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Parents Using Computer Database to Grade Their Children’s Schools

From Times Wire Services

Parents are using a computer database to find out how their children’s schools measure up in teacher salaries, test scores, student-teacher ratios, and money spent for library books.

Operated by Public Priority Systems of Columbus, Ohio, the SchoolMatch database is designed to help families shop for the best school when moving to a new city.

For $97.50, the company will provide a list of local school districts, ranking them according to how well they fit the criteria chosen by parents.

If you’re not moving but you still want to know how your child’s school compares, the company will compile a “Report Card” for $49, showing the data it has for your school district and those in the surrounding area.

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“I am not aware of any other companies that do this. We know there aren’t any on a national basis,” said William Bainbridge, company president and chief executive officer.

SchoolMatch is an outgrowth of the private, 5-year-old corporation’s original business, providing data to companies that sell products to schools.

Bainbridge is a former superintendent for three Ohio and Virginia school districts. The job showed him how difficult it was to find complete information on schools and how eager parents were to get it.

“I would get phone calls from families leaving our district asking me to tell them about public or private schools in Phoenix or Anchorage or Boston or most everywhere,” Bainbridge said.

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With 17 school administrators as advisers, Bainbridge listed 22 criteria for judging public schools and collected that data for each of the nation’s 15,892 public school districts.

The criteria include standardized test scores, teacher salaries, teacher-student ratios, expenditures per pupil, money spent for library books and media services, and education levels and per capita income of residents.

They compiled the same data for 14,856 private schools, then added 11 additional criteria for them. Those include tuition cost, whether uniforms are required, and whether it is a day or boarding school.

To use the service, parents specify the geographic area they want--say, within 20 miles of downtown Seattle--and which of the 22 criteria they consider most important.

“Some feel very strongly that they want youngsters in highly academic, rigorous schools. Others want their children in an average school where they can be large fish in a small pond.

“Many people want schools with high salaries on the theory that you get what you pay for. We designed a system where people in the search service can tell us what their priorities are,” Bainbridge said.

Within 24 hours, the company mails a custom-designed report showing which schools match up best with the profile selected by the parents.

The information the company compiled is available piecemeal through individual schools, education associations and government agencies. But their reports typically are for one district only, or include state or city averages with no data for individual districts.

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“It’s out there, it’s just not all in one place,” said Caroline Wallace, spokeswoman for the National Education Assn.

Jeremiah Floyd, spokesman for the National School Boards Assn., said such a system could help parents find schools with special programs they want, such as therapy for a child with speech and hearing impairments.

But he cautioned against judging school quality by statistical data.

“If someone were making a quality judgment, saying somebody who spends $400 more per child is better than somebody else, I wouldn’t think that is appropriate,” Floyd said.

The association neither endorses nor condemns commercial products.

“Our recommendation would be to go to the area where they are relocating and go visit the school systems themselves, sample the schools and talk to other people. Firsthand experience is better than vicarious experience in any situation,” Floyd said.

The SchoolMatch database lists private schools individually because they are usually autonomous. But public schools are listed by district, not individual schools.

That means its usefulness is limited in states such as Florida and Georgia, where school districts are countywide. In Miami and its suburbs, for example, all the public schools are in the Dade County School District. But in other states, metropolitan areas usually span dozens of districts.

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“Within 50 miles of downtown Boston there are 201 school districts. Within 50 miles of Chicago there are 257. For Hartford, Conn., it’s 133,” Bainbridge said. “What we found was most people had this tremendous choice, this great option.”

Leon and Connie Level used the SchoolMatch database a year and a half ago when they moved from the Detroit suburb of Glenfield Hills to Bryn Mawr, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. His employer, Uniysis, provided the service at no cost to them through its corporate relocation program.

The Levels wanted to live in a neighborhood where the schools were academically similar to the one their two daughters, then in the fourth and ninth grades, attended in Michigan.

“We were looking into SAT scores, percentages of students that were college bound, National Merit students,” Connie Level said.

“This was related to my husband’s work, so proximity to his office was also a consideration. Our main consideration in our relocation was our children’s education.”

SchoolMatch recommended six school districts and the Levels sought additional advice from real estate agents and people they met while house-hunting.

“We had a very limited time in which to sell one house and find another one and move. We made personal visits to the schools before deciding to buy a house. Because of the limited time, a source like SchoolMatch was very useful.

“In a large city such as Philadelphia there are so many school districts you couldn’t possibly visit every single school district. The list Mr. Bainbridge provided really helped to shorten the list and made it easier to narrow down the districts,” she said.

They ultimately moved into a district recommended by SchoolMatch are happy with their choice, Level said.

The Levels were typical in that they chose a new home based on the availability of good schools. A 1987 survey by the National Assn. of Realtors indicates school quality is an important consideration for the majority of home buyers with school-age children.

The association asked 9,000 people who had bought homes in the last six months why they chose a particular house once they had decided to move.

The choices were: located in a better neighborhood, near place of work, near good schools, near shopping centers, convenient to parks and recreation, close to health facilities and near good transportation.

Among all home buyers, 50% cited “near good schools” as a reason. Among married couples with dependents, 71% said good schools were a factor, said spokeswoman Valerie Allridge.

SchoolMatch has done school reports for 7,000 families since it was first offered through corporate relocation departments in August, 1986. It was made available to the public in June, 1987.

The company cautions that some factors, such as availability of after-school programs, cannot be included in the statistical format.

When school administrators complained that the numbers did not tell the whole story, SchoolMatch began allowing them to advertise through the system.

They pay $99 to $237 to include a page of text touting their school or district. The text is added to the report that parents in that area receive whether or not the school is among those recommended.

The text portion, however, includes the disclaimer that it has been provided and paid for by the school.

Bainbridge said the response to SchoolMatch has been good.

“Our consumer satisfaction survey shows well into 95% satisfaction rating, as far as recommending it to a friend,” he said.


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