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Commentary: GreatPhillySchools is about empowering families

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by Sharmain Matlock-Turner

For many years, I have witnessed how parents and caregivers in Philadelphia truly crave more information about our city’s schools. As evidence, in just two weeks, more than 10,000 Philadelphians have visited GreatPhillySchools, a new website for families to learn more about nearly all  of our city’s K-12 schools. As part of our longtime commitment to empowering families, the Urban Affairs Coalition is proud to be a partner in this citywide effort with the Philadelphia School Partnership and many others.

  • sharmain matlock turner

Most of the information on GreatPhillySchools was already available to policy makers and search-savvy parents. But accessing it required a lot of work, including searching multiple websites and sifting through large databases. This challenge is what initially prompted UAC to produce our annual charter school directory, and then compelled us to participate in the development of GreatPhillySchools. The site takes the same data that is used by policy makers, and much more, and presents it in one easy-to-access place so that parents can find and compare schools.

In developing this resource, every decision was made based on what parents said they want to know. The process began with focus groups of parents and caregivers who provided critical input on the site’s design and content. Their feedback helped us create a survey that asked schools for information that parents want that is hard to get, such as school safety statistics, up-to-date contact information, and parent engagement opportunities. The development of the site was, and continues to be, guided by an Advisory Council comprising the most important stakeholders -- parents, teachers, and civic and school leaders.

There are great schools of every type in Philadelphia, and no one type is right for every student. GreatPhillySchools provides a starting place for families to compare different kinds of schools and to get more involved in supporting their school. The site includes descriptions, maps and enrollment facts, as well as school performance ratings covering academics, safety, student engagement and college-enrollment rates for nearly 400 public and private schools. Families will also find articles explaining the differences between types of schools and advice on comparing them. Although the site already contains a lot of information, we don’t see it as a finished product. We will be working to improve it continuously and plan to add more information to help parents get more involved in their child’s education. We will keep adding content as resources allow and as we gain additional feedback -- including from users of the site and hopefully you, too, because we welcome input and suggestions from Notebook readers.

We all know that no rating system is perfect; in some respects, the ratings on GreatPhillySchools are dependent on the ways data is reported and collected. But the ratings will be updated and improved as new and better data become available. More important, users should avoid making snap judgments on any school based solely on the information on GreatPhillySchools. Before choosing a school, we advise parents and caregivers to take a closer look by visiting and spending time in schools they are interested in. The ratings are designed as guideposts to help parents start their school search. The site includes contact information and links to every school's own website (if it has one). It also offers suggested questions to ask when visiting a school and timelines for attending open houses and school fairs and for scheduling visits.

Ultimately, GreatPhillySchools will only be useful if we can get it into the hands of the people who most need this information. GreatPhillySchools works on any device that has Internet access, including mobile phones. Understanding that many families do not have Internet access, I encourage you to visit your local KEYSPOT: Powered by the Freedom Rings Partnership; the KEYSPOTS are computer centers with free Internet access located in city recreation centers, community-based organizations, libraries, and other public establishments. We are also publishing corresponding print guides by the start of 2013, and working with community partners to distribute more than 20,000 copies of each guide -- a version with elementary and middle schools and a version with high schools.

Parental and community support is critical to the success of our schools, and access to information has for too long been one of the greatest obstacles to involvement. By empowering families with information, GreatPhillySchools takes us a big step closer to ensuring that every child in Philadelphia can attend a great school.

Sharmain Matlock-Turner is CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.

This is a guest blog, and the ideas expressed are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites guest blog posts on current topics in Philadelphia education from its readers. Send submissions to notebook@thenotebook.org. 

READ: Parents deserve a better measure of school quality

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