Public High School in Oakland

The tubes for the St. Charles band.

By Gabrielle. Image here.

When locals heard which public high school our new home was assigned to here in Oakland, they made uncomfortable noises and told us to look it up on Great Schools. So we did.

The school gets a 2 out of 10. Let me repeat: 2 out of 10.

Two. Two? What does that even mean? Is the school some sort of black hole of despair? Partially burned to the ground, with students desperately navigating through the smoking, charred remains? Has the National Guard been called out to patrol the campus? Is disease and ruin running rampant among the students? What in the world is a “two” school even like?

I could not have been more curious.

The week before school started, we visited campus for the first time, for Maude’s freshman registration. As we walked through the parking lot, we heard music playing in the quad (it was Michael Jackson, in case you’re curious), saw tents and tables set up for each of the different clubs and organizations. And saw nervous parents and nervous 14 year olds not sure where to start. So far so good.

And then the upperclassmen started welcoming the freshmen. And the older kids were so friendly and outgoing! The sports teams were enthusiastically recruiting. So was the debate team. Key Club and Build On were offering service opportunities for students and reminding them that service “looks great on your college applications”. We heard more about the legendary theater department (apparently Tom Hanks graduated from this high school and several years ago generously donated funds to ramp up the Performing Arts classes). Students were kind and confident. And they were cool.

Like really cool. I kept thinking: Oh. These guys are the real deal. They aren’t trying to take fashion inspiration from urban culture. They’re creating it. 

In short: We love the high school! Here are a few more tidbits:

– The district lists the school’s racial stats as 30% Hispanic, 30% Black, 30% Asian/Other, and 10% White. And that’s accurate. 

– On registration days, we saw tons of parental support — a father or mother, taking time off work in the middle of the day to attend with their child, and to make sure all the paperwork is in order. But there were definitely some kids that were navigating the registration system and paperwork on their own. 

– There aren’t school buses. Students come from all over the city and they mostly use public transportation to get there. Very, very few drive their own cars.

– The campus is closed. Meaning everyone eats lunch in the cafeteria. Lunch is very short (at least compared to France) and our kids bring their own, but they said that’s unusual. Most kids pick up something at school.

– There is a dress code. No spaghetti straps, no shorts or skirts more than 6 inches above the knee, no underwear/boxers showing, etc. We have seen it enforced. On Monday, we were waiting in the school office and saw a father come to pick up his daughter because her jeans had slashes up the front of her legs. But the kids have told us it’s not widely or consistently enforced.

– We’re about two weeks in and lockers haven’t been assigned yet. Not sure what that’s about.

– We keep begging Ralph and Maude for details, but because they’ve never attended another American high school, they aren’t necessarily aware of what’s different about this school. But in their daily how-was-school-today reports, there’s often some mention that makes me smile. Like when they mentioned that at lunch, kids turn on music (loud!) and people dance on the tables. I told them that I had never seen a high school where that happened except in movies.

– In the freshman classes and the more challenging classes (like AP History), students are generally respectful. But during other classes, it’s not unusual for the kids to talk over the teacher and cause problems.

– There are lots of extra-curricular options. Maude has joined the cross-country team. Ralph is doing marching band. They’re both joining the debate team. Maude wants to work for the school paper. Ralph wants to try out for a play.

– The campus is on prime property with amazing views of the Bay. In fact, the houses surrounding the school sell for crazy high prices. But interestingly, the residents around the school generally don’t send their kids there, and opt for private school instead.

– Tattoos are everywhere on campus. On the teachers and staff, too. And language is rough. Even some of the teachers cuss.

– We met with the freshman counselor to go over a 4 year plan for Maude and we were impressed. There are excellent classes available and we really like the counselor. She’s young, and she herself is a graduate of this high school. (We’ll meet with Ralph’s counselor soon.)

Our conclusion: Great Schools isn’t doing anyone any favors by labeling a school with a two. It may be reflective of test scores, but ultimately it doesn’t tell us anything of real value. And it must be a huge downer for the 1800 students attending this school if they’re aware of it. More instructive to me? There’s a list on the school website of the universities where graduates of the class of 2013 were accepted. Pretty much every top university is on the list. (Yes, even Harvard.) This tells me no doors close for my kids by attending this school. And details like the dancing at the lunch? They tell me that attending this school will be every bit as mind-opening as living in France was.

I’d love to hear what you think. Do you live in a community where it’s hard to find a good school? Would you ever consider sending your kids to a school that’s rated 2 out of 10?

P.S. — Would we ever pull the kids out of this school? Sure. If we felt they were unsafe in any way, we’d find alternatives. And if they felt doors were closing — that they weren’t able to learn what they needed to learn — we’d look at other options. (For example, the Oakland School of the Arts, a local charter school, sounds like it could also be a good fit for our kids.) But as of now, they’re both happy and thriving. As long as that continues, we’re good.

353 thoughts on “Public High School in Oakland”

  1. As someone who lived in The States for 11 years, I must say I am pleasantly surprised at your approach to this high school! My kid was only in kindergarden ( in a very WASP NJ town ) and even then, parents went over and above to place 5 y olds in the ” best” school – but usually meaning just higher % of whites and smaller % of other races. Good lack to M and R and I hope they jump on those tables at least once!

