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 deemphasizes raw test scores, which tend to reflect socioeconomic status, the professors say.
Using the Dreamschool Finder tool, 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 students are at a given school.
The tool is far from perfect. For instance, not all data for all schools in all categories were 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.
For instance, the Dreamschool Finder ranked Mansfield High School first in the South region in Math Student Growth Percentile score.
The score, using measurements from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, compares a student’s performance versus other students in the state who performed similarly.
Measuring student growth rather than net scores theoretically makes it possible to compare schools with vastly different student populations.
Mansfield was ninth in the region south of Boston in both English growth score and in College Readiness.
The town’s schools scored well even though Mansfield was one of the lower-funded schools in the state, based on expenditures per pupil.
Funding per pupil was $10,554, according to the state. That compares with the highest districts in the state, in the mid-$20,000 range, and the highest in the South region, Blue Hills Regional Vocational, at $20,766.
“You have to work hard, work smart,” said school Superintendent Brenda Hodges, of Mansfield’s successes. “We’re proud of what we do.”
Christine Kalinowski, the high school’s math department chairwoman for 11 years, said it’s difficult to ascribe the school’s success to any one factor. It’s more a combination of focused research, active collaboration among teachers on curriculum and teaching strategies, and plenty of hard work, she said.
For instance, all algebra students in the same level take the same test, no matter who the teacher is. That way, teaching is driven more by the curriculum, not the teacher. It makes it easier to measure how much students are learning, said Kalinowski, who started at Mansfield in 1983.
“We work hard, we’re dedicated, and there’s a supportive learning environment,” including from parents in the community, she said.
The school was ahead of the curve on taking an intensive, data-driven look at performance. While such analysis is common now, it wasn’t as common more than a decade ago, when the school started the practice.
“We are number crunchers,” said Kalinowski. “We made adjustments year after year.” And the adjustments have paid off, with improvements in SAT and MCAS scores.
Another Mansfield approach was unique, too: The system used students taking statistics courses to analyze the numbers for the elementary, middle, and high schools.
“It was a learning experience for the statistics students and a huge help for teachers in other buildings,” said Hodges.
For instance, analysis might show that first- and second-graders were struggling with subtraction of two- and three-digit numbers, said Kalinowski.
One advantage Mansfield schools have over many systems is that they are all clustered together, except for pre-K classes.
The four East Street buildings house 4,800 students — which can make driving kids to school or to evening events sometimes a little chaotic, but also makes it easier for the teachers to collaborate, since they are all just a short walk apart.
The high school has 1,400 students in a well-maintained building constructed in 1971. That’s down a few students from a peak of about 1,600 a few years back.
It’s not a fancy building, acknowledged principal Michael Connolly. “Some other schools have fancier campuses, with more bells and whistles. But you get a great education here. . . . We’re getting it done.”