The guide you're reading is by far the most comprehensive report ever published on how the high schools of the greater Seattle area are doing.
The product of more than eight months of reporting and research by Seattle Times staffers, it's based on information provided by the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and by the districts and schools themselves, plus our own surveys and dozens of interviews with educators, parents and students about just what makes an effective school.
In these pages you'll find thousands of facts, on everything from a school's attendance rate to the grades its students get at the University of Washington; from its sports championships to its students' assessment of their classroom teaching.
But as exhaustive as this guide is, it comes with a warning label:
Numbers alone, valuable as they often are, aren't nearly sufficient to do that. Schools are like people, with their own personalities -- their own special chemistry that can make them work for some students and not for others.
As you read the data, we hope you'll do what we've tried to do and what the experts we consulted recommend:
Don't look just at test scores, or any one measure. Look at as many measures of school quality as you can. The more you look at, the fuller a picture you get.
The data in this guide should be read more as a weather report than a report card. If a school turns up at the top of a number of these criteria, the prevailing winds are blowing in the right direction. If a school turns up at the bottom, it's worth asking why; there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation.
If test scores are low, for example, is it because the school includes special-education students in the testing, while other schools exclude them? Is the school making progress in improving its scores? If the school has a high rate of suspensions and expulsions for safety reasons, does that mean the school is more dangerous than others -- or simply that administrators respond more aggressively to any potential problems?
And remember: Many educators agree that most statistics tell you more about who goes to a school than about how the school is doing. A school full of students whose parents are all Ph.D.s is going to do better on most educational measures than a school full of students whose parents never attended college -- no matter how good that second school may be.
So use this guide as a starting point. Study it. Talk about it with your children, and with other parents. Look at a school's test scores -- but also look at its curriculum highlights and range of activities.
Paint a picture in your mind of the whole school, based on what you've read. Think about how your child might take advantage of the special offerings of a school -- or about how you might help the school add some of the special offerings you notice at other schools.
And then go ask questions.
We've included a special checklist feature to help you visit and evaluate a school. Print it out and take it with you. Other questions should be based on the things you see in this guide that are the most important to you.
If something doesn't make sense, ask the school about it. If you see something that seems to need fixing, volunteer to help -- or simply make it clear that you care about the quality of the education.
Because if there's a single thing most educators agree on, it's that the biggest factor in students' success is the degree to which their parents care about, and participate in, their children's education.
We hope this guide will help you do just that.