    1. I will say that school with the best scores unfortunately might have a higher percentage of white kids, but that isn’t the reason that most people would pick a school. Many people get freaked out about schools with lower ratings, which is a shame, but I don’t think it’s necessarily for race reasons, but rather because of lower test scores. Who wouldn’t want the best for their kids? For the Blairs, they see this school as the best for their kids, but for other families, a 10 rating school might be the best choice for them. I like the tone/approach of the post here today on Design Mom, don’t get me wrong, but I think your comment was a bit off base.

      1. I like both: the post and the comment and I know from Germany that schools which are rated ‘good’ schools are usually those with fewer immigrants. It’s hard to free yourself from that and stay open. I myself was at a school were German kids from middle class families were the minority and I know what kind of conflicts you are confronted with and how difficult it can be but I also know that I got insights and perspectives that I’d never want to miss. It is a big limitation to shield kids from diversity and to think academic education is everything.

      2. Let’s not kid ourselves. There is a HUGE racial divide in this country and many parents would ABSOLUTELY judge a school by the racial make up alone. Ever heard of “white flight?”

        1. Yes, and I have heard of black flight, too. Parents want what they perceive as best for their children. They are not always right.

        2. Yes, but white flight happens for all sorts of reasons. The opposite end of this school is Mission San Jose in Fremont, California. It has a majority immigrant population consisting mainly of Indian and Chinese kids, whose parents are mostly in Silicon Valley firms.

          These are high income / high education immigrants with a very high acadamic focus – guess what, there was white flight from this school as well because they felt the Asian dominated enviornment was too much of a pressurecooker. The footbal team was shut down – Asian kids weren’t interested, there weren’t too many Non-Asians left.

          So, whereas test scores and class may appear to be more of a factor than race, Mission San Jose sort of disproves that theory.

  2. i love your outlook on this school. i wish there was more diversity in the town we live in. i really feel like it’s not a true representation of the world we live in. your children will do exceptionally well, because of your influence in their lives. best of luck!

  3. Hi Gabrielle. Very informative post. I can tell you that here in London, the situation for school catchment areas is the same. We happen to live in a house we all love but unfortunately the secondary schools (high schools) are not so great. With four children, my youngest two go to a lovely primary school and my older two have ended up going to different secondary schools because my second daughter just had a really tough time settling in to the same school her older sister goes to which by the way, she loves! There are many children with different backgrounds and some with challenging home lives, which inevitably influences behaviour in school. This was tough for my second daughter to cope with…which was strange to me because out of all my children I thought she would be the one who could adapt the easiest. This has resulted in her now going to a private school. I just hope the difference in their schooling doesn’t come back and bite me when they’re older! The older kids get…the more complicated our decisions become.

  4. Dear Gabrielle,
    I have been waiting to hear about schools! I love that you jump in and try the local high school- both in France and then near to where you live currently. Will your children be studying French?

      1. FYI – we are in San Jose and have had great luck with Tutor Doctor. They interview you and the kids and work to match up with tutor personalities. The tutor comes to the house, which was exactly what I needed. Last year, my daughter’s Geometry tutor was great. We are about to get started with a new Math and Spanish teacher for this year. (DD is 17 and a senior in public school). We are using them for SAT Prep also.

      2. You mentioned you’re looking for a French tutor.. I have a very good friend who lives in the Oakland area who is fluent in French (she served as a missionary for our church in Madagascar where she spoke it exclusively). She was my roommate in college and is a really great girl! I wonder if the two of you would be interested in partnering up. Email me if you are interested! Great post by the way. I think there is a certain richness added to our lives and our children’s lives when we get to experience diversity and what it feels like to get out of your bubble and even be part of a minority. I think they are lucky to have those experiences and will be very grateful for them!

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I always felt that many of the most valuable things I learned in high school were social lessons, not academic ones. But with my oldest starting kindergarten next year, we have seriously considered moving to a neighboring city where the schools are better. From everything that I’ve heard, not only are the test scores much higher, there is a lot more parent involvement and the students are less disruptive. Are you planning to write a post about your younger kids’ schools? I would be really interested to know what their schools are like and how it influences them. Do your choices change based upon the ages or personalities of your kids?

    1. Just a quick note to what you wrote:
      Please don’t write off a school because of poor parent involvement! I live in a poor urban area where the PTA consists of one woman. One! When I took my son to Kindergarten registration last Spring, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a thriving PTA like the one in my (small, rural, all-white) hometown. The fact is that most of the parents work multiple jobs, have multiple kids (myself included), and cannot spare the expense or time of volunteering at school. On top of that, 74% are Hispanic and many come from non-English language homes. I felt that if I sent my child to a school outside my district, I was doing more harm than good. What am I saying about the worth of these children by judging their parents? What kind of role model am I being to my own children? I really, truly feel that by being involved myself, making my son’s education a priority and modeling that behavior, and engaging with other parents, I can make a positive difference not only for my children but also for future classes. Of course, I also work for a non-profit literacy organization that donates books to children in disadvantaged communities around the world and have many educators in my family, so I’m a bit biased. :)
      Is it disappointing to attend an Open House at a school with 390 children and only have a handful of parents show up? Yes. But think of how much more heartbreaking and numbing it is for the educators! Be the parent that is present and set an example. As Gabrielle’s post suggests, you may be pleasantly surprised.

