School Ratings, Enrollment, and the COVID-19 Home Buying Boom

A look at real estate agents’ role in selling your schools—and why it matters

While most sectors are experiencing major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is at least one major outlier: the housing market is booming. Low interest rates have made home buying accessible to a wide range of Americans. Couple those low rates with quarantining families, and you have the ingredients for what has become a “white hot” market, reports real estate site Redfin. What’s more, the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

For school leaders, this uptick in the housing market provides an opportunity. With families relocating, your district has the potential to grow your community, boost enrollment, and attract young teachers to your schools. However, many families’ first impression of your schools comes not from the district, but from a real estate agent.

From an economic standpoint, we see a critical opportunity for school leaders to connect with brokerages and examine their pipeline for recruitment. After all, you and your local real estate agencies have one thing in common: the more homes sold in your community, the more both of you benefit.

If you’ve ever purchased a home, you understand how complex the process can be. You might be wondering if real estate agents are even allowed to talk about schools, or what you, as a school leader, can do to change the narrative about your district. We’ll take a look at issues in the current home buying experience along with strategies for connecting with real estate agents in your area.

Buying a Home in America

About five and a half years ago, Integrated Schools podcast host Andrew Lefkowits was on the hunt for a family home in the Denver area. At the time, his kids weren’t old enough to be in school, but that didn’t mean that education didn’t play into the conversation. “We ended up buying our house in our current neighborhood for its very highly regarded school,” he told us. It wasn’t the school itself he was focused on; it was the school’s effect on home values.

“I hadn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about education,” he told us. His final choice—down the street from the house he grew up in—ended up costing him an estimated $75,000 to $150,000 extra due to its zoning. “I thought, Great. That’s where my kids will go to school. It’s one less thing to worry about,” he told us.

Before his kids were old enough to enroll, however, Lefkowits stumbled across an old VHS tape from his own elementary school’s talent show. Just as he remembered, the students were a reflection of his neighborhood at the time. The talent show, he says, “was this celebration of all of the various cultures that were in the school. It was a great insight into what I remember from elementary school. That’s the experience I wanted for my kids.”

He started to research the “great school” his kids were zoned to. It touted high test scores, excellent arts programs, opportunities for extracurriculars. However, Lefkowits found that it notably lacked diversity. As with so many neighborhoods in Denver, rising costs of living had driven out families of color in the decades since Lefkowits had been in school.

So he started to look into different schools in the area, but the experience was puzzling. “If you put in my ZIP code on GreatSchools, the school where my kids ended up transferring to—which is barely a mile from our house—doesn’t come up until the fourth page of results,” he says. The site showed him schools from another district before listing the school a few blocks away, which actually had the diversity Lefkowits was looking for. The school’s score on GreatSchools was 2 out of 10. However, Lefkowits doesn’t feel that this score represents his kids’ experience.

“Everything in the system pushes you to pick your house based on the schools, even if you don’t have kids. It’s tied to your property value anyway,” he says. “I felt like I knew enough about the neighborhood and the school to do that. But when I got here and started looking into it, I realized I didn’t actually have any sense of that at all.”

The barriers Lefkowits faced in finding a diverse school for his kids point to greater problems in the U.S. housing industry. The housing market, from real estate agents to homebuyers, leans on school ratings to determine everything from housing prices to school fit. As Lefkowits’s experience shows, there are lots of ways to measure a strong school—and many have nothing to do with test scores.

The COVID-19 Home Buying Boom

There are three main factors currently accelerating home buying in the U.S.: low interest rates, the need for more space, and a short supply of houses. Because of the pandemic, lots of new home construction was put on pause in the spring, creating increased demand for new housing.

Who is buying homes?

Many middle-class families with at least one parent working from home are starting their search. They’re looking for different reasons; some are interested in extra space, others are looking for a lower cost of living. However, these families commonly have a paycheck coming in to support the move. Most are white, college-educated, and employed in sectors largely unaffected by the pandemic.

While some homeowners are upgrading to larger homes, the surge is fueled by first-time homebuyers. Millennials are moving into homeownership at a large scale. Even those areas which have been seeing an exodus of young people should continue to see young, employed millennials purchase homes.

