school performance, demographics, and enrollment, provides easy to understanding rankings of all Houston area public schools and puts the raw data and rankings together in an easy to access excel files on its website (http://childrenatrisk.org/research/school-rankings/houston/).

2.  General Academics Inc.’s, Houston Private & Select Public School: Now in its 3rd edition, this book contains more than 300 pages of research, analysis, insight, and advice for parents seeking to apply to one of 64 of Houston’s most selective private or public schools.

3. The Schools Options Symposium at Rice University: This event (which I co-organize) features experts speaking on a wide range of topics and provides parents with the tools and resources they need to make informed and confident schooling decisions and nurture and support their children so that they succeed (details at:  http://www.generalacademic.com/school-options-symposium.html).

Choosing a school is among the most important decisions parents make. It should not be done blindly or relying on solely on the advice of friends or relatives (no matter how much you trust their judgment). Today there is more information to process, additional procedures to learn and quite frankly, a lot of extra worry and anxiety to cope with. However, if you stay calm and start doing your homework, you can make this decision with greater knowledge and confidence.

Guest contribution by Dr. Melissa Marschall. Melissa Marschall is Professor of Political Science at Rice University and author of Choosing Schools: Consumer Choice and the Quality of American Schools (2000), Princeton University Press. She is also mother to two sons, ages 6 and 7, who attend Roberts Elementary School.

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