Sometimes a parent’s biggest concern is how his or her child will do in the local school system.
Will my child be adequately prepped for college? Is the math program strong? What about English? Is the student body diverse?
But parents’ concerns differ, and children differ. Parents interested in a strong math program might not be as interested in English, for example.
With that in mind, the Boston Globe worked with two professors from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester to build an online tool — called the Dreamschool Finder — to help parents locate the public school system that best suits their kids. It’s available at www.boston.com/dreamschool.
“Lacking high-quality information, parents are frequently forced to fall back on word-of-mouth or raw MCAS scores when making enrollment decisions,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. “And the result is that a small handful of schools gain outsized reputations while a larger number go unrecognized.”
The tool stresses flexibility, allowing parents to decide how much weight to give the topics they consider important. It also emphasizes student growth, which helps measure the improvement of a student and a school over time, and de-emphasizes raw test scores, which tend to reflect socioeconomic status, the professors say.
Using the Dreamschool Finder, parents can look at college readiness, school resources, diversity, and growth in math and English. It even attempts to measure the school climate — how focused and committed its students are.
The tool is far from perfect. For instance, figures for all schools in all categories were not available, which made some rankings incomplete. But it is an attempt to hand parents a useful device for sorting through the confusing thicket of school data.
The scores contain some surprises. For instance, Georgetown High School’s numbers are unusual. It was first in the North region in math growth, second in English growth — and last in spending per pupil.
“The reason we do so well . . . is we have good teachers, strong curriculum, and good kids,” said principal Peter Lucia. “Put those three together and you’ll do pretty well.”
Its spending per student was $9,961, in a town without much of a commercial tax base. Even statewide, only a handful of districts spent less.
“We operate very lean and make the most of it,” said Lucia.
By contrast, the state’s highest districts are in the mid- $20,000 range. Among area schools, North Shore Technical in Middleton leads at $23,333.
Data analysis is key, said Lucia, principal for 11 years. A sharp focus helps identify educational weaknesses that can be shored up.
In earlier years, the school did not place as great an emphasis on “open response” writing. But more recently, teachers were given extra training in open response writing and it has paid off, said Lucia, in the form of higher MCAS scores.
“We place a lot of emphasis on writing,” said Allison Viera, chairwoman of Georgetown’s English department. Students are expected to write a paragraph or more in answers. More emphasis on long composition is done in grades 9 through 12, since the SAT has a written test.
Students take a regimen of classes designed to improve their reading comprehension, she said.
Starting in ninth grade, they sample different genres, take a tour of British writers in 10th grade, and American writers in 11th. Seniors get an opportunity to sample various types of literature, ranging from mythology to creative writing.
It’s a chance for them to study something more personal, something they have a heightened interest in. But they are writing all the time, she said.
In math, students are focused on foundational skills in grades 3 to 5, said Paula Utter, chairwoman of the math department.
High school students take four years of math, up to Advanced Placement calculus.
“We very much build upon fundamental skills,” said Utter. “We make sure students continue to grow their math skills.”
“Our teachers are so passionate about their content and their students,” said Julie DeRoche, director of curriculum and instruction. “I really get the sense they love what they do.
“We really work to make sure the kids get what they need during their career here.”
The combination high school and middle school has about 800 students, with about half in the high school. The facility is well maintained, but space is tight.
“We are really crunched,” Lucia said. The town recently passed a property tax increase to pay for a new elementary school, which will help. Sixth-grade classrooms now in the high school building will move to the new facility.
He loves the community. The ocean is close for swimming, the mountains are nearby for skiing, and Boston isn’t far either.
“It’s the best place in the country to live,” said Lucia.