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Searching for a house — and school information

My wife and I started shopping for a home last week, at the right time for us, but perhaps at the wrong time for North Carolina public schools.

Our search coincides with the release of the inaugural North Carolina School Performance Grades, which are intended to be an objective measure of how our public schools are doing. How those grades are calculated has been the subject of much debate during the last couple of weeks. School districts say the grades are a snapshot of school performance—and not necessarily a complete picture of a particular school’s quality.

A snapshot assessment of CMS schools on the real estate website Zillow.
A snapshot assessment of CMS schools on the real estate website Zillow.

At some point in school we learn about research, and the importance of consulting multiple sources when writing a paper. That same standard should be applied here, though I am not sure it is, particularly when the quality of an entire building is synthesized into a letter grade or a color code or a real estate agent’s off-the-cuff assessment.

To be clear, school grades are a valuable tool. But they are just that: one tool among many to evaluate performance. A poor school grade should not be an automatic signal for parents to steer clear, but rather a piece of information for consideration. 

Of course, some families are not as fortunate as we are; they cannot choose where to live, or what their home school should be. 

My wife and I are products of public education and, although we don’t yet have children, we know that we will. And we know that sending our kids to public school is important. By virtue of my work on education issues, I feel confident that we have enough—and maybe, at times, too much—information about the schools in CMS to make an informed decision about where we will raise our family.

Our friends who are house hunting now may not be so lucky. Families moving to North Carolina certainly do not understand how school performance is evaluated here, nor is it easy to derive a complete picture from the information available online.  

At first glance, the information can be confusing and contradictory.

On the popular real estate search site Zillow, a home’s informational page includes a category for “Nearby Schools.” Underneath the heading are the closest elementary, middle and high schools. Each school has a little circle next to it, color-coded based on a 1-10 rating—red for “below average,” yellow for “average” and green for “above average.”

The data is provided by a website called GreatSchools.org, which calculates the ratings based on school test scores and, in a handful of states, other academic data. North Carolina’s scores are derived solely from academic proficiency.

When my wife and I were looking at the listing for a house in Huntersville, I was intrigued when a friend said, “It looks like the high school isn’t that good.” Indeed, the Zillow page lists North Mecklenburg High with a score of “5” and a yellow circle. Yet in the N.C. School Performance Grades, North Meck earned a score of 71, or a “B,” and it exceeded its growth expectations.

What is a parent—or, for that matter, a future parent—to do with such different pictures of a school?

That is part of CMS Superintendent Ann Clark’s concern. She told me last week that she hopes parents rely on broad, varied sources of information when making school choice decisions for their children.

“My worry as somebody who’s lived in North Carolina my whole life is people coming into our state or, specifically, into a school district, are going to hang their hat and their decision-making on a singular grade at a point in time,” Clark said.

Business leaders share that concern, particularly as it relates to out-of-state corporate relocations. Someone moving to Charlotte from, say, Cleveland, may not know much about a school beyond its grade. The new state accountability system is “another data point in addition to a lot of other information that we have,” said Bob Morgan, president and CEO of the Charlotte Chamber. “I think you have to take these grades in context. There are schools that have been given failing grades. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good things happening in those schools.”

But often, that context is precisely what is missing from many homebuyers’ assessments of a neighborhood’s schools.  

Clark said parents need to “take the time to visit the school, meet the principal, talk to other parents, visit classrooms, visit open houses, really understand programmatically what’s happening at that school.” She said she hopes parents do their homework and apply the same level of rigor that they would expect from their kids on a school paper or project.

My wife and I are studying hard. This is a test we want to pass.  

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.