Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What's so great about Williamson County Schools, anyway?

As I discussed in my previous post, one of the biggest draws for us to Williamson County was the quality of the school system.

Last week, I was talking to one of my co-workers about that fact.  She lived elsewhere and didn't have children, so, she really didn't know much about the educational system.  She asked me -- "So, what is it that makes Williamson County Schools so good?"

At the time - I really didn't have all that good of an answer.  But, I've thought about it some more and would like to share my thoughts here --

A bit of data, first.  The opinion that Williamson County schools are good is not just idle speculation.  Any number of educational ratings website will back up that statement.  Like all the 9s and 10s on  Or there is this school district ranking from that rates Williamson County as the best in the state.

But, what does that actually mean?  It's one thing to say that a school is good -- but what does it look like from a kid or parent's perspective?

Well - I've only got 2 data points... my two kids.  But let me tell you a bit about our experience thus far and how it compares to other schools we've worked with.  Rather than ramble, I'll try to touch on a few discrete topics.

Quality of Facilities:

I've seen a lot of schools over the years -- the quality of the buildings and facilities that we have here in WillCo is second to none.  The school buildings themselves are beautiful and well maintained.  Kids have access to good libraries and computers.  Gyms are modern and clean.  I suspect this is closely related to the fact that Williamson County is a very affluent county, so, the tax income per student is quite good.

Quality of Communications:

This is the one that impacts us as parents the most.  The amount and quality of communications is incredible.  The school district has an active twitter account that is constantly publishing recent updates.  We have online tools for tracking grades.  I have an email address for every single one of my kids teachers - I can email them as needed and they typically respond within a day.  So - imagine this conversation --

WillCoSon1 : "Nope, I don't have any homework this week."

WillCoDad : "Oh really?  Let me just go email your teacher to make sure."

WillCoSon1: "....  Actually, I think I just remembered that were a few things I was supposed to do."

WillCoDad: <evil chuckle>

There have been a couple of unexpected things that happened this year too -- from snow days to a bomb threat.  Each time, communications from the school were quick, clear, and helpful.  The bomb threat deserves its own special mention -- somehow, our school managed to load up and transport several hundred elementary kids in a matter of 15 minutes.  That's an incredible feat of logistics!

Quality of Education:

This is probably the most important one - and probably the hardest to talk about in concrete terms.  I think the best I can do is provide a few examples for contrast.

Example 1 - Not Williamson County
In first grade when we were in another school district, Tyler, was having some trouble getting up to speed with his reading.  He was also generally not doing great in school.  We tried to work hard with him on his reading at home, with some positive results.  However, behavior and other issues were still cropping up at school.  His teacher suspected ADHD.  So, we reached out to the school as concerned parents and asked what we could do.  They suggested a meeting with the school guidance counselor.  We met with her - she was an extremely nice lady who basically said "Don't worry - he's fine.  He's a younger child in the class and this is normal."  

Hearing that from a professional helped, but, we still weren't satisfied.  We went to a neurologist who suggested medication for ADHD.  We weren't thrilled with that idea, so, we went back to the drawing board.  My wife volunteered to help out in the classroom to try to get a feel for how things were going.  What she saw changed everything -- the teacher had completely lost control of the class and had given up.  Kids shouted across the room.  Kids stood in chairs and threw scissors at each other.  It was utter chaos.  Tyler couldn't learn because he was trying to learn in a war zone.

Our attitude with Tyler completely changed.  We went into survival mode with him.  "Just get through this, son.  It'll be better next year."

And you know what?  It was.  For second grade, he had an excellent teacher.  She was a firm disciplinarian that kept her kids in control.  Tyler absolutely excelled.  He went from struggling to thriving.  He went from hating to read to us having to tell him to turn off his light and go to bed.  He was even tested (and passed) for gifted.  The same kid that we almost put on ADHD medications -- all because the school system was turning a blind eye to a 1st grade teacher who had completely abdicated her responsibilities as an educator.

Example 2 - Williamson County
This year, we moved into WillCo.  Logan, my younger son, had also struggled somewhat in 1st grade.  He wasn't reading particularly well.  We suspected it was because he was able to walk all over his first grade teacher.  She was an extremely sweet lady -- Logan needs someone with a bit more backbone, otherwise, he can manipulate them.  

During out first conference with his teacher here in WillCo, we shared these concerns with her.  We told her that he had struggled in first grade and with all of the stress and change from the move, we expected it would probably continue.  We also told her to expect him to try to manipulate her.  

Things started off as expected.  Logan's reading was lagging behind where it should have been and his behavior wasn't great.  His teacher decided to focus on the reading first.  She kicked into gear and we worked as a team and his reading began to improve.  I can't say for sure what she did, but, it worked.  Logan also has to be credited for working hard on it.

Early in the second half of the year, his reading was improving, but, his behavior still wasn't great.  The response of the school?  They called a meeting with us.  In this meeting, we had his teacher, the vice principle, the guidance counselor, a psychologist, and a behaviorist.  I think there were 3 Ph.D.s sitting at that table.  We talked about Logan's personality and what does (and does not) motivate him and worked out a strategy for improving his behavior.  In this meeting, his teacher also shared with us that Logan's reading had gone from behind his grade level to actually beyond his grade level.  He was a 2nd grader reading like a 3rd grader.  We were incredible impressed.  The whole meeting was well conducted and gave a very real impression that Logan mattered to these people and that positive steps were being taken.

The plan we created in this meeting also ended up being very successful as well.  His behavior significantly improved at school and he continues to thrive academically.

So....  what is it that makes Williamson County schools so great?  Honestly -- I'm not sure.  I can't say where it comes from, if it is leadership or community involvement or what.  However, based on our experience I can say that -- no matter why they are great -- I'm just glad that they ARE great.

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