However, we also need to acknowledge the other side of the housing boom. The same economic conditions making home buying accessible for young, employed families is putting strain on those who have lost employment. If moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures are lifted, families may be on the hook for months worth of lost housing payments.

Where are buyers moving?

In this economy, rural areas have the opportunity to win big. While most small to mid-sized cities and suburbs had already been experiencing growth over the past few years, the notable change since March is that rural areas are rising in popularity. The search for more space and cheaper housing indicates that the longer the pandemic continues, the more rural communities will appeal to young families.

On the other hand, some areas that were formerly the most expensive in the U.S.—most notably New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area—are trending downward. For rural and suburban school districts, this could provide an opportunity for growth. The nearly overnight collapse in the appeal of large cities for businesses means that both corporations and individuals are looking to relocate to more affordable areas.

Right now, millennial families’ interests seem to be changing. Both small towns and rural areas have the opportunity to market more space, access to nature, affordable housing—qualities homebuyers are seeking. However, the young, middle-class families fueling the housing boom are also more likely to choose private schools, virtual schools, or homeschooling. If they don’t have a clear and compelling reason to choose your district over another option, you might miss out on the opportunity.

A School Leader’s Guide to Real Estate

For many school leaders, home buying isn’t new terrain. Whether you’ve already landed in your forever home or you’re still on the hunt, you understand the complexity of buying a house.

When we first started researching this article, we weren’t sure how much real estate agents were allowed to say about their neighborhood schools—much less if school leaders had a role in the process. However, as we talked with real estate agents and school leaders alike, we found some notable holes in brokers’ understanding of school quality. We believe that school leaders have both the capacity and authority to fill these gaps.

How much do schools actually affect the home buying process?

Of the many factors that play into home buying, school is near the top. When the National Association of Realtors (NAR) studied which elements buyers compromised on in their home search, they found that only 3% were willing to compromise on the quality of the neighborhood’s school—and that includes buyers without kids.

According to NAR, roughly half of buyers with school-aged children indicated that the quality of schools was an important factor, with another 50% indicating that convenience to schools was important.

Then there’s the issue of price. As in Lefkowits’s experience, houses cost more when they are zoned to “better” schools. A study from Realtor.com showed that houses zoned to highly rated public schools are an average of 49% more expensive than the national median listing price, and 77% more than homes zoned to lower-ranked districts. For many families, that’s a difference in tens of thousands of dollars.

Real estate agents can’t actually talk about schools, right?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. According to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, real estate agents are not allowed to “steer” families toward certain communities. Steering can be based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. Because school demographics so often match neighborhood demographics, talking about schools can be one way to steer a prospective buyer. However, what exactly agents are allowed to say—and whether or not those rules are followed—is a gray area.

Many agents, for example, don’t even attempt to play by the rules. In a 2019 Newsday study, investigative journalists in New York found that real estate agents shared district information that directed white families toward predominantly white schools. Similar school information often wasn’t disclosed to families of color.

For decades, real estate has been a coded way to talk about race and class in America. What makes a “good” or “bad” part of town are often the same factors that make a “good” or “bad” school. Generally, those factors have nothing to do with quality of education, but instead with both the race and socioeconomic status of a school’s students.

Oftentimes, this type of steering isn’t quite so direct. In researching this article, we heard stories from coworkers, school leaders, and even real estate agents themselves about brokers making their unconscious bias known—whether through tone, body language, or guided information about the district. Often, the agent didn’t explicitly steer a prospective buyer in any direction; they didn’t mention neighborhood demographics or provide an unsolicited opinion about schools in the area. But that doesn’t mean that their opinions weren’t clear. One white homebuyer we interviewed mentioned that her agent didn’t say anything overtly negative about the mixed-income neighborhood where she was looking. However, the agent did pose a few coded questions: What do you think of the street? Can you see yourself living here? These questions weren’t asked when touring higher income neighborhoods.

What can real estate agents legally say about local schools?

The short answer is nothing. Many brokers told us it’s ultimately safest for homebuyers to do their own research. After all, real estate agents are only allowed to share the facts, and they can’t share more facts with one family than another. On the other hand, many agents we spoke with actually considered it part of their job to match homebuyers with the type of school system they are looking for. One broker from the Houston area told us that her clients’ top priorities were great schools for their kids, and that need drove the home search. “Our focus is really zooming in on the quality of the elementary school and their ratings and reputation,” she says.

