If you are looking for a school outside of your zone or you want to move to a neighborhood and don't want to pay top dollar to move to a highly sought after zone, what options do you have? Public schools don't have the time or money to do pr or branding. Sometimes they are lucky and a savvy parent or teacher will put together a snappy website, but if they don't have an enterprising individual to step up, the school may labor in obsurity. Parents might logically think that if the school is good they would have heard about it, but I am here to tell you that it doesn't have to be the case at all. If there is no buzz, it could still be a honey of a school.
To start, I look at three things; the principal, the teachers, and active parents. A school can do a worthy job with two of the three, but it can't be a star without them all. I look for a principal who is a visionary educational leader, has good people skills to manage the staff and their parent volunteers, and someone who can manage a budget effectively that will very likely experience drastic cuts every year. I look at the experience and enthusiasm of the teachers; their creativity, their alignment with the principal's vision for the educational focus of the school, and are kind people who love their jobs. I look for active parents, who want to help in any way that the principal and teachers require, including raising money, putting in sweat equity to support arts programs, trips and community for all the different learners in the school.
Sometimes there is a disfunctional relationship between the principal and staff. Have you ever been in a dysfunctional workplace? A school is no different, and when you add in the stress of the responsibility of teaching children under the pressure of drastically reduced resources, even little irritations can become a big deal. Parents hear, "parent involvement is the most important thing!" and they misinterpret it to mean that parent involvement can turn around a program that has internal issues. It may help but it can't make the teachers see eye to eye with a principal that they don't agree with.
On the other hand, I occasionally see terrific, dedicated teachers led by a principal who they trust and support, but the school is under capacity. The teachers scratch their heads and say, "why do families all go to PS__? Why don't they ever come here?" It may be that the school is inconvenient or far from the population that would consider an out of zone placement. It may not be as balanced in its diversity as some more popular programs. But mostly I think that it is just that no one is talking about the school. The in zone parents may be long time neighborhood families who don't even realize that families from other neighborhoods might be interested. They might be very happy with their small class sizes and want to keep a great thing to themselves (until the DOE co-locates a charter in the building). They may not be computer savvy or hanging out on the listserves that many parents are using as a vital network. It is relatively rare to find a happy, humming workplace. It seems like a no brainer that these are places where "parental involvement" can really make a huge difference and be the final piece of the puzzle.
PS 110 in Greenpoint, PS 196 in East Williamsburg, PS 295 in the South Slope are a couple of terrific programs that deserve some buzz. This is not meant to be a comprehsive list. If you don't see your beloved school here, it doesn't mean that I don't love it too (I may not have mentioned it because the tours are well attended and they already have some buzz). These are just a tiny handful that deserve more parents coming to their open houses. If you have another school to mention by all means leave a positive comment!
Update: I just got a note that says if PS 110 can get enough interested families together that they will open a dual language French program next year. If you are interested you should go to the tour on Monday, Feb. 7 at 9:30 am, located at 124 Monitor St. (between Nassau and Driggs).