By Benita M. Dodd
One of the paternalistic charges leveled by opponents of education choice is that many parents don’t have the information to make decisions about an education path or a school for their child. For parents in the five counties that hold the vast majority of metro Atlanta residents, a new interactive Web-based tool could finally squelch that argument.
About 500 people watched a live demonstration of the tool, GreatSchoolsAtlanta.org, when it was officially launched September 26 at the 2015 Neighborhood Summit organized by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. The interactive, collaborative and mobile-friendly tool allows parents to compare up to four schools at a time – public or private – and provides parents, teacher and former students with an opportunity to review their schools.
Further dispelling the argument that parents aren’t savvy enough to figure out their child’s needs are the statistics GreatSchools shared: The Web site, which holds profiles of more than 250,000 schools across the nation, saw 59 million unique visits last year, 340,000 in metro Atlanta even before the program was localized. More than 50 percent of parents of school-aged children are using the site, which houses 1.4 million school ratings and reviews. And more than half the visitors access the site with a mobile device.
In a recent poll, 78 percent of respondents said GreatSchools.org influenced their school choice and 92 percent said they would recommend the site to others.
It’s encouraging to see technology in education reach beyond lessons on the home or classroom computer. With today’s apps and Web sites, the disruption of the traditional education model is leading to exciting opportunities. Now, just like the Internet revolutionized the search for a home by allowing people to whittle down their home search from the comfort of their couch, GreatSchools allows parents to tailor their search to fit their child’s education and other needs before visiting the finalists.
GreatSchools uses State Department of Education data on academic outcomes and demographics, information from principals including extracurricular activities, transportation, afterschool care and enrollment information; and reviews from parents, teachers and former students (over age 12). The tool asks parents for feedback on homework, on teachers, and on the school’s impact on social and emotional development. It shares worksheets and articles on school-related issues, such as bullying.
The expanded detail is important. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation already has reported on a survey of parents that revealed education choice is about more than academic scores. More important to parents were the school climate and classroom management; a better learning environment; smaller class sizes; improved student safety, and “more individual attention for my child.”
“The reviews are one of the most influential pieces in shaping people’s opinions about school quality,” Samantha Olivieri, vice president of the GreatSchools Program, told attendees.
Rebekah Cohen Morris, a teacher at DeKalb County’s Cross Keys High School, raves about the GreatKids Milestones component. These free online videos in English and Spanish help K5 parents understand what the three Rs should look like at various stages of their child’s education. The component will expand to K12 soon.
Morris, who teaches ninth-grade English at a school of 1,500 students – 78 percent of them Hispanic – says many of her students read at the fourth- and fifth-grade level.
“With the component expanding soon to high school, I’m hoping to be able to show my kids, ‘This is what the ninth-grade level looks like. This is where I want you to be,’” Morris said. And she’s excited about the doors the tool opens for low-income parents who may not have the means to travel across the metro area to compare schools.
The organization is planning community outreach in metro Atlanta to educate more parents about the tool. Eventually, it will expand beyond the metro Atlanta’s 525,000 students and across the state. Judging from the enthusiastic response in GreatSchools’ breakout session attendees, where every attendee indicated they would share or use the tool, it won’t take long.
To find out how GreatSchools works in Metro Atlanta, visit the site at GreatSchoolsAtlanta.org. Find additional information, including the presentation from the 2015 Neighborhood Summit, at greatschools.org/gk/atlanta-partner-toolkit/.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.