Oakland Public High School Update

Maude Track

Last year around this time I talked about the fact that we were enrolling our kids in an Oakland Public High School, rated a 2 out of 10 on the Great Schools website. Since we’ve entered our second year in the same school — now upgraded to a 3 out of 10 — I thought you might enjoy a little update. I don’t want this post to be a repeat of last year’s, so I’m going to focus on the individual experiences of Ralph and Maude at the school.

– I think one fear parents may have is that it might be hard for their child to shine in a big, urban school. But Ralph felt he experienced the opposite. Ralph loved the opportunities the high school gave him. In the fall, he tried out for the school play and won the part of the Italian Father in “Golden Boy”. Since he was a new student, and only a sophomore, he thought they probably wouldn’t consider him.

– He also found opportunities in music. Ralph plays trombone and he joined the Marching Band and Jazz Band. He’d always been pretty casual about his trombone playing, but found he had to really practice in order to keep up with his bandmates. Joining the band really pushed him in a good way, and gave him experiences he couldn’t have had any other way — the band performed in competitions around the state, parades around town, even a renowned jazz club in downtown Oakland. At the end of the year, he laughed when he received the award for Most Improved Band Member. : )

– I think another fear of parents when looking at low-rated schools is wondering if their child will be challenged. Will the courses be rigorous enough, or will they be built around the lowest common denominator? Ralph seemed to experience some of both. There were serious classes like AP World History that challenged him. But there were also classes that felt like a review of earlier work. Certainly, some of this depended on the teacher.

– One thing that helped Ralph integrate right away was that he was super involved. Have you ever watched the extra curricular activities scene of Rushmore? He was like that — joining every club, participating in every possible activity. He’s in the yearbook at least a dozen times. Of course, some of that is just Ralph’s personality, and not every student would want to be super involved. But it was good for us to see how many options and opportunities there were at the high school.

– Because he was so involved, even though he had only been at the school for one year, he got to know a ton of his fellow students. In fact, at the end of the year, his peers recommended him for student leadership.

– Ralph really loves the high school and his friends there. Even though he’s in England and France until December, he attended the first few days of school here in August. His birthday was that first week of school, and his friends threw a sweet party for him. He misses his friends, but knows he’ll be back in January.

– One of his closest friends graduated early so she could work on a film, and I think he’s also attracted by that idea. One of our fears has been that we’ve ruined Ralph’s high school experience since he missed his freshman year. So his friend’s choice was a comforting reminder to him, and to us as parents, that lots of kids are no longer having a “classic American high school” experience, and that’s okay.

– Now Maude’s turn. Last year was Maude’s freshman year and she was SO HAPPY. Maude really, really thrived at the high school. She joined the Cross Country team right off the bat. This was her first opportunity to try distance running, and she had no idea how much she was going to like it. She was super dedicated and practiced 6 days a week. In fact, she would run laps around the hotel if we were traveling, and she couldn’t make a practice.

– As Cross Country ended, she transitioned to the Track Team. Again, she loved it. Again she was super dedicated and took her workouts seriously. She loved traveling with the team. Because of Cross-Country and Track, she is also stronger than I’ve ever been! Watching her do pull-ups is a delight.

– While I’m talking about sports, one thing I appreciate about the school, is that although there are lots of teams and sports, the school doesn’t have a focus on athletics like my own high school did. There are many ways to shine beyond sports.

– Maude worked hard and earned good grades. I think she especially appreciated her classes were in her native language. : )

– In classes she had a similar experience to Ralph. Some of the classes were challenging and rigorous. But she felt like others were being constantly disrupted and were frustrating.

– I think another fear parents might have for their children in a big urban school is wondering if they’ll find good friends. And Maude definitely did. She found that many of the dedicated students in her classes were also on the cross country team, so she was able to find friends that had the same types of priorities she had. She said there were lots of ambitious kids, trying their best, and she felt like you could find them in any class, especially the difficult classes, and in places like orchestra and band.

– She said there are plenty of students aiming for top universities, and mentioned there’s a joke that Stanford is their “safety” school.

– We continue to be impressed with the opportunities the school offers. This year, Maude is taking journalism and wants to launch a school paper. Her teacher seems to trust her and the fellow students and allows them lots of independence and decision making power.

– At the end of last year, Maude was also recommended by her peers for Student Leadership, and she’s part of the leadership now. She’s currently working on student events and loves it.

– Though our kids thrived (and continue to thrive), the school is definitely not perfect. I mentioned disruption above, and that’s a real problem. And then there are little workarounds we’re having to figure out. For example, both Ralph and Maude took Advanced French last year. The next class would be AP French, but not enough students signed up for it, so the school didn’t offer it. Which means we’re going to have to figure out another way for them to take the class — probably an online option.

– Another thing that surprised them (and us). There were fake bomb threats throughout the year. Like maybe 5 or 6. The kids would all have to walk down to the football field until the threat was confirmed fake. Which it always was. Apparently students would call in a bomb threat if they wanted a test to be cancelled. Crazy! That said, our kids didn’t feel unsafe. Unlike many high schools in the U.S., there isn’t a police presence, and there aren’t metal detectors either.

– I mentioned in the P.S. of last year’s post that there is a performing arts school in Oakland that students can try out for. We put the tryout deadlines on our calendar and I asked both Ralph and Maude if they had any interest, but they were both so settled at the current high school, that they didn’t even hesitate, they had no interest in trying out. They were thriving in their current situation.

