Ask AOA: Which school district should our family pick?

buckingham pond playground dinosaursSean emails with a question that's a little bit different -- his family has young children and they're thinking about where to settle. They are, in some sense, free agents looking for the right school district. From his email:

It's one thing to look at graduation statistics, crime statistics, etc and focus on the "bad" for reasons why you wouldn't want to live somewhere and have your kid go to those schools, or even using those stats to justify why your school is better ("my team is better than your team b/c yours sucks"). You also hear all kinds of anecdotes and stereotypes about various school districts, yet those only seem to encapsulate the best-of-the-best or the very worst of the students that pass through.
I'd be most interested in hearing people lobby for what they think is the best school system and associated community, and why. For example:
+ I think Albany schools are the best b/c kids get to experience (socially) what the real world is like. They will academically succeed or fail in any school district more or less the same, but here they are enriched to a degree that you can't get anywhere else in the region. Or...
+ I think Voorheesville schools are the best b/c the school system is small enough that everyone gets to participate in whatever they want - clubs, sports, music. Whether you're destined to become a PRO or are just trying something out, you will have a place on the team / in the group. Or...
+ I think Shen schools are the best because kids are put in a competitive environment where they truly have to earn their accolades, whether athletically or cognitively. The cream will rise to the top, but everyone will benefit from the competition.

In short, we get the feeling Sean is looking for reasons to actively pick a school district rather than reasons to not pick another district.

Of course, this is a complicated question. And the right situation for one family might not be the right situation for another. But if you have some thoughts to offer, please share! Even if you don't have a specific district suggestion, some thoughts on how to think about the decision could also be helpful.

Earlier on AOA:
+ How Albany can make its case better for why young families should stay
+ Ask AOA: Best Capital Region small town, village, or suburb for settling down?


As a high school teacher who has taught in several (very different from each other) districts in the Capital Region, my best advice is to actually visit and spend time in both the school and the community that you're considering, once you narrow it down.

I can't overstate enough how wrong stereotypes about school districts can be. A lot of people have preconceived notions about places, both positive and negative, that don't always match reality until you and your child experience it yourself.

Before I taught high school, I taught at a pre-k, and every spring it was the same fraught conversation among parents about where they were going to send their kids to school. Truthfully, all kids are different, and everyone succeeds in different environments.

While you may have your own goals and opinions about what makes a "good" school, your kid's personality and interests are even more important to consider when deciding whether or not a school/district is a "right" fit. Even within a district or a school, things vary wildly. Your child's educational experience will depend on things things like their relationship with their teachers, who they choose as friends, and most importantly, how you as a parent will guide them.

Good luck!

In my evaluation of local school districts, it came down to what kind of adults do we want our children to become and what kind of experiences do we want them to have along their pedagogical journey.

The school that impressed me the most was The Parker School. The children were well behaved, well spoken, outgoing and smart. I also like the idea of my daughter actually learning and not just studying for tests. The teachers and staff were solid and their communication was impressive at every level.

You really can't go wrong with North Colonie-great academic and athletic programs, fantastic teachers and you cannot beat the location in the Capital District-you are in the center of everything! I attended North Colonie K-12 and couldn't say a bad thing about it.

Our children have been in the Albany City Schools for the last 9 years. They're about to complete 7th, 3rd, and 1st grades. We have been so happy in the district. Our children have received enrichment opportunities and special services.

We love the community, the teacher's commitment to their students and the schools, the families who chose Albany Public Schools, and the many volunteers who contribute their time to provide student opportunities through programs like the Vegetable Project (school-based garden club). My 7th grader walks or bikes to/from school, along with many of her friends, and loves attending an urban public middle school.

I encourage you not to buy into the district rankings and aggregate test score data, but talk to families in the district and visit each school.

This may be relevant to only my corner of the city, but the perceptions of the Albany City school district tend to be the making of the region itself, which is unfortunate, given that this school district, when stacked against its suburban counterparts, offers the best opportunities. When I discuss the issue with my colleagues, mostly suburbanites, they swear off Albany as a death sentence for your kid. Some of my younger neighbors, from the suburbs of Albany, who loved urban living in college and have invested in a home within the city, still seem to be nagged by these perceptions, branded in them by their parents, and most likely parents' parents.

I moved here a decade ago, from out of state, naive to this perception and my kids have excelled and I've had no issues whatsoever. Most of my neighbors, have the same story: outsiders to the region, moving to upstate NY, looking for a walkable, urban community, and seeing nothing but positives about the school district. They have all kept or graduated kids through the school, baffled by the wide eyed stares they get from their colleagues at work when you mention your kids go to Albany.

