"Every Haystack Has at Least One Needle." By William L. Bainbridge and Steven M. Sundre. Relocation Journal. Spring 1987.

Every Haystack Has At Least One Needle

By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D.

One of the most renowned communication experts of all time, Walter Lippman, wrote in his benchmark publication, Public Opinion, that reality is the "images in our heads." What is real is as much a function of perception as it is fact.

In the territory that encompasses southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts, there exists a widely-held perception about the school systems in the two states, and it goes something like this: If you relocate in New Hampshire, you can save money on housing and taxes but you will sacrifice on quality education.

For the relocation professional, as well as for the family that is being relocated, this public perception creates a tough dilemma. It is almost a "Do you still beat your wife?" kind of situation.

In this case, the question is: "Which is more important? You children’s education or your own pocketbook?" Obviously, for most families, both of these questions are important.

Rather than selecting a home site in one area because "the living costs are more reasonable" versus another area because "the schools are better," a family can have the best of both worlds. It can find a "good" school system in New Hampshire where the cost of living is perceived to be less than in Massachusetts. It can also find a "good" school system in parts of Massachusetts where housing and taxes are reasonable.

In most of New England, where the number of school system options available to a relocating family is staggeringly high, there is no reason to discount any area—whether it be in southern New Hampshire or northeastern Massachusetts. To either include or exclude an area based upon its publicly perceived reputation can be a big mistake. Within any area, particularly New England, exceptions to the rule proliferate.

Here is an excellent example of this important point. In order to provide a real life example of our contention in this article, we reviewed a SchoolMatch search for a family in the Lowell, Massachusetts area. With SchoolMatch, which contains 22 different variables of information about each of the 15,892 public school systems throughout the Unites States, we were able to scan the entire Lowell are in search of school systems that matched up with our preferences on each of these 22 variables. Within a 45-mile radius of Lowell, there are 121 school systems from which to choose.

In completing the SchoolMatch Family Profile Questionnaire, the family in question said they preferred to live in a small school system that paid its teachers well, was academically rigorous and had a low pupil/teacher ratio, but that was in an area where the cost of living was not high. Several other factors are included in the questionnaire, but these are the ones that were most important to this family moving to the Lowell area.

Some of these other factors include: the degree of participation in the public school system of those children who are eligible to attend those schools; school system expenditure for pupil instruction, library and media services, school buildings and facilities, guidance and counseling, psychological services, and vocation and technical training; the percentage of families with school-aged children; and the educational level of the school system residents. Several specific information variables contribute to school system size, teach salaries, academic rigor, and pupil/teacher ratios which were singled out as the most important concerns for the hypothetical family moving into the Lowell area.

The SchoolMatch Profile Report of the school districts within 45 miles that best match our requirements is enlightening, and explicitly illustrates the point of this article. Of the 121 school system options, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were both represented in the top 20 school system matches.

In this particular case, Hollis and Londonderry, New Hampshire, both matched up well with the preferences on this sample profile. Several school systems in Massachusetts matched up well with this hypothetical family’s desire to live in an area where the living costs were not out of sight. They include Ipswich and Framingham, among others. For another family the choices and results would have revealed other school districts.

As with an individual, a school system’s personality is multidimensional. the size of the school system, the scope of its curriculum, the opportunity for personalized instruction, the socioeconomic makeup of the community in which the school system is located, the cost of living in the area, the accessibility to services that meet specialized family needs and the academic rigor of the school system are just a few of the factors that determine the personality of a school system.

While some families prefer to live in a school system that is large, many others prefer to send their children to a smaller, more personalized school system. While some families want their children in a school system with a highly competitive academic atmosphere, others feel it is better for their children to be in an academic setting that is not quite so rigorous. While some families would prefer to live in a school system where the home property values and the per capita income are relatively high, others would prefer to live in a good school system with a more moderate cost of living.

A good system for one family may not be a good school system for another. Quality education and family lifestyle preferences are inextricably intertwined. If a family relies on test scores and public reputation as the primary guide to finding the right school system, it limits itself to a small number of potential choices and, in turn, may be disappointed because other needs are not met.

The point of all of this is this. Through an interactive system such as SchoolMatch which can dissect an area full of school systems and then match them against a family’s unique set of school system preferences, it is indeed possible to help that family find what it wants, whether it be in New Hampshire where "you can save money on housing and taxes but sacrifice on quality education" or in Massachusetts where "you have good schools but pay through the nose to live there."

Just as every proverbial haystack has at least one needle, every area, irrespective of what the public perception may be, has at least one school system that will match up well with a family’s lifestyle needs.

(William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D. are president and executive vice president, respectfully, of Public Priority Systems, Inc., creators of SchoolMatch, a national public school matching service. Dr. Bainbridge has over 17 years of experience in public school management, having served as superintendent of three school systems (in Ohio and Virginia) and as assistant to the state superintendent of public instruction in Ohio. Dr. Sundre has held several senior academic and management positions in higher education institutions and associations. He has served as vice president of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration and as executive director of the accrediting commission on education for Health Services Administration.)