Generally, real estate agents we got on the line assured us that they stuck to the facts. Usually, they’re referring to school ratings such as those found on GreatSchools, SchoolDigger, or Niche. Whether a family does their own research or a real estate agent hands them information, both parties generally end up sifting through these external sites to learn about schools. And, of course, those rating systems are a far cry from a perfect measure of school quality.

For example, GreatSchools is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making a school’s quality digestible for parents. Each school receives a rating from 1-10 on GreatSchools, along with demographic data. But compressing an entire school’s story into a scale of 1-10 or A-F takes the full picture out of focus.

In 2019, Vox published an expose on GreatSchools, largely based on research conducted by Chalkbeat. They compared schools’ ratings on GreatSchools to the socioeconomic status of their surrounding areas, and the results weren’t so great. “GreatSchools’ ratings effectively penalized schools that serve largely low-income students and those serving largely Black and Hispanic students, generally giving them significantly lower ratings than schools serving more affluent, whiter student bodies,” Vox reports. Since then, GreatSchools has reacted, adding both an equity and a  growth measure into their ratings formula.

But the unavoidable problem with GreatSchools may not be the ratings site itself, but rather the parents sifting through the data. A 2020 Harvard report shows that while most parents across the board claim to support integration, they don’t act on it—especially as they start to get more data about potential schools. When ranking the top three most critical traits of their child’s school, a whopping 81% put academic quality in their top three answers, and 70% picked safety. Just under 10% selected racial and economic diversity as a critical trait. In short, parents might claim to value diversity, but when push comes to shove, they’re making choices largely based on their perception of the school’s academics.

The way a school’s academic data is depicted, then, matters quite a bit. Providing parents with an inaccurate or incomplete picture of a school’s academic quality can not only damage a school’s reputation, but potentially encourage self-segregation. We’ll talk more about the problems with school ratings—and how to explain them—later on.

Four Steps to Partnering with Real Estate Agents

With the acceleration of home buying due to COVID-19, you have an opportunity to reevaluate your pipeline for enrollment—especially real estate agents’ role in the process. Many future parents’ first introduction to your schools occurs during the search for a new home. With a little care and thoughtfulness, you can start planting the seed for advocacy before parents even think about enrolling.

Of course, real estate agents are a critical piece in this puzzle. While they aren’t allowed to share opinions about your district, they often play matchmaker between homebuyers and their dream schools. Without proper communication from the district, they may be leaning on misconceptions about your schools.

At Georgia’s Barrow County School System, Director of Public Relations and Strategic Partnerships Shenley Rountree understands the issue firsthand. “Barrow County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Georgia,” she tells us. “It’s really important to have good relationships with real estate agents so that they are representing our school system in a positive light with accurate data.”

In the past decade, schools in Barrow County have seen significant improvement. The graduation rate percentage jumped from 64% for the graduating class of 2011 to 88% for the class of 2019. Academic ratings have grown tremendously, and the district’s current superintendent is leading a rebranding effort spearheaded by innovation. The district’s tagline, Barrow BOLD, captures this idea: Building Our Learning Differently.

The problem is that real estate agents in the area remember the old Barrow. Part of Rountree’s job is to combat those misperceptions of the school system. “It’s important for us to be able to share the innovative things that are happening with our real estate agents, and, again, pass that information along to families so they can get excited about and apply for the different programs we have,” she tells us.

Fortunately, you and your local brokerage firm are actually on the same team. More homes sold in the district means a higher tax base for the community, more commission for real estate agents, and more students and employees for you. We’ll walk through four strategies to connect with and market toward brokers in your area.

Lean on your common goal.

There are myriad benefits to attracting homebuyers to your region—and not just for you. The onus falls on all local leaders, including chambers of commerce, business leaders, real estate agencies, and school leaders, to attract families to the district. Superintendents we spoke with leaned on partnerships with these entities to build a plan for community growth.

About a decade ago, Superintendent Dr. Jamie Skjeveland at Crosby-Ironton School District in Minnesota was at his wit’s end. “We would hire new teachers, and then those new teachers would literally walk out of our office, drive to the largest town out west, get a newspaper, and look for places to rent,” he groans. Teachers would buy a house in the neighboring town, have kids in the neighboring town, and enroll them in the neighboring town’s schools—all while taking a paycheck from Crosby-Ironton. “We were employing these people and increasing enrollment in the neighboring school district,” he says.

