When she began her search for a home in the Bay Area two years ago, Julie Fry said she wanted to focus on neighborhoods with strong schools.
Since she lived in San Diego at the time, Fry did her initial research using GreatSchools.net, a nonprofit Web site that allows families to look at school and district ratings, based on state test scores, and talk with other parents and students about specifics such as atmosphere, size and demographics.
She wanted a small high school, and was impressed with Mountain View High's ratings, size and parent comments on GreatSchools.net so much so that she was encouraged to visit the school. Eventually, Fry ended up buying a house so her son could start at Mountain View High and her daughter could attend Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos.
"We had a short turnover," Fry said, explaining that due to circumstance the family had to act quickly in buying a house. "It was important for me to find a neighborhood we could live in."
Real estate agents say Fry's methods are common among parents looking to buy a home. And even if buyers don't visit the site, most home listings automatically provide GreatSchools' rankings.
Whether the information comes from the home listings or from GreatSchools.net directly, many prospective home buyers are well versed in the rankings of local schools. They know, for example, that Mountain View High ranks slightly above Los Altos High, or that Los Altos' elementary and middle schools score better than most of Mountain View's. And buyers are willing to pay more for a home in a neighborhood with highly rated schools.
"The quality of schools has a great impact on price," said GreatSchools.net spokesperson Dave Steer.
The user experience
GreatSchools.net rates schools based on a 10-point score, which in turn mirrors rankings in state test scores. If a district or school receives an 8, its students scored in the 80th percentile, Steer said. The Mountain View Whisman district and Mountain View-Los Altos High School District both are ranked at 7, and the Los Altos elementary school district has a ranking of 10.
Parents use the Web site to compare schools by score, and often leave comments on the schools, which allows for more nuance. Castro Elementary School, for example, scores a 6, while Los Altos schools all receive a highest-possible-rating of 10. Huff is the only Mountain View school with this score.
"Huff is a solid school," one parent wrote, "better than most, a bit in the shadow of the better financed Los Altos schools (at least perception-wise) but with very motivated parents, which makes a big difference."
Steer said the 10-year-old site was started in an effort to get parents more involved in their children's education. "Finding the right school is much more complicated than looking at test scores," he said.
Using the online dialogues, parents can critique teacher quality and extracurricular activities, ask other users specific questions about the schools, and even supply a separate five-star ranking which many real estate sites run alongside the 10-point score.
These posts are popular among the site's 35 million users since many have very specific questions about the schools.
"People can look up the school district and will communicate and get more insight than just numbers," said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Dave Blockhus. "As a buyer, you want to get as much information as possible."
Theuerkauf Elementary School has a ranking of 5, apparently based on its lower test scores. But parents gave principal leadership, teacher quality, extracurricular activities and safety and discipline four of five stars, and mostly left positive comments about the school.
"This is the best elementary school in Mountain View, CA. My child loves to go to school and he learns quite a bit," parent Suzy Gorme wrote on the site about Theuerkauf. "He comes home and tells us all about his day."
A premium for Los Altos
Bryan Robertson, another Coldwell agent, said most families come to him already knowing the GreatSchools ratings. Often parents will buy more expensive houses in Mountain View, he says, if it means they're in neighborhoods served by Los Altos schools.
"They will pay a Los Altos price if they will get a Los Altos school," he said.
Clients pay up to 10 percent more to live in Los Altos, and an additional 10 percent to live in Palo Alto, where the schools often have the best reputation of all, said Susan Sweeley, a real estate agent with Alain Pinel and a trustee of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District.
Sweeley noted one townhouse complex, bordering both Mountain View and Palo Alto, where the townhouses on the Palo Alto side sell for 20 more percent than the same units in the Mountain View side.
"People are willing to pay 10 percent more to be in Los Altos schools and 20 percent more to be in Palo Alto schools," she said. "There is a clear 20 percent difference."
Sweeley often tries to tell people about the perks of the Mountain View schools, but many buyers come to her with their minds already made up, she said.
WHERE THEY STAND:
Following are the scores, on a scale of 1 to 10, of local schools according to GreatSchools.net:
Mountain View Whisman Elementary School District
Monta Loma: 6
District total: 7
Mountain View-Los Altos High School District
Mountain View High: 8
Los Altos High: 7
Alta Vista High: 6
District total: 7
Los Altos School District
Santa Rita: 10
District total: 10