School ratings, differing opinions on potential home local

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mojave
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School ratings, differing opinions on potential home local

Post by mojave » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:49 pm

If you're in the Chicago area I would particularly like to hear your input, especially if you are familiar with Lake/McHenry county (will explain further down).

We have our first child on the way, due in July. Originally our plan was to build a house in a nice town with good schools (I own land, he would build most of it himself or use his connections) but my husband recently got a promotion that takes up more of his time, plus the baby. So, building is not on the table right now.

We are currently renting an apartment but have decided it's time to get a home. We have a gross income of $130k, but I may stay home when Jr. arrives, at least for the first year. If this is the case, then we will definitely be at $90k but realistically it will probably be more in the $110k-$120k range (husband is not salary but hourly, and was promoted last summer, will be getting an annual raise soon and potentially another later on in the year. Job is secure, even if he were to lose it he is in high demand in his industry, getting job offers several times throughout the year.)

Husband and I both agree we don't want a huge house. Our price range is low for our income, purposely - $100 - $150k max. The reason for this is husband is handy and can make repairs and improvements himself. So, we're pretty much in agreement, for the most part, of the actual house (we have varying levels of acceptable amounts of updates and repairs needed but, we will figure that out). Also, we just don't want a huge mortgage.

What I can already see will be a struggle will be location. I grew up in an upper-middle class, white collar suburb near the city. Husband grew up in a middle/lower-middle class, ruralish blue collar suburb, near where we live in now. They are very different, both the towns and the people.

Our price range pretty much eliminates us from towns like what I grew up in, which is fine with me. But I also don't want to be in a very blue collar town either. The town my husband is interested in (for those local, Wauconda) is closer in terms of commute for both of us, but I don't care for the neighborhoods in our price range. Additionally, the schools don't seem to be great. The high school is rated an 8 on greatschools.com but the grade school is a 5 and the Jr. High is a 6. I'm mostly concerned with grade school ratings.

The town I'm interested in (for those local, Crystal Lake) is the same commute as today or possibly a little more (an hour to a little over an hour - we are already used to an hour - if we were close to work we would be looking at $300k+), but we would be closer to the highway, right now we are nowhere near a highway. The lowest rated schools in this town are an 8, and there are many 9s and 10s. The towns are both about the same in pricing, but their reputations are different and the people are different. Additionally, the neighborhoods seem nicer in my preferred town in our range. Both towns are safe though, as far as I can tell from my research.

How accurate are the greatschool.com ratings in your experience? I would be ok with a 7, but anything less makes me nervous. I realize a lot depends on the actual child. I do plan on spending extra time with our kid(s) with academics. I don't really want to do private schools if I can avoid it.

Thanks for your insight and possible experience in a similar situation in your past.

livesoft
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by livesoft » Sat Feb 21, 2015 7:01 pm

If you can afford it, I would suggest going with the better schools. It will make the house easier to sell in the future and many parenting things will be easier as well. There are probably more daycares, more churches, cheaper food stores, more organized child activities (sports, music, drag racing, orthodontists, vets) in or near the neighborhood with better schools.
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mojave
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by mojave » Sat Feb 21, 2015 7:32 pm

livesoft wrote:If you can afford it, I would suggest going with the better schools. It will make the house easier to sell in the future and many parenting things will be easier as well. There are probably more daycares, more churches, cheaper food stores, more organized child activities (sports, music, drag racing, orthodontists, vets) in or near the neighborhood with better schools.
Thank you! I think the daycare and activities part will stand out to my husband - he's concerned about daycare if I continue to work, and was a big sports kids so I know that's something that will be important to him. I knew my preferred town was more family friendly but I couldn't define why, this helps.

psteinx
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by psteinx » Sun Feb 22, 2015 2:01 pm

Some thoughts:

1) An hour commute (each way I assume) is a LOT. Even if you've grown used to this, I would look for ways to reduce it. Perhaps more so when you have kids, spending all those hours in the car - bleah.

