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, 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, according to the professors.
Using Dreamschool Finder, parents can look at how schools stack up in college readiness, resources, diversity, and growth in math and English. The tool 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, 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.
For example, the tool found that Waltham High was the most diverse school in the communities west of Boston.
That’s a good thing, said principal Gregory A. DeMeo, a firm believer in educating pupils in a multiracial environment. The reason is simple: It prepares them for life.
“That’s the way the world is,” DeMeo said.
Slightly more than half of the high school’s student body is white, nearly 30 percent Hispanic, about 11 percent African-American, and about 6 percent Asian.
Diversity is nothing new in this sprawling school of 1,400 students and 450,000 square feet, housed in an old but well-maintained building constructed in the 1960s.
Waltham, DeMeo noted, has been a gateway city for generations. In generations past, Irish, Italian, French, and Scandinavian immigrants attended.
“Now it’s more Latino and Hispanics,” he said, although students come from everywhere — the school system has children from about 60 countries.
Still, the 52-year-old educator noted the changes since he attended school here in the 1970s. The student body then was diverse ethnically but overwhelmingly white — there was only a handful of students from racial minority groups, he noted.
DeMeo is an example of that diversity. His grandfather immigrated to Waltham from Italy, and brought his family over in the 1930s, when DeMeo’s father was 6 years old.
Now, the high school’s diversity is a backdrop, not something that’s front and center in its everyday operations. While students are proud of their backgrounds and celebrate certain events, the principal said, diversity as an issue tends to be low-key.
One exception is that Hispanic parents and students can attend weekend meetings to learn more about the school, such as how to use its system for getting student grades. The first meeting of the year, which included a talk by DeMeo, attracted about 30 people, he said.
The school has about 100 students enrolled in English language learning classes, which are for students who have been in the country for three years or fewer.
Using Dreamschool Finder, the Globe ranked schools west of Boston and throughout the region.
In some categories, the tool measures the growth of a school — not just how it is doing now, but how the school’s performance compares with previous years.
In math growth, for example, the top high schools west of Boston were the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough, Ashland High, Littleton High, Medfield High, and Acton-Boxborough Regional.
In English growth, the high schools scoring at the top were Advanced Math and Science Academy, Waltham, Bromfield in Harvard, Algonquin Regional, and Dover-Sherborn .
For college readiness, the area’s top high schools were Wellesley, Lexington, Acton-Boxborough, Dover-Sherborn, and Newton South. All frequently turn up on lists ranking the best schools in the state.
Data for the tool come from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The tool is in some ways similar to Dreamtown Finder, an online app geared for people looking to buy real estate that the Globe unveiled in April.
The schools are broken down into high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.
The tool also breaks schools down by geography, allowing parents to examine schools statewide, or west, north, and south of Boston.