At the end of the day, if you care about your kids education and are involved, the school district has wonderful programs and opportunities to supplement your parental support for a good education. Yes, the graduation rates may be low, but that is for good reason; the district must deal with a complex socio-economic mix of a student body. The school district represents a third a student's day and there for can only do so much. Graduation rates are a poor indicator in my book, when you dig down into the data. My neighbor is a doctor, who's kids went through Albany, and he kind of related it this way to me. He works with many doctors who excel in their field, get tons of awards, but often sacrifice their own patient outcome stats to deal with patients who are tough to treat, typically because they make poor lifestyle choices that medicine can only do so much to counteract, or are from low-income communities and have little recourse to engage in proper health outcomes, until it comes down to an expensive treatment that can't be avoided. Meanwhile, you have average doctors who only treat the healthy and well-off, who's stats are perfect. Essentially, his point, these patient outcome stats are not always indicative of the quality of the doctor, since the biggest independent variable they have no control over is the patient. The same can be said about school districts, especially urban ones, where many of their students face complex issues their suburban counterparts often don't have to.

I'm not a parent, but I did grow up in an inner-city school district that served a low-income, wildly diverse population, and I can't say enough about how well that prepared me for life. Not only did I get a great education (I truly believe that school is what you make of it--seek out and work hard toward a great education and you'll get one), I also grew up and made lifelong, loving and wonderful friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

School is about classes, yes, but it's also about learning to be a citizen of a community, a nation, and the world. You need to experience different attitudes, backgrounds, and beliefs in the people you grow up with--it's an excellent way to broaden your mind and develop a more accurate perception of the world.

I completely agree with Bill. The makings of a "bad" school district is a complex issue, and mostly has nothing to do with the teachers or the educational opportunities within the district. I live in Schenectady, and while it gets a bad reputation for its low graduation rate, the graduation rate is actually over 95% when you look at students that have started their schooling in grade school and continued to remain in the district through high school. It's no secret that transience among a large portion of the student population due to unstable homes greatly diminishes their academic success. It's an unfortunate product of urban living. But Schenectady does have unique educational programming not offered in its suburban counterparts that dedicated students can take advantage of. And while some people may advocate for a school like The Parker School above, it should be noted that it is a private school with tuition upwards of $15k/year.

My kids are in one of the best ranked suburban districts in the area, and their elementary school experiences were much worse than those of my friends' kids in Albany and Troy. (Middle school and high school have seemed about equal so far.) Many of their teachers were either inexperienced in or unwilling to work with kids who did not fit their mold. The city school teachers know what they're doing in that area.

More important, I think, is your community connection to the school. Choose a home where your kids and their neighbors can walk to school and to each others' houses so they can both develop deeper relationships and have the freedom to explore the world on their own (much less likely if you're somewhere like Clifton Park or send your kids to a private school).

Agreed with most of the above statements. As a product of the Albany City School District, I can say that the opportunities I was afforded were second to none.

The size of the district has allowed for academic opportunities that I'm not sure most of the suburban districts match. The AP offerings allowed me to ship off to college with credits in the bag. Technology class offerings had a direct and immediate payoff, as I landed an on-campus job reserved for upperclassmen in my first semester at college. As a mathematically challenged individual (who now does math for a living, go figure), I had 3 teachers who spent much more time than necessary helping me along as I lagged behind in comprehension and coursework (not AP level either). The "standard" romance language offering is supplemented with Mandarin Chinese. Additionally, there was also the experience in dealing with a swath of people from different backgrounds and cultures, which has proven useful many times over, as the world gets smaller and more inter-connected.

With all that being said, the compromise of marriage has relocated us to Voorheesville, admittedly, in large part due to the reputation of the school district. While our kids aren't school age yet, we feel it was the right decision for our family. And at the end of the day, as long as you make that choice in conscious fashion, you'll at least have a sturdy foundation to build on.

It should be noted that private schools often give scholarships.

I would recommend finding a neighborhood that you really like and move there. Surround yourself with people who are most like you. Don't sacrifice your own happiness for the perception of a better education for your child.

One thing I find about Albany City Schools is there is a lot less "keeping up with the Jones' " Instead of your child coming home complaining of not having the "right" sneakers that everyone else has, he may come home and ask to bring his old sneakers to Aung who just moved here from Thailand and doesn't have sneakers.

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