Our conclusion:

As you may remember if you read last year’s post, we went in knowing the kids might love the school or might hate it, and that we were willing to try other options if the kids weren’t thriving. Of course, that’s still true, and would be true wherever we lived, and even if our kids went to the “best rated” schools. If the kids aren’t thriving, we’ll look at other options.

But I would definitely say this, if you live in a place where you feel like your kids can’t attend the public schools because of low ratings, don’t automatically dismiss the idea of your assigned school. Before you reject a school based on its rating, go to the school and see what it is like. Talk to families that attend. Talk to someone on the PTA and see if there is a core of involved parents. Remember that the parents of the kids who attend low-rated schools love their kids as much as you love your kids.

Now tell me friends, would you ever send your kids to a high school rated a 2 or 3? Does this whole topic of school ratings stress you out? Do you feel like we’re doing our kids a big disservice by putting them in a low-rated school? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

P.S. — Oscar & Betty are continuing at our local elementary school. Nothing new to report yet! And June is in a French + English preschool.

89 thoughts on “Oakland Public High School Update”

  1. I think attitude is everything and your kids have great ones. Congrats on all of their accomplishments and finding great opportunities at their school!

  2. Oh and yes…definitely I would consider a lower rated school. School ratings seem to be correlated with demographics and there are so many opportunities that attending a richly diverse school can provide. I am too old to have attended a school with a “rating” but I’m sure it would have been rated a 2-3. It was a working class area with diverse and motivated students who have grown up to do amazing things! I’m proud to still call many my friends.

  3. Thank you for this post. (And all of your posts about your education choices). Honestly, without reading these, I don’t think I ever would have considered a low-rated school. Very interesting to hear about your experience. Of course, my daughter is only 4, so we’ve got some time to figure things out…

  4. I definitely don’t trust ratings. A family’s experience is so dependent on the school community and how you fit, how organized and committed the parents are, how they’re able to work with administration, and how your child’s teacher matches up with your child’s needs and temperament. Also, it seems to me that every school is driven by some kind of philosophy or basic outlook on education (and even life!). Dare we call it community values? If it’s a poor match for your family, it’s hard to make it work. We moved to our new town in part because the schools are so highly rated — and ended up leaving for a private option when we had extremely poor experiences with all of the above!

    1. I agree. It’s one of those things you can’t always predict. You might move somewhere for a specific school, but find your child has a teacher that just does respond in the way your child needs.

      It reminds me a little of childbirth. I remember being worried about which of the midwives in the practice I went to would show up, but I never even considered who the nurse at the hospital would be, and I spent way more time with the nurse.

  5. This year my son is a sophomore at our rural Northern California high school. There are only 500 students in the entire school. That means that there are only 14 students in his college prep biology course, which he is really enjoying. He’s one of those kids in which loud, large, and unruly classes don’t work for him. I’ve found that the students and staff are really friendly and supportive of one another. I’m not worried that he may not be at the highest rated school in California, since both of my husband’s daughter’s went there and both have recently graduated from Cal Berkeley!
    Cheers,
    Traci

  6. Just checked and my daughters elementary school is rated a 2 but I chose to send them there for a couple of reasons. One is that there is a Spanish immersion program offered so my children are being taught pretty much 90% in Spanish and are almost bilingual (they will be by the end of 5th grade). A requirement of being in the program is that parents are required to help out in the school an hour a week: a half hour in your child’s classroom and a half hour outside of class that will benefit the entire school. As a result there is a TON of parent involvement which I like. Another reason is so my kids can have exposures to other cultures and understand that not every kid has all the financial opportunities that they have. Sure it can get a little scary when my daughter comes home and talks about how her friend can’t live with her parents because the police found “guns under her bed”, but we can’t shield them from things forever so we instead have a conversation about what happened. I’m hoping that it will make them more open-minded teens and adults. My children’s education has not suffered at all because they’re at a school ranked 2, in fact, I think that it’s broadened their education!

  7. I appreciate every one of these posts you share. I am pregnant with my first and thinking a lot these days about the Oakland school system. My friends that are teachers assure me that the home environment and attitude towards education matters more than anything. It sounds clear that your children are thriving in their school because of the great foundation you’ve built for them.

  8. I attended what is now a highly rated suburban school. Some of my teachers were great (AP and advanced classes) and some were mediocre to poor. Sports and extracurricular were average. I think ratings are overrated :) We recently moved and looked at school ratings as one factor, but not the deciding one. Our daughter is only three so it’s a ways out still. In our area, the elementary and middle schools are highly rated and the high school is lower (but still a 6 – which is considered low here). We looked in more urban settings where the elementary school and middle schools had a low rating and the high school had a high rating. We thought that might be ok, but a friend told us she thought elementary ratings were more important because that’s when students feelings towards school are developed. In the end we just ended up living in the neighborhood/area we liked best!