  6. Oh, I just love your outlook on life! I could take some lessons from you!

    I have personally been swayed too many times by greatschools, only to be surprised that the 10 school was just ok. After moving many times, I have realized that most schools have a mix of good & bad -no school is a sure thing for positive experiences!!! It’s a perspective like yours that will bring us happiness! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Totally. Even when we’ve been in high-rated school, if our child doesn’t relate well with their teacher, the year can turn into kind of bust anyway. There are no perfect schools.

  7. I think your open mind is to be commended. Private schools to me are like gated communities. The close out the real world. The racial mix at your school will teach your kids far more than they could learn in a non-diverse school. The will see struggle and hard work and issues with their fellow students and I am sure they will become stronger, wiser and more compassionate. An education of people can’t be bought.

    1. Chania – “Private schools to me are like gated communities. The close out the real world.” Not too open minded on your part. My daughter’s private school has a very diverse student population (racial, economic, etc) and still maintains a strong academic program. Please don’t judge private schools and their students just because they are private.
      Gabrielle – Great post. Can’t wait to hear about the younger kids schools too.

      1. I removed my daughter from a 9 out of a 10 for lack of diversity, narrow mindedness, racism, too much wealth, disorganized administration, bad teachers and much more. So these ratings are not always accurate. I guess it all depends on what you are looking for in a school. We proceeded to put her in a private school that was very international, many religions and varying levels of income. I agree with Denise, don’t judge it just because it is private. Great post Gabrielle. I wish all parents were comfortable with diversity. It would make the world a much nicer place.

      2. I agree. My cousin’s daughter attends the French International School in San Francisco (Design Mom- maybe a good future option for your family since it’s French if this school does not work out- although I hope it does!), a pricey private school, but poor kids from Oakland and kids from all sorts of racial and economic backgrounds go to school there. Sure, some suburban prep schools might not be diverse, but plenty are!

    2. Because of family tradition, I attended an Catholic archdiocese high school (we considered it the “public” Catholic school compared to the truly “private” ones) and it had a wide variety of races, incomes, and learning levels represented. It was probably more diverse than the public schools I had attended up until then. Please don’t tar all private schools with one brush, (though I could argue parochial isn’t quite the same as private).
      Also, six inches above the knee? Wow – I think our skirts could be no more than 2!

      1. Have to weigh in on the “gated community” remark. So not true! Our private school actively seeks diversity, and has a good amount of financial aid available to help with economic diversity, as well. Additionally, it has loads of recess/play time (when my oldest was entering school, our local school system abolished recess in order to make more time for academics, which was one of the reasons we went private.). Another reason we abandoned public schools is the relentless standardized testing schedule that wastes weeks out of the school year. The burdensome administrative layer at the county layer, the “factory” approach (even AP classes are delivered the same way across the country, on the schedule), and the confusion of grades with learning were others.

        And, even though statistics can tell you how diverse overall a public school is, what really matters is how diverse the various tracks are. Speaking only of our local public high school, classes in IB or AP classes are largely filled with white kids, even though the school is about 60% African American American and 20% Hispanic/Latino. And because of the severity of tracking, those kids will rarely mingle with others who learn differently, who don’t have strong family support, or who maybe just need a slower pace.

        So please don’t make blanket remarks about public vs private. It is a complicated decisions and each family makes decisions based on their own circumstances.

        1. I just made a comment below about attending “a school within a school” because of intense tracking. Your comments about the statistics of the school versus the statistics of a single student’s experience really hit home. I feel like I missed out on so much of the available cultural richness in high school because of the tracking system.

        2. My sons attended only private schools – K through 12th grade. The older one attended an All-Boys Prep school in Baltimore with more diversity than you could ever find in any public school – every religion, race, ethnicity and socio-economic class were heavily represented and assimilated beautifully. Academics, athletics, and community service were emphasized and character development was top priority. Our younger son left this school after middle school to attend a co-ed (boys and girls) boarding school, which was also incredibly diverse: we are Christian, his roommates and friends were Jewish and Middle Eastern Muslims and Indian Hindu. It never occurred to them to judge their classmates by their race or religion – they were schoolmates and friends…period. But one thing that was absolutely NOT tolerated was disrespectful behavior – toward teachers, staff, or each other. Tolerating cursing, talking over teachers, disruptive behavior, and dancing on the tables is essentially giving up on these kids. It communicates that these kids can’t possibly reach a high standard of behavior and decorum, so why set a high bar of excellence for them to achieve? What a disservice to them! We must stop excusing poor performance and unacceptable behavior because of a child’s background and home life. Offer them a higher calling and help them reach their potential with discipline, dignity and self-respect. Our sons thank us constantly for the investment (and sacrifice) we made in their education. (They continued on to private universities and earned MBA and Law degrees.) We learned that there are many bright, capable young people competing for jobs today; but the employers are as interested in character as they are in competence. So beware of lax standards…kids interpret this lack of discipline as indifference. They instinctively relate discipline (holding their feet to the fire in academics and social behavior) to a sense of trust and a belief in their potential. We must show them that character and achievement will get them noticed in the “real world” far better than “dancing on the tables!”

          1. Perhaps you underestimate the ability of Ben and Gabrielle to instill their children with discipline, dignity and self-respect at home. To insinuate that character can only be learned in a private school setting is preposterous.

