Fifteen years ago, an online tool for parents about schools in two Silicon Valley, Calif., counties had 1,300 users.
Fast forward to 2013, and that site, GreatSchools.org, has 44 million users and is a go-to tool for parents seeking information about schools. While online start-ups founded in 1998, like Pets.com (Remember the sock puppet? I still have mine!), have since folded, GreatSchools boasts more than 1 million school reviews from parents, teachers, and students.
"GreatSchools continues to thrive because we started with a great idea: Helping families make better educational decisions by bringing them better information," said Bill Jackson, GreatSchools chief executive officer.
The San Francisco-based national nonprofit posts online profiles of 200,000 public and private pre-K-12 schools. GreatSchools also provides parents with practical advice, articles, videos, and strategies to support their children's education, along with much-needed guidance to evaluate schools.
Much like Yelp (47 million reviews) finds the best Sushi in town and TripAdvisor (125 million reviews) locates family-friendly hotels for their users, GreatSchools aims to provide parents with a combination of data and reviews about their local schools. GreatSchools is currently working on adding more data to its school profiles, allowing parents to narrow their searches based on their child's specific educational needs.
Moving across the country and finding a home, and, more importantly a school, in 48 hours fried my nerves last year. Choosing a school and then deciding it's not the right fit for your child, isn't easily remedied. It's not like you're buying a videogame that can be returned for free to Amazon.com.
So parents should always balance online school reviews with common sense follow-up, like visiting the school, meeting the principal, and talking to parents of current students in an attempt to fully understand what a school has to offer, said Alan Simpson, GreatSchools director of communications.
"Parents want to see a school that has good scores but that's not the only thing they are looking for," Simpson said. "They want a warm welcoming place where their children will thrive."
That's something a test score just won't show.