  9. I’m Canadian, so there are certainly differences between our school systems. That being said, I attended 4 different schools between Kindergarden and Grade 12. 2 of those schools were considered to be “good” schools and were located in areas of higher socio-economic status. And two would have been considered “rougher” schools where many students’ families were on social assistance or generally came from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Looking back on my experience, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to experience all of those different situations. I remember times where I felt that my family had less than my peers’, or feeling funny that we didn’t take the extravagant trips that some of my friends’ families did. But I also remember classmates making comments about how I must be rich because my parents had a new car (not a fancy car! just a new one) or because I had my own bedroom. And I realized quickly that in BOTH situations there were people I loved, and also people that I didn’t love as much…. the family/money situation that people came from had nothing to do with whether or not I wanted to be their friend. I also learned that my value as a person came from my personality and how I treated people as opposed to what my clothes were or what I could buy. Now, having gone through university and a Master’s program, I’ve had friends that went to prestigious private schools and failed classes, and I’ve had friends who came from more difficult situations and excelled! I guess all of this is to say that I LOVED my public school education and agree with the previous commenter that it’s all about your personal attitude and work ethic, not the rating of the school! I think these kind of posts are really valuable and interesting, Gabby :)

  10. Love these posts and your honesty. Your kids are pretty amazing -they won’t have any problem getting in to the schools of their dreams even with the non-traditional high school route (instead – I think these will help them out). I just wanted to add in: when I was in middle school in Georgia (mid-late 80s), I remember getting bomb threat (somtimes just as we were arriving at school, so we had to sit on the buses for hours!). So I don’t think they are something new. (The way the person who calls one in is handled by the police is different, I assume.)

    1. I suppose the bomb threats aren’t that different than a student pulling the fire alarm to get out of class — which happened at least once during my high school years, but in my head the bomb threat is so dramatic!

  11. How involved are you and Ben Blair as parents at the school? My son recently started at an elementary school that had the lowest ratings in town, but we did visit and speak with administrators and felt comfortable with him going there. However, I feel like a lot of work for improvement has been done by parents, and I feel a bit guilty about the ability of my husband and I to get involved because of work constraints. I know you are both involved in your children’s lives, but have you been able to get involved much with the school itself? I’m just curious if that makes a big difference in how well they are doing.

    1. We’re definitely not the most involved parents in the school but we do what we can. As far as whether or not our involvement affect the kids, I would say only to the extent that we generally know what’s going on at the school — we know when there are big performances, big tests, etc. I think paying attention, answering emails or requests, and participating when you can goes a long way.

  12. My husband attended a low-rated high school, and while it was a wonderful experience for him at the time, he had a very difficult time when it came to college admissions. Admittedly he set the bar very high, applying to a number of top-rated and/or Ivy League schools, but despite graduating top in his class, cross-enrolling at a local university part-time his last two years (his solution to a lack of AP classes) and holding many student-leadership positions, he wasn’t able to attend any of his “top-choice” universities (for under-grad, after excelling in undergrad, he had his choice of graduate schools).

    A number of admissions officials mentioned (both in interviews, and in some cases when he called to follow up about the status of his application) his high school alma matter as hurting him. He had a number of comments along the lines of “well, top in your class at X and such a school may still be middle-of-the road in a better school, it’s just to hard to tell” and one admissions officer told him that they “received so many applications, they were just going to be more comfortable selecting students who had already proven themselves in a more rigorous academic environment”.

    Now you already mention that Maude has a number of friends who intend to attend top universities, so this maybe something you’ve already looked into, or don’t feel is a problem. In our case, however it’s why we’ve chosen to be very selective about what discrict/high school our kids attend. Even after all those years and attending his dream school for graduate-school, those rejections still sting, especially when they were or may have been for something so far out of his control. My husband is insistent that while ratings don’t matter to him, they matter to enough other people that he will make sure our kids options are not limited by their high school.

    1. I had a very similar high school to college experience. I graduated as both Valedictorian and with the top SAT scores, held a number of leadership positions, etc. I was able to attend the school of my choice, but I was completely unprepared and felt like a fish out of water so often, and I attended a state school not an Ivy League university. The transition was difficult, and I think many of my adult insecurities stem from my college experience.

      1. This also was my experience. I think some of the issue was my (now ranked a 2) high school was rural and relatively small, and the opportunities there were numbered. It wasn’t like I could go down the street to an art gallery or museum and supplement my education. And if the science was bad (and it was terrible), there were few other resources in the area, and of course, no online options in the early ’90s. Though I went to a highly rated college, though not an Ivy, I ended up not being able to cut it in the sciences with kids who had much more prep than I did. My parents were both artistic and writers, so they helped me with my writing, and I ended up gravitating towards the humanities because I was more comfortable with my level of understanding there. I definitely have some similar insecurities that stem from those days, as Victoria mentions. Of course, it all depends on the kid, as well!

        1. I find it interesting that so many seem to have challenging experiences after a low rated school. My former high school is rated a 2. I was salutatorian and involved in a lot of activities where I set myself apart. I applied to most of the Ivies along with other elite universities and was told by several admissions officers that my high school experience increased the diversity of the class and helped my admissions case. The Ivy I ultimately attended had a written limit to the number of applicants they would accept each year from each of the top prep schools so being out of that was a distinct advantage. I had some challenges in a few classes but found that my biggest challenge was fitting in socially with a very different social structure made up of lots of prep school/boarding school kids when I came from a blue collar working class family.

    2. Kayte, we didn’t look into it, but happened upon the info. There’s a link on our school website with a list of all the colleges and universities that students from our high school were accepted to last year (and they update it with each new graduating class). Students from our high school were accepted to every top school in the country.

  13. Interesting! We just had the opposite experience – we put our child in a highly-rated school and ended up switching him to a private school after a month.

    I highly recommend the book “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley – Gabrielle, you and Ben would devour it.

    The book definitely changed my perspective on schools. Some things were counterintuitive – small class size, fancy technology, parental involvement at school were not significant ways to help kids learn. Strong math programs, highly educated teachers and high expectations were vital.