          2. I have no doubt that the school your children will attend is great, but I think teachers swearing in front of kids is unacceptable behavior.

    3. People will not like me for putting this link up but as a teacher i COMPLETELY AGREE with this article.

      “Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.”

  8. Hooray! I love your attitude! I went to a school labeled the worst in an already below-par district and turned out just fine by pursuing things I loved like AP, band, and swimming
    I went onto the college of my choice (out of state), then onto a fantastic graduate program, and even lived overseas all by the age of 23. Not trying to brag, just saying having involved parents and a will to graduate well can go a long ways. PS. On my mobile phone, your comment section is auto-populating the last commenter’s name and email address which may be a privacy concern over the past few days. Not sure if this is happening for others.

  9. Gabrielle, you just made my day with this post! How I wish more people were as open minded about schools as you and Ben Blair! As someone who grew up in a mixed race family and currently has a mixed race family, I get so tired of schools being labeled “a bad school” just because they are not primarily white. I want my kids to prepare to be great citizens and I don’t really think that the way to do that is by surrounding them only with people who are exactly like them. I hope that Ralph and Maude have an awesome year!

  10. Wow. Props for visiting and making up your own mind about the school. Every senior school has a “reputation” and as my eldest will be starting next year, my ears have been pricking up at every rumour, but so many of them are just that, rumours, and fear and snobbery. That is fantastic that your two are settling so well.

  11. In 6th grade I moved from a very small town very white very Christian community to St. Paul MN. My parents decided that I should go to the local elementary school to finish off that year. We were in a neighborhood that sounds a lot like where your highschool is placed – everyone decided to go to private schools, So my classmates were bused in long distances from all over the city. And bam suddenly I was in the opposite world from my old home town. I was in a class of 30 kids and was the only white kid. I didn’t learn a lot academically that year (not the school’s fault, I had a crappy teacher) but I learned so much more socially. My classmates were welcoming although it was clear that I was clueless. I learned so many life lessons that year, most of all it was to get the full story. For example I learned that when a classmate fell asleep at their desk it wasn’t rudeness it was because in 6th grade they were expected to watch their infant sibling all night as their mom went to work the night shift. That you never knew the weight that someone was being expected to deal with, even at age 12. I ended up going to a magnet school the next year just so I could get some academics in. However, as a teacher today I still use and am thankful for the perspective and social lessons that I gained back when I was 12.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing this! My kids are going to an elementary school that is a 3 out of 10. And yes the test scores aren’t great ; and yes 70% of the students come from low income / single parent households. Yes my kids are also in a racial minority. And yes we were warned by well intentioned friends and neighbors to send the kids somewhere else.

    But I’ll tell you – we have had nothing but wonderful experiences with the teachers and faculty and our kids are happy and well adjusted and I’ve visited the classrooms and have found that the kids are all very sweet (they are 7 years old and under for crying out loud!) and the teachers work hard to create a friendly and warm atmosphere with a zero tolerance policy on bullying.

    I’ve finally come to peace with this school and decided that I’m glad we didn’t send our kids somewhere else and that yes sometimes that score doesn’t mean as much as you think it will. Also that, frankly, my kids are in elementary school and we have plenty of time to freak out later about their education. My son is in top of his class and reading at an advanced level, loves his teachers and classmates and comes home happy 95% of the time.

    I’ll remember your advice when it comes time to look at high schools. Looking at college acceptances is a great idea!

    1. My situation is similar, we live in a “good” neighborhood in San Jose but our local elementary school is a 4 on great schools and our API is below 800 and we are in PI which means parents can send their kids to a “better” school if they choose. The kids in our neighborhood almost all go to private schools. The school is 70% Hispanic, most are spanish speaking homes where many of the parents don’t speak a lick of english. about 80% socioeconomically disadvantaged. The school has vastly improved over the last 5 years. (This is our second year). My oldest just started high school and most people say “he’s going where?” In a disdainful tone.

      I firmly believe that the public schools will never get better unless good families send their kids to public school. When we are involved parents, we can monitor situations and intervene when necessary. Mostly I let my kids figure things out but I have had to step in once or twice.

      1. @ monique – Carrie at This Mama Makes Stuff has a couple of blog posts dedicated to basically what you just said, “I firmly believe that public schools will never get better unless good families send their kids to public school.” I enjoyed the read and it has convicted me to enroll my kids are our local public school. Even so much that I ran for the local school board this past May (and won! only female & only person under the age of 45 on it!)–-worth-a-look/

        1. I also just posted this above, but this article says a similar thing.

          “Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.’

      2. Monique,
        Thank you for succinctly expressing my thoughts regarding public schools. We all need to participant to level the playing field for every child. I feel that one of the main issues in this country is the ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Equality in education would be a significant step toward reducing the divide.

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  14. Thank you for this! As an informed parent, you’re giving your kids so much support and so many learning opportunities they may have otherwise missed. I have a deep disdain for the ways our system of education has been reduced to numbers (especially when they’re based on standardized tests), and am just so happy that you’ve decided to give the school a chance. Good luck to Ralph and Maude!

  15. Your willingness to be open to new experiences and to find the positive aspects of a situation are an amazing legacy for your kids!