2) Are schools very important with a baby on the way? Hard to say. When we bought our current house, I wasn't really thinking about schools too much. No babies at that time. First baby came over 3 years later. Now she's a H.S. freshman, we live in the same house in the same subdivision (and she has 2 younger siblings going through the same schools). So, you may THINK you will move, and perhaps you will, but perhaps you won't...

(That said, if you buy so low on your price range, I would say the likelihood of a move 5-10 years later is higher.)

3) Evaluating schools
I think I have looked at Greatschools.com, but am not sure. A web site is only as good as their methodology. I doubt they have highly trained analysts going from school to school studying each in depth and issuing a rating. More likely, ratings are based on data (test scores, student to teacher ratios, etc), and/or ratings of other parents (data of a different sort I guess).

If you think there's a solid chance you will be in this whatever area you choose by the time your kids enter school, I would suggest the following:
A) See if Illinois has a statewide website with good data on schools. My state of Missouri has a very nice one, which combines data on test scores, staffing levels, and other stuff.
B) Visit one representative elementary school in each of the 2-3 areas you're seriously considering. Talk to the principal/vice principal. See if you can sit in a class or two for 30 minutes (but beware of small sample size issues). Walk the halls and see what's on the walls.
C) St. Louis magazine has an annual 'schools' issue that contains a lot of raw data and the like. There probably are similar magazines in Chicago - see if they have education/schools issues (though these may lean more towards private choices).

In general, my thinking is that public schools are MOSTLY a reflection of the families that feed into them. i.e. A yuppie neighborhood with lawyers, doctors, and engineers will likely have public schools that have high test scores and demanding parents. A quasi-rural school district where parents have modest educational background will likely have schools that reflect that.

Of course, a child can go to a college-oriented H.S. and become a dropout, or go to a low achieving H.S. and matriculate to Harvard. But your kids will spend ~13 years around teachers and students who have a distinct personality. Think about what you want for your future kids. (And that doesn't necessarily mean the richest school with the most helicopter moms - you have to think what's right for YOUR family).

drawpoker
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by drawpoker » Sun Feb 22, 2015 2:16 pm

The quality of the local school system is enormously important in choosing where to buy a house. Ask any realtor.

I uprooted and moved 450 miles away primarily because the local schools were so terrible I was clearly looking at private school tuition for child, and the local private schools weren't so great, either.

Good schools with high testing scores and achievement rates mean a healthy, growing, stable economy exists with growing property values (assessments) and tax base to support local schools. Which usually translates to higher starting salaries for teachers (which attracts better teachers) plenty of money available for capital projects and improvements, even constructing new schools when needed. Just an all-around growing and vibrant local economy.

Not sure about how Illinois works but here school districts depend on state and federal funds plus local funding for their budgets. When one county allocates local funds far less than another, boy, you can sure tell the difference.

Where I live, over 50% of the workforce commutes to this town from the next county over. They bought homes there for the superior schools, and willingly accepted a 12-16 mile commute (one-way) every day.

livesoft
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by livesoft » Sun Feb 22, 2015 2:20 pm

psteinx wrote:B) Visit one representative elementary school in each of the 2-3 areas you're seriously considering. Talk to the principal/vice principal. See if you can sit in a class or two for 30 minutes (but beware of small sample size issues). Walk the halls and see what's on the walls.
The school officials will mark you as a future BlackHawk Helicopter Parent if you did this. I think it is completely unnecessary to do this.
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drawpoker
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by drawpoker » Sun Feb 22, 2015 2:37 pm

livesoft wrote:
psteinx wrote:B) Visit one representative elementary school in each of the 2-3 areas you're seriously considering. Talk to the principal/vice principal. See if you can sit in a class or two for 30 minutes (but beware of small sample size issues). Walk the halls and see what's on the walls.
The school officials will mark you as a future BlackHawk Helicopter Parent if you did this. I think it is completely unnecessary to do this.
I don't agree the parent would necessarily be branded as being too fussy if they asked to inspect parts of the school. However, I think there would be more value in visiting and observing what goes on in the middle schools instead, and then h.s.