  14. My kids schools rate 10- elem, 8-MS, 10-HS, and that is why we live where we live. It was the deciding factor of where we purchased our home. My son has been taking AP classes since freshman year and my 8th grader is taking HS level geometry. Those kinds of opportunities are not usually available in low rated schools in our area as they are focusing their resources on getting everyone up to grade level and not on the kids that are already capable of work 2-3 years ahead of grade.

    1. This has been my experience as well. We just recently moved and while I was willing to look at schools that were not as well rated just so my husband would not have as long of a commute. But when it came to looking at classes offered, there was no geometry offered to 8th graders, AP classes were very limited, and even high school choices were limited in general. Even the change from coming from a very highly rated school system in TN to where we live now, which is one of the better school districts in the area, has been a drop in what is offered not only in terms of classes but extracurricular as well. I’m all for giving a lower rated school a chance, but not when it doesn’t have what my kids need to excel in school and to reach their fullest potential.

  15. I think your last piece of advice is the best one: visit the school before you begin! It’s so helpful and informative to get a feel for school culture and vibe with a visit.

    So glad the kids are thriving! Such great experiences they are having.

  16. Mary Karenn Reynolds

    Thank you for this honest post. My husband is a public school teacher in Chicago. My children all attend public schools here. Every day we are bombarded with news about how bad our public schools system is (I hear a piece on our local public radio station about how unclean our schools are as I type.) Sometimes, I just want to move, but we are city people through and through. We have had a very good experience at our local school (where my husband also teaches), but the system is inequitable. Thank you for reminding me that their are other parents like us. Thanks for reminding me that the experience can still be rewarding. Thank you for your positive perspective!

  17. our school gets a high rating but the overall district/county did not. in fact, people warned us about moving to the county we did. but we liked the location a lot and the commute time…so we went for it. I have been really pleased so far and my kids are getting a better education than they got in Minnesota (though nationally North Carolina is behind Minnesota. certainly seems to be a case by case basis)

  18. Hi Gabby! As a parent, I love reading these posts – but as an Oakland public school parent, I really appreciate it. Even though my children are still several years away from high school, I’m excited for all the opportunities that living in Oakland affords them, education being a huge part of it. Thanks for being so honest and updating us with an inside view. And it’s so wonderful seeing the choices that parents (with older children than mine) make so I can see examples of what may work for my own family. Just a couple years ago, kindergarten seemed daunting. Now I’m really looking forward to junior high and high school, so THANK YOU!

  19. I’m from the UK and loving this insight into the Stateside school system! I was wondering if Olive also attends the public middle school (or is it junior high?), or if you went with another option for her?

    1. I had that same thought too, Jess!

      Thanks for writing on this topic, Gabrielle. As someone who has yet to have children, it’s nice to know what kinds of things you think about as you consider your children’s education!

    2. Olive is in France now attending a local school there, so we don’t know much about the Oakland Middle Schools yet. But when she gets back and enrolls, I’ll be sure to report.

      What we’ve heard so far is from Ralph and Maude’s high school friends who grew up here and when to public schools from K through present day. They don’t have bad things to say about the middle schools at all.

  20. I’m not sure what is more interesting, your post or the comments! Obviously perspective is so important in how we approach our educational experience. I also think being explicit about our goals and objectives as parents is so important too. Are we choosing schools to get our kids into certain universities? For the music program? Access or economic connections? multiculturalism? sports? Often it’s a mix of goals or objectives but I find by thinking about these things explicitly it allows me to be more intentional about the choices I may be making or helping my kid make.

  21. Great Post! I think ratings should be considered, but it really comes down to the family. I think one of the greatest benefits a public school offers is diversity, both cultural and economic, as will as offering students independence to try new things without fear of failure. It is the real world and sometimes it is tough. A mediocre teacher gives students the opportunity to deal with someone they are not crazy about, just like the work place. Some of the private schools are so dependent on parents to do things that students don’t get the opportunity to be in charge of activities or face challenges. I love our public school.

  22. Great conversation! I attended 3 schools that were all highly rated. (All 9s) I actually had the opposite problem as your children. My school offered tons of AP courses but spots were limited to the top students (which wasn’t always me). It was frustrating to arrive at college and realize many of my academic peers arrived with so many more college credits because they were invited into those classes.
    On the flip side is my daughter’s potential experience. We live in a very small city in the mountains of Virginia. There are only 4 elementary schools. The school is zoned for is an “8” but the school a few minutes down the road is a “1”. For some reason I feel like this is a major failing for our whole community to have such discrepancies.

  23. As a former teacher now working with schools to implement technology, I really enjoyed this post, and the one from last year as well. Just wanted to share a resource, since you mentioned online AP classes, and I recently read that edX is offering several for free to high school students: https://www.edx.org/school/high-school-initiative

    All the best to you and your kiddos this school year!

  24. It’s funny, but I never even knew school ratings existed until your post about them (I’m currently in college), because it wasn’t something that people really care too much about where I’m from. I’m from a small town, so our district only has one elementary, one middle, and one high school. The nearest private schools are about an hour away, so everyone attends the public school (or homeschools, but mostly for religious reasons). All the schools are rated 4 (up from 3 last year!). A lot of people talk about the problems, but I feel like I got an amazing education there. I think the rating system often leads to segregation, and I think that is wrong. We also did not have any AP classes, and people were still able to get into really good (even Ivy League) colleges. To be honest, I don’t think AP classes are really always the best- they encourage ridiculous amounts of competition and many of the students in my college classes who took AP classes have really struggled in their college courses. Just a thought!