    Ralph and Maude’s school sounds somewhat like my daughter’s, which ranks a 4 at Great Schools (I’d honestly never checked until I read this post) and is 53% Hispanic, 25% white, and 18% African American (the remaining 4% is unaccounted for). I appreciate that my daughter is getting the experience of being a minority (at least at school) and is in an environment that looks more like what the US as a whole will look like in the future.

    Her school is a middle-school/high-school and she’ll be in 7th grade this year (first day is 9/9). Our time at the school is short yet and we’ve only experienced the middle school aspects, but we’ve been very happy there. The teachers and administration are engaged and upbeat, the kids are happy, and the school feels like a vibrant place. Because we’re in NYC she has the option of attending other high schools, and we’ll definitely look around, but I’d be very happy if she remained at this school until graduation.

    I can’t wait to hear more about the kids’ experiences in Oakland schools, including the younger ones. These school reports are amongst my favorites!

  16. I love this!! I am a HUGE Public School advocate and love to hear that others are too! Can you imagine how amazing the school would be if all of those in the surrounding neighborhood sent their kids there too? The possibilities are endless! Good luck to Ralph and Maude– I hope they thrive in this setting!

    1. Your comment raised a question that I had never thought of before. What would the public school system do if everyone from private schools started going there? The public schools would be so overcrowded, at least for a couple of years! Not criticizing your comment, just thinking out loud!

  17. After we completed a 4-year job assignment in France/Belgium, we moved back to the states and enrolled our kids in a public elementary school that also had “low scores.” And our exploratory time was similar to yours. After being abroad in large cities where our kids were surrounded by many different cultures at the public school in Belgium, we were grateful to realize that they could continue their interactions with kids from all walks of life at their new school in the states. We were concerned that moving to a smaller place in the Midwest would land us squarely in the middle of a very homogeneous group. We were thrilled to find a diverse one instead. What may have been a deterrent for some was a huge bonus for us. Our children thrived there for a school year, and then we were off again to The Netherlands, so grateful for a year of continued learning to appreciate people who are different than we are.
    Now that we are permanently back in the states, our kids are attending a very rural high school and middle school that has celebrations like Drive Your Farm Tractor to School Day. Our kids are putting their cultural adaptation skills to work in a whole new way as they wade through their new rural life and find that here, too, are people who are fascinating partly because their lives are different than any we’ve ever encountered. I’m grateful for all the diversity they encountered along the way that is helping them now.
    I hope your kids have a great school year! Bravo for you guys for taking the time to investigate the schools for yourself. I’m sure your children’s attending will add its own enrichment to an already thriving school.
    Maude may be beyond the stage where she wants to do a fashion photo shoot, but those of us here in the rural Midwest would love to see what fashions we will be shopping for in the next couple of years!

  18. I’m an urban high school teacher, at a low performing school. This story made me cry. My kids are awesome. They have to overcome drugs, abuse, hunger, and so much more just to do a homework assignment. Thank you for highlighting how great these schools can be and how a school isn’t just a test score.

    1. I second Hayley’s comment. I admired your choice of profession, your strength and your dedication. Thank you, thank you.

  19. Gabrielle, you always find a way to surprise me. You and Ben are so cool and open minded. Hands down to both of you. I have basically learned a huge lesson from this post. :) And I think people should be more open about the school systems and see what works the best for their kids.
    We live in Boston area and it is so competitive here. At least among the people I know. Our school is 9 but I wish it was 10. What’s wrong with me?

    I can’t wait to see how it turns out with Ralph and Maude. By the way I was laughing so hard about dancing on the tables. I wish that people here would be more relaxed. That’s one of the problems in MA… so uptight.

  20. Brilliant post! Thank you. This issue is near and dear to my heart. Although my eldest is 10 years away from high school, she is only one year away from kindergarten, in Philadelphia. Oh, Philadelphia, my urban crush, my favorite neighborhood, my sweet little home, but oh your horrible school district. There are dirty rotten things happening right now with our school district. We have an over $300 million budget shortfall, schools without police officers, counselors, nurses, and vice principals, and the very real threat of combined grades and severe over-crowding.The teacher union is being threatened, and asked for drastic pay cuts. It’s ugly.

    I’ve been working with the education committee of my neighborhood association for years. Our neighborhood elementary school is a gem despite their non-existent budget, and it will only get better as parents take that leap of faith and get involved. Similar to your P.S., we too will keep our options open for charter schools, but I really don’t want to leave this city.

    Your Oakland high school sounds like such a fun and enriching place, and I wish your two high schoolers all the best!

  21. Thank you for this post, it is so good to hear from other urban parents. For our son’s birthday party last year, we had 20 families attend. Now we are one of two families left in the city. One of the primary reasons friends have left are the schools. The urban schools terrify them. But we stayed, even after being told we were risking our child’s future. We love our life in the city. We happen to be in a zone that has several high scoring schools. After an exhausting lottery process, we have a spot for kindergarten. It is a completely urban school so different from the small New England town school I grew up attending. But I love my son’s school. We are lucky to be there and there is still work to do. I would rather work to make a school great for 500 kids than move away from a life we love to an already perfect system. It’s not an easy choice but it is the best one for our family. I believe, there is tremendous value in learning to really understand and work with people that have different values and experiences. Not the usual differences we typically celebrate as multiculturalism, like speaking a different language, having a different skin color, or coming from a different country while still adhering to all the middle class social norms that make us comfortable.

