It seems like a straightforward process. When your child turns 5, they start kindergarten.
But what school district do you live in? What if your district has multiple schools for your child’s grade level? How do you pick? Can you pick?
What about magnet schools, charter schools, private schools? How much do they cost? Is transportation available?
Most of all, how do you pick the best school?
It’s important to look at factors beyond just rankings, said James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, a local education advocacy group that crafts an annual Report to the Community as well as a School Choice Guide to help families make sense of their public school options in Pittsburgh.
“Get your child the best school for your child,” Fogarty said.
This guide explores multiple options for those living within the Pittsburgh Public Schools district and a few helpful points for those outside the city, too. There are other circumstances that might influence your personal decision-making, and we hope this guide can serve as a helpful starting point. Email email@example.com with additional resources or questions for us to consider for future public-service guides.
How do I register my child for public school?
First, if you don’t know which school district you live in already, you can search your address in this tool to find out.
Registration typically starts in January for the following fall. Kindergarten readiness campaign Hi5! provides a good list of elementary schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania and links for registration along with cutoff dates for enrollment. (Most schools require students to be 5 years old by Sept. 1.)
Pittsburgh Public Schools offers a Discover PPS tool; families can type in their address and find out the schools for their community. Some districts have multiple “feeder” elementary schools that flow into the same high school, but typing in your address will provide you with your home school.
How do I find out rankings for local schools, and how much weight should I put on them?
If you’re just moving to the district and are trying to choose a neighborhood/school, you can turn to platforms such as Niche.com and GreatSchools, which rank schools based on test scores, parent and student reviews, and other factors, but many educators warn against using those as the only barometer.
Fogarty said Niche’s scores don’t factor in “what’s going on in a school” and basically correlate to a district’s wealth: wealthy schools have higher test scores, thus are ranked higher.
“We should be giving people lots of choices that are good rather than creating this scarcity mindset that there are only five good schools in PPS and if your kid doesn’t get into one of those, they’re going to fail,” said Fogarty.
GreatSchools, a nonprofit, has made an effort to show a bigger picture and now includes data on school culture, learning environment and practices.
PPS Director of Public Relations and Media Content Ebony Pugh said talking to a school’s principal or taking a tour are both good ways to get a feel for a school. There’s so much more going on behind a ranking or a headline, she said.
“You might see a PPS that has what appears to be low achievement numbers but what you might not be seeing is that … there’s years of growth,” she said. “Ask the school, what are they doing? If you have questions about the achievement, ask them what they’re doing about that. Have those conversations with the principals.”
Magnet schools: What are my options and how does one get in?
Magnet schools are specialized options operated by the PPS system, and as such, there is no cost involved in attending one if you reside in the district. Transportation is provided.
There are nine elementary magnets, four middle school magnets and nine high school magnets within PPS. Some are language-focused, many are STEAM or technology-themed, and Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 is a creative and performing arts magnet school that requires an audition.
“We pride ourselves on offering a lot of options for families,” said Pugh. “But there are some neighborhood schools that also have themes.” Fulton PreK-5 in Highland Park, for example, is a partial magnet that offers a French emphasis.
Students apply for their top three magnet choices; then they are entered into a lottery system. More weight is given to an applicant who meets income criteria, lives near a school or has a sibling who already attends the school, among other factors. Students who do not reside within city limits may apply for a space at magnet schools (tuition fees would apply unless a parent is a PPS employee), but weight is given to those who reside within the district.
Applications for the lottery are due in December, and students who meet that deadline are notified about school decisions in March. If a student applies after the lottery deadline, they will receive notifications in mid-March or afterward on a rolling basis.
PPS Assistant Director of Student Data Entry Tiffany Buchanan notes there’s a magnet school fair at the beginning of every year for interested students to explore their options.
What are private school options, and what do I need to know about how they differ from public schools?
Private schools, whether religious based or otherwise, are another option, as is homeschooling or charter schools.
Generally speaking, private schools typically offer smaller class sizes and more individualized educational experiences, and public schools typically offer more services for those with learning disabilities as well as more extracurricular programming.
For private schools, tuition varies.
Fogarty noted A+ walks people through the process of applying for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) Program for students whose neighborhood school is designated in the bottom 15% of schools statewide. (PPS provides a list of its designated schools here.) Scholarships up to $8,500 for non-special education students and up to $15,000 for special education students are available for eligible households. The maximum annual household income is $96,676 plus $17,017 for each dependent member of the household.
“We try and be as open and transparent about what the options are … especially for families that are single-parent households or struggling, managing the time it takes to navigate these systems can be a pain in the butt,” Fogarty said.
Busing is often provided. Pennsylvania Department of Education guidelines state that districts that transport their own students must also do so for students in their boundaries who attend charter schools or nonprofit private schools if they’re within 10 miles of the district.
Charter schools are free for students and are funded by taxpayers. The charter schools are subject to state-mandated tests but operate independently from local school districts; there are about 20 in Western Pennsylvania. Propel Schools, which serves high-poverty, resource-poor areas, operates 13 local locations.
Any student may enroll in a charter school, but if applications exceed capacity, students are selected by lottery. Some, like the Environmental Charter School, have long waitlists, so it’s important to apply by the stated deadlines.
How can I get involved and advocate for improvements at my child’s school?
Robert Scherrer, the executive director of the Executive Leadership Team at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides supports to public and private schools in Allegheny County, said each school district offers different ways to get plugged in.
“There are typically parent organizations, volunteer opportunities and events that the school will host. These are great ways to learn more about the school and meet with staff members and other parents,” he wrote in an email. “Parents can also advocate for district-wide improvements by attending school board meetings to better understand some of the decisions that are being made.”
PPS hosts parent engagement events throughout the year, including Take a Father to School Day and the Parents Empowering Parents (P.E.P. Program), a speaker series to help parents navigate their children’s academic life.
“Not everyone can be at an event, but through the pandemic, we’ve learned different ways to engage families,” said Pugh, noting PPS recently adopted Talking Points, an app that allows families to send text messages to staff members, with translation available for English-language learners.
Mercedes J. Williams, director of communications and stakeholder engagement at PPS, oversees the Parent Advisory Council, which consists of family representatives from each school who share information between parents and the district and help to develop programming.
“Sometimes it’s hard with schedules,” she said, “but there’s multiple opportunities at your school to be involved.”
Lauren Davidson is a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @laurenmylo.
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