    1. “I’m from a small town, so our district only has one elementary, one middle, and one high school. The nearest private schools are about an hour away, so everyone attends the public school.”

      I actually think that’s true for a significant number of Americans. When I in elementary school, my town only had one junior high and one high school. It grew and eventually there were more, but no one talked about what school there kids would go to. You just went to THE school.

  25. As a teacher, I always love reading your thoughts (and the comments!) on education. Here in Canada, schools are funded by the province rather than by property taxes (as I understand schools in America are?). Schools are given a certain amount of money per student, an amount that actually increases for students with special needs or talents. Teachers are also paid according to a provincial rate based upon their level of education and experience. So no matter which neighbourhood/ city you live in, whether it’s downtown Toronto, or tiny rural VanKleek Hill, the schools are pretty much consistent. I’ve taught in tiny schools of 60 students (JK through gr 6), and large suburban schools of 500 (JK-gr 5) and my experience has been that the resources available to teachers and students do not really differ. In fact, the tiny school in an a rural area where most of the population is on government assistance has an iPad for each student, and a SmartBoard in each classroom.

    It honestly astounded me the first time that someone explained to me that students in the USA who live in poorer neighbourhoods are taught by teachers who earn less money, and are going to schools that have less funding.

    I find this system so confusing. Why should socio-economic status determine a child’s right to an education? Isn’t one of the primary purposes of education to give children the opportunity to determine their own futures? Are people really checking the rating of a school before buying a house? Then won’t all of the parents who have the opportunity (money) end up living near a “better” school? Won’t the “weaker” schools just continue to become lower-rated because the parents who have the time and money to possibly help improve the school are all off living near the “better” school? Maybe being Canadian has biased me, but it seems to me that more people should be following your example. If nobody is putting their kids in public school in your area then yeah, the public school probably isn’t going to get much better. And what message is that sending to the kids who DON’T have a choice in what school they go to?

    1. Hi Lianne!

      Just a little clarification. It’s truly a sad situation, but I don’t think that students in lower socio-economic neighborhoods here in California intentionally get less funding (or have teachers who are paid less) than in more affluent neighborhoods. Sadly, our public schooling funding is appallingly low across the board! What happens is that each school relies heavily on parent fundraising in order to supplement budgets. This is where students in lower socio-economic communities end up suffering. When we were looking at public elementary schools (hoping to get into “better schools” via the lottery), the top rated schools had exceptional programs and they weren’t receiving more funding from the state. What was happening was that their PTA was raising $100,000-200,000 a year to supplement the budget. Contrast this to our elementary school (which has a much more diverse student body with a wider range of socio economic backgrounds) and our goal the first year was a modest $30,000. The school that had parents able to contribute up to $200k were able to have more robust art programs, music, better computer labs, stronger libraries etc etc. I’m happy to say our school is currently raising $65,000 a year, but again that’s all money coming straight out of the parents’ pockets! (through school auctions, fundraiser sales etc etc) But you are so right, the system is still very flawed! It sounds like you Canadians are doing it right!! : )

    2. It is true that local property tax is a big source of funding for schools in the US. The system is set up to keep the affluent families in the best schools. I am a teacher at a low ranked school in a community where most students with involved parents with money opt for private schools. It is sad and frustrating. I have a 3 year old and have threatened moving before he gets kindergarten age which is crazy to say coming from a public school teacher. This community is an extreme example of how unequal education can be in this country. I wish it wasn’t so and know in my heart the importance of a free, good education for all…but when it is my kid in the system my ideals can’t win over the reality of the situation.

      1. I live in a nice neighborhood with highly rated public schools, but my kids don’t attend them. My high-schooler chose to go to a neighboring, much lower rated school. It offers high level classes that she loves and also has a more diverse student body.

        My elementary school aged children attend a private school because they weren’t learning anything at the neighborhood school. I was so frustrated and spoke to the principal several times before moving them three years ago. He wouldn’t understand my frustration because they were getting good grades and had good test scores. I don’t send my kids away for 7 hours a day to not learn and have their natural curiosity crushed. I am happy to say that my children are no longer getting straight A’s ( or 4’s?), or perfect test scores, but they are learning everyday. The best things they are learning is that they have to try hard, work hard, and ask questions.

        I sometimes feel bad for not being part of the education in our community, but always feel good that my children are daily having an educational experience.

  26. Thank you for this post. As a teacher, I know that ratings are often unreliable and not a true example of what a school is like. The lowest rated school that I have taught at (rated a 2), had the hardest working, most talented staff that I have ever worked with. The parents at that school understood and respected that, but it could not be reflected in a score. On the opposite end of the scale, my family recently moved and my daughter is attending the highest ranked elementary school in the region. We are one month into the school year and I am very unhappy with the teaching and offerings at the school. It is always best for parents to do there homework and learn their options.