    1. “I would rather work to make a school great for 500 kids than move away from a life we love to an already perfect system.”
      THIS! This +1000! My husband works for PBS and one of the education specialists urged him to place our son in a private school for Kindergarten. I downright refused. First of all, we can’t afford it. But more than that, I feel that making the schools better through my participation is so much more rewarding and says to the educators, children, and other parents in our community that I believe in them. It’s a small voice, but it’s strong and persistent.
      Thank you for articulating (and acting) my thoughts!

  22. This is such an awesome post. Literally, every detail had me saying, yes, yes, yes! I think it’s fantastic that your kids have an opportunity to have this kind of incredibly valuable life experience AND still get the foundation in terms of challenging classes, etc. to be able to go/do whatever they want. I went to a very white, supposedly fine high school, got into and went to MIT as a freshman, but was COMPLETELY unprepared due to my high school’s lack of AP or other challenging classes. My kids now go to a “best practices” academy school in our (very poor) midwestern city district. It’s a lottery to get into the school, but it has things like a research proven reading program, special interviews required for teachers, foreign language, class size capped at 22 students, mandatory parental involvement, etc., and I love that their classes actually represent the real racial distribution of our city. They are in K and 3rd grade and so far we have been super happy with it. The school’s test scores don’t compare to an adjacent (all white, very rich) district that is rated one of the best public school districts in the state, but right now, my kids are getting way more out of their education, both academically and life-experience wise. Also, something that shocked me…that same, very rich, top-rated nearby district? Shockingly mediocre list of colleges to which graduates are acceptances. Most years don’t have any Ivy League or top colleges on the list at all.

    After all this, is it totally superficial that now I am really, really hoping at some point you’ll do some “what to wear” posts for Maude and Ralph so we can see this amazing urban culture fashion???

  23. I love this post. I have family who chose to send their kids to the local public school when all the other family in the area were splurging on private. These kids who went to public school excelled because it’s about what you make of the experience. They played sports, took good classes and remained true to who they are. They are now off to college. High school is what you make of it!

    We are currently living overseas in Ethiopia and in a few years we will be looking to buy and settle down in the States. I’ve been pouring over Zillow and Great schools sites and steering clear of neighborhoods that had schools listed as a 7 and choosing a home in the 10 school district. How silly of me! Thanks for this post!

  24. First, Great Schools is a joke and I applaud you for being brave enough to call them out on your blog. I hate when I hear parents refer to it. There is so much more to a good school than test scores or a mad parent’s opinion. I could go on and on about schools in the this country and how all the testing and ratings etc… make it so much harder and complicated for parents to figure things out themselves.

    Diversity is the real world and good teachers are everywhere even at so called “under performing schools”. I have truly come to believe a willing child can get a good education and can make the most of almost any situation. I have seen this happen. (One kid I know just finished his master in engineering at MIT. He didn’t graduate from a top performing high school.) My children’s schools are diverse and overall test scores are so-so but my kids have done well and are constantly being challenged to do more. We couldn’t be happier.

    Your high school sounds great and I hope the rest of the year goes well for Ralph and Maude!

  25. You’ve made me (unexpectedly) nostalgic for my own high school! Not that those four years were all rainbows, but I loved learning everyday. In college I worked nearly full-time, so looking back HS was a time where I felt I could learn and explore and truly pursue what interested me. It sounds like Maude and Ralph will do just that! X

  26. So glad you wrote this post. I’m not a fan of Great Schools. A static test grade score doesn’t tell you even a quarter of what you need to know as a parent. Also, I firmly believe that kids who excel will excel in whatever situation they are put into. Good luck!

  27. So glad you guys have found a high school you’re happy with! And I think you’re going into it with the right attitude: open-minded, willing to course-correct down the road if need be, but taking advantage of the opportunities given as a learning experience in themselves. Good luck to Maude and Ralph as they readjust to American schools!

    I have to say, I had never heard of Great Schools before, but their rankings mystified me. I grew up in an area known for its excellent public schools, but when I checked the county’s high school rankings on Great Schools, they averaged a score between 4-6 — and those few 8/10 outliers had more negative comments from students and parents. It’s all a little confusing…

  28. I am so glad you posted this! It’s exactly the kind of post I scoured the internet for before my husband and I moved our two kids from the midwest to the Bay Area. We landed in Alameda, mostly because on Great their schools rated much higher than many Oakland schools. But I never felt that I was getting the whole picture by just looking at test scores and ratings. I love that you posted this and I’d love to hear how it goes as the year goes by.

