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What School is this House Zoned For?

“What school is my house zoned for?”  In my opinion, that should be the most important question you ask before you buy or rent a house.  It always amazes me how many parents I meet in Mommy and Me groups who are clueless about what school their house is zoned for.  I always politely nod and mumble, “Oh, you still have a while to figure that out yet,” but inwardly I’m shocked and horrified.  The nice thing about having a blog is that I can really let loose and say what real-life social conventions censure.  So please allow me this little rant.


My husband and I share the same values on this issue 100%.  We would rather rent a shack next to the best school, in the best school district possible, than own a mansion in a crummy district.  How could you prioritize a walk-in-closet over the quality of your child’s education?

To be fair, some people (including some of my own close friends) care about their children’s education tremendously, but were simply ignorant of how American school zoning works, or the severity of difference between high performing schools and low performing schools, when the bought their houses.  Other people bought starter homes right before the housing economy sank, and are now stuck living in places they had intended to move out of long before their children started Kindergarten.

That gets me back to my original point.  It is essential for your children that you choose where to live based on your local schools.  It doesn’t matter if this is a starter home.  It doesn’t matter if you intend to homeschool.  It doesn’t matter if you intend to pay for private school.  Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, so your local public school has to be an acceptable alternative.

So how do you know if the house you are buying is zoned for a good public school? First off, you need to familiarize yourself with the school district’s website.  Usually there is a school locator map that will allow you to type in the address and find out the neighborhood school.  That’s the easy part.

The hard part is determining the quality of the school without your child actually attending there yet.  Unfortunately, two of the best ways to do this are statistics that are fraught with controversy and social gravitas.  You have got to look at the standardized test scores, and the Free and Reduced Lunch percentage.  (I feel like such a traitor to my profession and all of my wonderful former students for even writing that, but it’s the truth.)  Standardized test scores below 70% indicate a school that still has some work to do.  Free and Reduced Lunch percentages above 25% mean that many families at that school are facing additional challenges.

I’ve worked with wonderful, loving families whose children received free lunch and breakfast.  Qualifying for assistance has nothing to do with the quality of the family at all!  I sincerely believe that.  But I have taught in two very different socio economic leveled schools, and hands down the children who were not dealing with poverty issues were able to learn more.

If I had my choice today between going back to teach in a school with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch students, vs. a school with a small percentage, I would leap at the chance to work in the needier school.  But I would not enroll my own children there.  That’s the honest truth. 

What should you do if you are already zoned for a low performing school?  If you are already zoned for a low performing school and cannot move, then you need to work the system.  Most school districts have policies on the books that allow for a little bit of school choice wiggle room.  In the Ravenswood School District in which I previously worked, this was called the Tinsley Transfer program.  Kids who got chosen went to school in Palo Alto instead of East Palo Alto.  Scour your school district’s website and look for any language that will allow to you to request a different school. 

Another trick is to wait and register your Kindergartener at the last minute, so that the class is already full and the school district has to move you to another (hopefully better) school.  This is not something that school administrators would want you to know, by the way.  It creates enormous staffing and logistical challenges for principals and district personnel.  It is not a nice thing to do to the hard working, and well intentioned people who run schools.  But your kid is your kid, right?  Do what you have to do to protect your child’s education.

One of the most inspiring stories I have read about a mother who eked out the best public education she could for her children, even in the face of crushing poverty was the book The Color of Water by James McBride.  The mother in this book used every loophole she could find to make sure her kids were bused away from their failing neighborhood schools, and into better ones.

What can I do to help make failing schools better?  You knew I had to include this part, didn’t you?  🙂  I love and support public schools of all kinds 100%, especially the struggling ones.  This is what we can all do to help improve our public schools

  1. Vote YES on all school levies and bonds.  
  2. Join your PTA and volunteer when able.  
  3. Support your local public schools foundation.  
  4. Write to your legislators and ask them to support our schools.

As a teacher, parent, and citizen in greatly saddens me that there is such a huge dichotomy between high and low performing public schools.  All of our children deserve better, and we need to use our votes and voices to make it happen.


  1. jengod says:

    Love this post. Reposting. Thanks for mentioning the lunch percentages. Our home district is one I feel great about–my husband accidentally bought into a really solid school district when he purchased our house during his bachelor days!–but there’s a language-immersion school (lottery only) and our general home school, which seems…fine. I just looked up the lunch stats on your advice, and the percentages are 13% at the language school and 42% at the regular school. Good to know, even though it won’t change what happens with our school situation.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I’m not surprised by those statistics at all! All of the parents who are savvy (and who probably have a bit more money) are flocking to the choice school. Very typical…

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