Middle schools is where the trouble usually begins if the school system is having discipline problems, students out of control, teachers and staff intimidated, and it can be pretty obvious to the casual onlooker. Things can appear to be pretty tame at the 2nd or 3rd grade levels but the 5th and 6th grades often tell a different story.

Watch out for the ones who boast of having a "school resource officer". Ha. A euphemism for the armed police officer who has been permanently assigned there during school hours.

Sportswhiz00
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by Sportswhiz00 » Sun Feb 22, 2015 2:48 pm

Check out illinoisschoolreportcard.com. It shows you the test data and demographic info for each school, including 5 year trends.

jlawrence01
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by jlawrence01 » Sun Feb 22, 2015 3:04 pm

I worked in Crystal Lake for the past 15 years. Their schools are very good. The Crystal Lake school district has three schools. All do a pretty good job at educating but if you ask anyone, each person has an argument as to which school is the best.

A real question is where you are going to find a place for $150k? You may find a few at that price but they will need a lot of work. Moving further out to say, Woodstock would lower the housing cost but might also be less desirable of a commute.

Ron Ronnerson
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by Ron Ronnerson » Sun Feb 22, 2015 4:47 pm

livesoft wrote:
psteinx wrote:B) Visit one representative elementary school in each of the 2-3 areas you're seriously considering. Talk to the principal/vice principal. See if you can sit in a class or two for 30 minutes (but beware of small sample size issues). Walk the halls and see what's on the walls.
The school officials will mark you as a future BlackHawk Helicopter Parent if you did this. I think it is completely unnecessary to do this.
I agree with Livesoft. I teach 5th grade at a highly ranked public school in CA (top 1% in the state based on test scores). We have our share of very involved parents but not once in my 10 years at the school have I heard of a parent coming in to sit and observe. I think requesting to do this would garner strange looks and would not be a way I would advise to go about things. Instead, I would do research online, talk to people (neighbors, friends, relatives), and perhaps visit the school causally during Open House. A good school is very important so you definitely want to make an informed decision before deciding on where to live. However, you don't want to have to move shortly thereafter because everyone at the school thinks you're an odd duck.

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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by texasdiver » Sun Feb 22, 2015 8:17 pm

As a public school teacher I can tell you that schools are pretty much a 95% reflection of the wealth of the neighborhood. Upscale suburban areas will have good schools for the most part. It is the rare public school that manages to defy this reality and those are usually some sort of exclusive magnet type schools. The exception perhaps are areas that are so wealthy that no one sends their kids to public school.

Do the math. Figure out what a private school tuition costs these days $15k per year??? and then calculate how much additional house that $1200/mo. would buy and in most instances you'll be better off paying more for a home in a neighborhood with good schools than paying less in a neighborhood with mediocre schools and send your kids to private school.

As for greatschools and all the other sites? Take them with a grain of salt. Local word of mouth is probably better. And when it comes to schools, perception becomes reality quite quickly in that parents who care about schools move to the school districts that are perceived to be good and create a vicious cycle.

The whole recent obsession with standardized testing and school rankings has made this situation much worse. Used to be that schools were really not that different in what they taught and how they taught. Not so anymore as poor performing schools in poorer neighborhoods are forced to become test prep factories in which every creative element of education is squeezed out in favor of endless drill and kill in reading and math to get the kids over the bar of the standardized tests.

Userdc
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Re: School ratings, differing opinions on potential home loc

Post by Userdc » Sun Feb 22, 2015 8:36 pm

Personally, I think the vast majority of the difference you see in school system performance has nothing to do with the schools or teachers or "quality" of the school system. Again, just my opinion, but good kids with good parents will do just as well in the 40th percentile school as the 95th percentile school.

But setting that aside, I recommend you move to your top choice town and rent before you buy. Meet the people in your neighborhood, and make friends with other parents who have children the same age as yours. If you like the other parents, you'll probably like the school just fine.

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