  27. Thank you soooo much for doing this post, Gabby! I’ve been dying to hear. I was especially curious after I heard that Ralph was studying abroad, and I admit I was wondering if that was because he wasn’t happy at his H.S….. as a fellow Oakland parent, I’m so happy to hear that R & M were really thriving. I’m not surprised that Ralph jumped right in. And how cool to see Maude as a budding track star! I can’t remember if I said this last time you posted about their H.S., but I grew up in Flint Michigan (yes, THAT Flint, Michigan from the film Roger and Me!) and needless to say, it was a struggling community. I went to a public High School (while those “ratings” didn’t exist in the 80s, I suspect we would have had a low to mid-level rating) and I have to say, I had an amazing experience. The advanced AP classes were challenging, we had a wonderful band and theater program and there were opportunities all around….sure it wasn’t perfect, and there were challenges, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. (I ended up going to Harvard for college, and people are always surprised to hear that I went to a public school in Flint! So it makes me really happy to hear that the kids are doing so well….those ratings don’t seem to be very accurate measures of actual experience, do they??) THANK YOU again for sharing! (Now I can’t wait for the “update from France”!) xo

    1. Yes! I need to write a post about how the kids are doing in Europe. Ralph will be leaving England for France so soon.

      Also, I had no idea you wen to Harvard. I love that I’ve had a dozen conversations with you and you never name drop! You are the coolest.

  28. This school sounds amazing!
    I can’t help but compare how extremely little French school offer in terms of extra-curricular activities; it’s nothing really, just academic stuff. It’s all work and no play.
    No music, no sports team, all this costs an arm and leg and happens outside of schools.
    I would love for my kids to experience a year or two in England or the US. And at the same time, I would be afraid that they might fall behind when they return, because it’s such a lot of work here.
    Kudos to Ralph and Maud for being so committed!

    1. It is a real trade off isn’t it? Having grown up in the states, I found it tough for my children here in France to have such incredible academic demands, with such a limited amount of time to pursue extra curricular activities. I kind of disagree however that it is costly: I feel the cost of private music lessons or ballet classes or whatever is MUCH MUCH lower here in France than what my sister or friends living in the states are paying for the extracurricular sports and activities their children participate in. The real problem is the schedule and homework load, which make it very very difficult to squeeze many outside activities once they hit Lycée (unless perhaps they are in the literary or social science filiere). I really regretted that possibility for my older kids when they were in high school too. Like you, I was super reticent to send my kids to the States for fear of falling behind a science based curriculum here in France. I thought the post Gabrielle did last week on online or correspondence courses was a great take on that problem however! I would say from experience that it is easier to do an exchange here in Europe ( England, or what we did was actually Iceland(!) )where the academic demands are much more in line with French standards, but with many many opportunities for extracurricular activities. Check out the CNED if you decide to send him the the US. It is maybe the easiest way to be sure…

      1. Thanks Stacy, the Cned is a really valid option, however it requires the student to have a lot of “autonomie” (o how French teachers love that word!!) and they accumulate a double workload.
        But I’ve been looking at England now, now that my school is involved in an exchange programme, I’ve been wondering if I could send one of my kids there for at least a semester. But the “when” part is hard, isn’t it? You can’t do it in 3ème, because they have the Brevet and you have to apply to high schools and decide on options, then in seconde, they decide whether you can enroll in Première S and what not, then in 1ère and Terminale, you take the bac.
        One of my ex students took a year off between 1ère and terminale to go to an American highschool. I think it’s the best thing to do, although it will be hard for him to come back here for his Senior year with all that entails. (no fun classes I’m afraid, no debate club etc)
        About activities, I think that if you play music at school, or do drama at school or other things, you don’t have to pay for it!
        My 9-year-old daughter goes horse-riding once a week, and is joining a drama club an hour a week. Total cost: about 900 euros for 10 months.
        I have a son too. I think that’s still a lot of money, but I think that if I lived in England or the US, and my kids had access to so many things through their school, I wouldn’t bother signing them up for other clubs.

        At the English school I’m involved with, some students signed up for yukulele classes. How great is that? And they have a musical, they have their own theater, a swimming pool etc. It’s a state school, no private funds… My students’ jaws just dropped when we were there!

        Last, Gabrielle talks a lot about “ways to shine”, and I love that! My son is very artistic, but here in his college, nobody cares! The only way to shine here is if you’re good at maths and physics. Don’t you agree?

  29. Just really happy to see some Oakland love. Every aspect of the city is rated pretty low and I have universally found that it’s as good as you make it. And of course I’m glad your kids are doing so well! Says a lot about then, though it sounds like the school offers lots of opportunities. I graduated from a 10/10 six years ago and my generally wonderful “Film as Lit” class, that served as alternative senior English credit (that I was taking as an elective on top of AP Lit) was regularly ruined by disruptive underachievers. Basically, everything, high school included, is what you make it!

  30. As always, this is a very interesting topic and your kids sound pretty amazing. As I think I am probably one of the younger readers on this blog (I graduated high school in 2007), the realities of high school and college applications are not far from my mind. I attended a large public high school (3000+ students) in Southern California which was attended mainly by students whose families were immigrants and worked the many farming fields in that area. Needless to say, our ratings were not very high and our pass right for the California High school Exit Exam were also poor. However, I loved my high school experience. The size of the school allowed me to be involved in a plethora of things including 11 AP classes, the tennis/swimming teams, Academic Decathlon, Mock Trial. I never felt like there was a lack of activities to be involved in and that definitely made my transition to a much larger university (UCLA) much easier. Sitting here now, I am a second year medical student and I still think back very fondly on my high school and its teachers being wonderful despite the school’s poor rating.

  31. I love reading about different schoolsystems around the world but I have to admit that the whole rating system is gobbledegook to me…

    We switched schools a couple of years ago, mainly because a lot of issues in the school (low education level, bullying) were simply not being adressed or were actively ignored by the head. We had chosen this school because of its antroposophical ideas but were disenchanted with how it actually worked out.