  29. Our family just moved two months ago to Layton, Utah and just like you I researched the schools my kids would be attending. I found out that the local elementary school had a rating of “1”. I got so nervous thinking about what kind of teachers and classmates my children would have; I even had nightmares about it, but decided to try anyway and so far I love it and they love it too. I think this website really is misleading and you shoudn’t base your decisions based on their ratings. I agree with many of the comments where in many instances a “good” school means a higher percentage of white students and that is just plain wrong. I am so happy you are sharing your attitude and openness with everyone as a way to change what people might perceive as a disadvantage, is just a lesson on the real world. Thank you for sharing this WONDERFUL post and I wish both of your children a great school year :)

  30. I also use to look up school ratings. Having had my 4 children in public schools for years that score 7s, 8s, 9s, and 10s, and seeing the high quality education in these schools (at least for the states) I would never send my kids to lower performing schools academically. What a high score tells me is that most everyone in the education process in the school is doing what they are supposed to to do to help the children achieve academically. This includes, teachers, students, administrators, and parents. For me, this means that my child will be surrounded by peers whose families also value education, and not only value it, but know how to help their children succeed academically. I also know that children sometimes copy and model peers so its important to me that my children be surrounded for the most part by peers with the same value for education. It is sad, but I have found that in the U.S., some parents do not know how or do not have the means to help their children succeed in our school system. And our school system in the U.S. does not do an extraordinary job of bringing up lower performing students as in countries like Finland. I am reading a book called The Smartest Kids in the World (and how they got that way) by Amanda Ripley. She explores why students in education systems in Finland, Poland, and Korea perform much higher on testing in Math, Science, and Reading than students in America. It is eye opening because it is completely different from what we do here in the states.
    Also, at one time, I was a teacher in a low performing school, and although I wish succcess to those students, I would never send my own children to such a school simply because I know that the environment would hinder their academic progress and success. This was an inner city school with gangs, and a low graduation rate.
    You seem to have a great attitude….I would just be careful that your children get everything they need academically. Honors and A.P. classes are helpful, and that they aren’t overwhelmed by teenage influences such as alcohol, drugs, pressure to have sex, ect.
    I am personally bothered by the cursing that goes on in public schools here in the U.S. My kids have attended two different highly rated districts in two states, and in both school systems everyday cursing by the students was common in the hallways and outside the building and on the school bus at the middle and high school level. This bothered my children. However, teachers did not curse to my knowledge, and they ignored the cursing that they heard in the hallways. I wish that school administrators would stop accepting this from students as normal behavior, and teach our students to behave in a respectful manner at all times.

    1. Test scores,–specifically STAR tests but most bubble fillers–by any measurement, are mostly indicative of how well the students were prepped to take the tests and next to nothing else, certainly not, “this means that my child will be surrounded by peers whose families also value education, and not only value it, but know how to help their children succeed academically”. Because the schools that get good scores? they are not penalized. Schools that score low have the bar set higher the next year, ie: at 20% proficient and an expectation of a 10% increase that was not met, the school is expected to increase to 35% the following year. Imagine a child hitting a ball and you say, “Hit 5 balls out of town and I’ll get you a root beer float.” And the child hits 5, so you say, “Hit 7 balls out of 10 and I’ll get you a breath mint.” That’s pretty much how test scores go. But you were a teacher, so you know.

  31. I went to a high school like this–and it was a wonderful experience. It shaped my interests in college and my politics in a way that no other education could have. It made me a better person. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only rich, white schools provide opportunities–or that you are a neglectful parent for sending your kids someplace not deemed “the best.” But, the first lessons private schools teach are of racism and exclusion. Bravo for you for choosing a braver path. Though…truth be told, I would have a much more difficult time sending my children to an underperforming predominately white school simply because what made my own education so worthwhile (and there were drawbacks) was the diversity–engaging with peers I might not have picked for myself as a 14 year old has changed the way I view just about everything.

  32. Fascinating! Thanks for the super thoughtful post; race and soci0-economic difference is a tricky thing to write about and your did it beautifully and honestly.

    It’s so interesting to get a glimpse into how different kinds of families make decisions. We’re currently looking for a new house (it’s not easy in the Bay Area!) and since private school is not “in the budget” we tend to look at the local public schools FIRST and then the house. Sounds like you fell in love with your beautiful home and then found out about the schools.

    Also interesting how some families and communities won’t even consider certain public schools for their kids due to word-of-mouth/test scores. Sounds like that’s what is going on in the neighborhood surrounding the school.

    I’m looking forward to reading about the schools your younger children are attending.

    1. Maybe too personal to talk about here but I am also interested in hearing your thoughts, and those of our kids, about being exposed to drug use and very different expectations around sexuality.

      1. When we lived in suburban New Jersey there was a study published in our paper that said that children in suburbs were TWICE as likely as inner city kids to use illegal drugs. Makes sense when you think about it–what inner city kids have money for drugs? Please do not think that because children go to a shiny school with well-to-do parents that they will not be exposed to drugs and sex.

    2. Yes. That’s exactly what happened. The house became ours before we’d even given a thought to the schools. We spend so much time at home, that it’s the first priority for me. Schools are flexible and changing, and there are always other options, so they’re a secondary concern for me after the home.

  33. We do our children such a disservice by relying on standardized tests to assess children and schools. I wonder it there is a standardized test for bloggers!? I just finished my masters in education, and I was often shocked when I read articles that spoke of the the “test orientation” of many schools in the USA. Unfortunately, there are those who are pushing our system in that direction (I’m in BC). Sigh.

  34. So nice to read – idealogically I can’t stomach abandoning public schools, but of course, as a mom, my social ideals are often forgotten in the face of …my children’s faces. We just moved to DC from Chicago, so school has been and continues to be a perennial conversation/concern – but when I stop and think/remember what kind of people I want my kids to be – an economic or even academic success are not at the top of my list – and in that respect public schools may prove a much better environment for them to grow into empathetic/socially conscious people that understand the value of doing your best and hard work even in the absence of economic incentive. …well, given the caveats, like you said, of safety/opportunities/etc – and perhaps this is more true for high school rather than elementary.
    Also – after some searches on Great Schools – I’m not super impressed.
    Hope the school continues to work out!