    We picked the new school on a combination of elements: governmental reports (but the old school had really good reports so that just goes to show ;-), the personality and vision of the head and the general atmosphere of the school. Luckily, we made a good choice and the children are happy, leaning loads and getting good marks. In fact, the switch has given me more confidence in my children as I have seen how well they are able to fit in in a new environment (our eldest has a bad stutter which we worried would be an issue).

    Thank you for the insight into you own thoughts and concerns (and daily practice) regarding school!

  32. I find these posts fascinating, but I have one question. (I didn’t have time to read all the comments, so if this has been addressed already, my apologies.)

    Since I know that you are LDS, was the fact that your children may not go immediately from high school to college (opting to do their mission instead) a factor in your willingness to try a lower rated school? I always wonder if the pressure to get into the right college pushes parents and students to go to the best high school available just because of the intense focus on college prep/application process. You may opt for a different path all together, I was just curious. Thanks!

    1. No, I don’t think being LDS has affected our decisions about schooling. Both my husband and I went directly from high school to college, and I imagine my kids will want to as well.

      The way it typically works for missionaries is that they’re apply to college and once accepted, they’ll defer enrollment until they get back from the mission. Though there are certainly exceptions.

  33. Thank you for this post, Gabrielle! It is so important to start opening up the conversation of the merits of urban schools and being thoughtful about what works for your children instead of assuming high ratings = success.

    I went to a prestigious private boarding school, and I’m so happy with my experience…. BUT, and it’s a big BUT, it is absolutely NOT the right school for every kid, and the fit at that particular school has nothing to do with the academic challenges. My classmates were all cut from the same cloth, and many of us have a competitive, take-no-prisoners approach to life even today. In a “sink or swim” environment, many kids would suffer, and to do so just because of the high ranking of the school is ridiculous. Of course, admissions does it’s job in weeding out “fit”, but parents (and kids) need to be super thoughtful about this as well.

    Also, just because I attended a prestigious high school, it did not lead me to go to a top 10 university. I went to a great university, but it wasn’t an Ivy or in the top 10, because… I couldn’t get in!! The idea that you get into the top 10 because of your high school is absolutely not true. The brightest lights truly do shine for all to see, including, of course, college admissions officers.

    Thank you again, Gabrielle! You provide such a great service to your readers.

    1. I think your experience of attending a prestigious boarding school and not getting into an ivy can’t be uncommon — I’ve heard there are specific quotas so that a university doesn’t take too many kids from the same school.

      Do you ever hear anything like that?

  34. My son will start kindergarten next fall, and the school we’re zoned for has mediocre ratings (6). It is incredibly overcrowded (30 in a kindergarten class), and I think that’s our main concern right now. We have heard mixed things from parents., but I would assume that is true for most schools. On the other hand, there is an expensive private school near us, and we hear nothing but amazing things, from parents, students, and the community in general (even from people with no vested interest). We had not considered private school in the past, but now we’re wondering how we can possibly swing it….

  35. The Stanford comment may have been a sly reference to Rushmore, where Max Fischer tells someone that “Harvard is my safety school.”

  36. Thank you for this post. I agree with you that if the kids aren’t thriving for whatever reason, it’s time to look at other options. Even if your kid is in the best rated school (public or private) or in the classroom of the ‘teacher of the year’ that doesn’t necessarily mean its the best school or teacher for your kid.

  37. Haven’t had a chance to read through the comments yet, but I always love these school posts.

    Rankings like those provided by Great Schools can be helpful when you’re investigating schools, but they don’t remove the need for parents to rely on more than that to make a decision. Visiting a school and speaking to students and parents can provide a more nuanced understanding of a school than a simple number. Most important, once you’ve chosen a school, is your kid is thriving there? That really tells the tale.

    Different schools work for different kids and different families. It’s important to find the right place for your kid without getting hung up on a ranking.

  38. “If the kids aren’t thriving, we’ll look at other options.” I read your post a couple of hours ago, and I haven’t been able to let that sentence go.

    I always enjoy when you post on everyday life, no matter where you live at the moment. As a mother of three on the other side of the world, more or less, it’s always fascinating to learn about the many ways our life differ and are the same. This was no exception. I know about your fondness for Sweden, and I too find parts of my country pretty special. But this. This just hit me. I have never heard a Swedish parent talk about education this way. I have never thought about our children’s schooling like this. “If they’re not thriving, we’ll look at other options.”

    Here you seldom hear that someone’s child thrives at school (this also has something to do with how we express ourselves, a Swedish parent loving the school his/her child is in is more likely to say “Oh, Ebba really enjoys it”, we’re not great with big words). But it also reflects something much deeper. I don’t think we EXPECT them to thrive in school. We expect them to learn, sure, but to thrive?

    I can only speak for myself, but so far I’ve felt that as long as my son is happy, has friends and learns the basics, I’m fine. But to hear you talk about your children like this (and they are older than ours, granted) stirred something in me. He is happy, yes, but is he thriving? No. Not at all. And he probably should be. Thanks for shaking my world a little! Love from Anna in Stockholm.

    1. Anna, your comment made me super happy! Thank you.

      And just so you know, Americans are fascinated by Swedish schools and so impressed with how much outdoor times Swedish children get. In American schools, if the weather is crummy, it’s not unusual to cancel recess!