    1. I agree with what you said here! The only thing is that many private Catholic schools have a strong focus on service, teach that kids should respect and be kind to everyone, and teach that money is not everything, so be careful to say that only public schools can offer that experience.

  35. this post is wonderful, and came at a perfect time for me. i’ve been struggling with school stuff, as my older son will be entering grade school before too long. the public schools in our area are not great (according to multiple sources), but having valued my own public school education i’m hesitant to turn to private schooling with my limited knowledge of the offerings here. resources like greatschools have caused me to question and doubt, although i know that a school is so much more than a number and test scores. others have also pointed out to me that while the school is important, the most important factor in a child’s education and success is involved parents. you and ben are clearly very involved and open-minded, and are setting your kids up for great success. you’ve provided me with lots of inspiration, and turned apprehension for the school search into something more like excitement :)

    1. “the most important factor in a child’s education and success is involved parents”

      I think there’s a lot of truth to that. And it also makes me doubly impressed with the kids to succeed despite having little or no parental involvement.

  36. Thanks for sharing, Gabby! I’ve been dying for the scholastic update!

    As a former teacher at a urban high school similar to this one (oh, I miss the daily compliments on my beautiful “colored eyes”) I would encourage ANY parent at ANY school to do exactly what you did: visit the campus before you condone or condemn it.

    I look forward to updates on the school clothes and posts about the other schools.

    1. Yes, I was going to mention this article tool! Fodder for the thought that what we learn socially in adolescence is so important too.

      Love that Ralph and Maude are doing so well!

  37. Thanks for publicly taking time to really nicely say great schools ratings can suck it. I am so tired of that website being touted as that golden standard for choosing a school. We moved partway through the last school year to a school and the rating is only an 8 or 9 and I actually had people tell me they couldn’t believe I was going to send my kids to a low performing school.

    Go you for being an informed, involved parenting making informed, involved decisions.

  38. I can’t tell you how much I love this! When we first moved to our incredible little town outside of a big city, we were told the local elementary school “wasn’t an option” but I wasn’t willing to accept that so started doing my own research, got involved (when my oldest was only 2!) and we’ve had fabulous experiences there (he’s now in 2nd grade). He’s absolutely a racial minority at the school, which I think is awesome. I didn’t experience diversity until I went to college. For the past few years, I’ve helped to plan and host a breakfast for families in our community to come and ask questions/listen to parents who have their kids at the school NOW. It’s been a huge success and more and more families are “opting in” to our local public elementary school, which of course, only makes it even better!

  39. I grew up in Denver during the days of court-ordered bussing. The bus would drive by our neighborhood school on our way to our assigned high school, which was more urban. There were some hard times and some hard lessons to learn, but I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to go there. My high school opened way more doors for me than it closed, and I’ll be forever grateful for both the academic and social education I got there.

    Our neighborhood elementary school is probably the lowest rated one in our city now, but when I have kids they will absolutely go there because from what I can tell, the test scores may be low but the learning environment is rich.

    1. “There were some hard times and some hard lessons to learn, but I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to go there. My high school opened way more doors for me than it closed, and I’ll be forever grateful for both the academic and social education I got there.”

      That made me happy.

  40. Excellent post! I just loved reading it and wish more people were like you, open-minded :). We all would be so much better off! We are planning on doing the same with our children.

  41. What a cool and interesting post. It sounds like your kids are going to learn a lot from the experience, and with two hands-on parents as well helping to guide them, I’m sure they will thrive. I love your attitude and willingness to check out the school for yourselves first. I’ll be interested to hear more about how they’re doing. I personally went to the “city” school with a large minority population, but I was happy to have the experience. I think it has served me well.

  42. I love your attitude! Whites were the minority at my high school, and it was meaningful to me to have that. I look back and feel bad for people who didn’t experience the great diversity I experienced; black, Tongan, phillipino, Asian, Hispanic..

  43. Thanks for this post. The schools in our area are all over the map with scores because of the large number of immigrants who resettle in Nashville. We love this about our city but have wondered what it will mean when our future kids get to the high school that has a two rating. It is so cool that you guys didnt let that deter you. I look forward to future updates.

  44. You’re the real deal, aren’t you Gabby? Your outlook on life continues to inspire me in real ways. Can’t wait to hear more about your Oakland adventures.

  45. I really enjoyed this post. As a teacher, I agree that it’s frustrating to know a school can be rated by purely a number, which some choose to subscribe to exclusively. But really, there is so much more to a school than its ranking; the faculty, the students, the clubs, the parent involvement, the school spirit. I’m glad you didn’t take the #2 at face value and are embracing and celebrating the difference in R & M’s new community. Great post :)

  46. Great schools website is about as reliable as yelp. Interesting to read what other people think but you can never put too much weight on others’ opinions.

    It sounds like a great place for your kids to learn larger life lessons that extend beyond homework and exams. I am sure it will have a huge impact on the adults they become.

    Cheers to a great school year for all of the kiddos and parents!

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