      1. Hey, your reply made me super happy! And yes, I remember talking about this a couple of years ago, when you first started working with Polarn O. Pyret, I think? We do have very different standards for bad weather :) Which is why my husband wants us to move to California! He’s not much for the rain and the snow and the hail and the wind and the… Love/Anna

  39. This was a great post as was your first one on your neighborhood school. I grew up in the Bay Area and my kids are attending the same elementary, middle and high school I did. Which is fun for me! Our schools rank really high, 9s and 10s, but I’m not sure that is a good thing. Our experience has been that the schools that rank high are all about test scores and academics. There are not that many non-academic electives. The schools that at first we say “I don’t want my kids going there” seem more balanced, spirited and the kids are happier. Kids can take harder classes at any school but schools that only teach to the top of the class lose some of the students. And you may have rowdy kids in your schools but don’t think there aren’t issues in our schools, like cheating to keep up, drugs, and suicide. I think it would be interesting to study which is actually better long term. It’s a heck of a lot more pressure than when I went to school!

    1. “And you may have rowdy kids in your schools but don’t think there aren’t issues in our schools, like cheating to keep up, drugs, and suicide.”

      I think you bring up a good point. Our high school isn’t perfect, but I don’t think a perfect one exists. A “good” competitive school might have big problems with depression or suicide. A small rural school might have a lack of diversity. A high performing school might have a big focus on team sports and your child might be a non-athlete.

  40. I went to a low rated public high school for part of my last four years. My experience was anything but positive. I could highlight many of the good and bad things I was exposed to at the school. However, the one I would like to say was the end all was safety.

    There simply was no safety in my school. We did not have metal detectors. But we did have gates that closed during the day. We also had security guards. We had regular (almost weekly) lock downs not because of an outside danger, but an inside one. Most girls, including me, were verbally threatened with sexual acts casually in class. Racial slurs were consistently tossed around. It was generally encouraged to walk with a buddy, or only walk in larger crowds. After becoming aware of the situation, my parents moved to allow me to change schools after a year.

    Low rated schools are not always unsafe. But many are, and they certainly are more likely to be unsafe. I wish parents would understand that the most important thing isn’t necessarily the rating, but it is a factor. It is also sometimes a very indicative factor of underlying issues. Keep an open mind, but also keep an open eye.

  41. I agree with, it’s all about whether or not the kids thrive. It sometimes seems people think there is only one way to teach children. I’ve never been able to latch onto that. I love how you are mindful of their growth and testing to see if something works.

  42. And this is why you are once more on my top blog list again, G. I owe you an apology; I got hot and bothered by the McD. sponsored post, and said so in my comments a few days back. After a few days, I thought, “why did I get so ‘holier than thou’ around it all? I decided to check you out again and loved this update on how your kids are doing in their public school. Your story candidly includes pros and cons that round out the experience nicely. This is the type of thoughtful, well-articulated commentary that draws me to your blog. I’m sorry if my dislike of big corporate sponsorship temporarily blinded me to this.

  43. I’m so pleased to hear about these positive Oakland experiences. My oldest is in an Oakland public middle school and we’ve been so happy with the experience. I actually sat down and made a list one day of all the great things about the school and the list was long! We’ll be touring high schools next year and my daughter wants to join the track team so I enjoyed hearing about it.

    I love being a part of our neighborhood school scene. I think it’s been a valuable experience for our whole family and the kids definitely get to see all the families pull together to make things happen- putting on events, building gardens, fundraising, etc. I feel like we work hard and are making a positive impact on our school, neighborhood and city.

    Love your blog!

  44. You didn’t mention race. Our son went to a public high school that is very diverse and we believe that was an important part of his education. He took advanced classes, excelled in debate and made many long lasting friendships. Though he is tall, he was disappointed that he didn’t make the basketball team- too many great players…

    1. You’re right, I didn’t mention race in this post — mostly because I had talked about it in the last post and was trying not to be too repetitive. But I agree. We feel that having a diverse studentbody is an important part of our children’s education.

  45. We recently switched our son and daughter (both in second grade) from a small private school in Oakland to our local elementary in San Leandro. For various reasons we felt the smaller school was right for them in K/1st grade, but we are SO happy with their new school. They both have better teachers than they did last year, we can walk to school, and they have lots of new neighborhood friends who we hadn’t met in the year-plus we’ve been living here.

    The school has a rating of 6. But the local middle school is rated a 3 and we are definitely not ruling it out after hearing from lots of neighbors with smart, motivated kids who are doing well there.

    I agree that diversity is important–and not just racial diversity but socioeconomic diversity. One rating I do think can tell you something important is the “similar schools ranking”–it shows how a school is doing compared to other schools with similar demographics (including percentage of kids qualifying for free/reduced lunch).

  46. I grew up in your neighborhood and went to that high school.
    I liked it at the time, but found I was grossly unprepared for college. I was in all AP classes, student leadership, etc etc
    Now, I live in lamorinda and moved here for the schools.
    I’ll have a lot to compare and contrast as my children grow.

  47. I don’t think I have ever even thought about this. My child is only 3 yrs old though and just started Nursery School in Scotland. So, I’m thinking more and more about it. I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in a lower rated school, I’m sure there would be frustrations but the thing is, my son’s nursery school (which is our public school in our area) is rated very high and I have a load of frustrations! I think they’re going to be there regardless. We all want the best for our kids I think that if you care enough about the rating of the school then you are probably are the kind of parent to help you child succeed no matter what.

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