So Skjeveland called a meeting of local leaders. At the time, Crosby was somewhat of a ghost town. “You couldn’t even buy a pair of socks in Crosby!” he says. “So we leveraged our relationships. In 2013, we brought people together.” Skjeveland started hosting meetings that included real estate agents, journalists, teachers, and representatives from the chamber of commerce. “We just said, This needs to stop,” he says. Together, they leaned on one another to revitalize the town from the inside out.

Today, Crosby is far from a ghost town. Renowned bike trails run through the city, attracting active young residents. When a new teacher signs their contract to work at Crosby-Ironton, Skjeveland hands them a Crosby newspaper and the number of local realtor Verne Lewis, a close friend who was a key player in the town’s initial planning meetings. Then, the new candidate is ushered outside for a private tour with the chamber director. In short, you can now buy socks in Crosby.

Address the school ratings misconception.

As you probably know, school ratings—either from the state or private companies—may not be casting your schools in a positive, or even accurate, light. After all, rating a school is incredibly complex. The process of simplifying the data can change the story of what’s going on in your schools, especially if you’re serving disadvantaged students.

There are generally two main types of rating systems available to parents and real estate agents: state ratings and ratings systems created by private companies like GreatSchools, School Digger, and Niche. Most of these school ratings giants rely on assessment data available to them, often from national or state databases. While this data is useful in the right context—such as helping school leaders identify growth opportunities for students—you well know that test score data doesn’t paint a full picture of school quality. When parents lean on this data to compare schools, it often disadvantages those serving students with high needs.

“Proficiency is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status,” explains Dr. Andrew Ho, the Charles William Eliot Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The glaringly obvious problem is that students and families aren’t randomly assigned to schools.” In short, schools with more children from high-income families will often have higher ratings—even if students’ outcomes aren’t improving from year to year. A simple, apples-to-apples comparison of assessment data isn’t available between most schools because of differences in schools’ demographics.

To paint a more accurate picture of school quality, Ho and a team at Stanford University have pioneered the Educational Opportunity Project, a national database of academic performance. Instead of showing test scores alone, the database shares demographic data, average test scores, trends in test scores, and learning rates. Part of the program’s mission is to complicate and ultimately improve how we think about school quality.

In Georgia, Rountree connects with real estate agents to explain some of the issues with school rating companies in person. “I wanted to break down why those are not the best indicators,” she says. After attending meetings with Leadership Barrow, a program run by the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce, Rountree connected with a local real estate agent in the group. “She invited me to come and speak at two counties’ monthly realtors’ meetings,” she says.

At the meetings, Rountree presents the growth in Barrow County and directly addresses issues with the ratings systems. She lays out the factors going into school ratings companies’ algorithms, noting that the data doesn’t usually account for students’ socioeconomic circumstances and is often at least a year behind. To account for negative complaints, which are factored into Niche’s ratings, Rountree mentions the Yelp phenomenon: people rarely go online to leave a positive review. “We have to remind people that typically, if you’re going onto one of these websites, you’re more likely to be angry than not. You’re looking for somewhere to voice your frustrations,” she says.

In Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish Schools, Superintendent Hollis Milton usually counts on an A or B letter grade from the state each year. However, he still reminds the community of the shortcomings of any type of school ratings system. “The grade does represent something, and we have to be very honest about that,” he explains. “But you also remind parents: This is one snapshot. We’re definitely more than just a letter grade.“

When new test score data comes out, Milton shares it in context. “When you have three years of data, it’s more real. As soon as the scores come out, we want to celebrate what we can celebrate and share with our community,” he says. “And I believe if you have trust and relationships, all of the other stuff goes by the wayside.”

It goes back to one of the simplest, most holistic strategies available to school leaders: make sure your community knows about the great things going on in your schools. “We constantly communicate all the good things that are going on in our district,” says Milton. “You let stakeholder groups know: Here’s where we are. Here’s where we aspire to be. Here are the great successes.

Figure out where your schools excel, and sell that.

Most parents are looking for more than just a highly rated school; they want the best fit for their child. If their student has dyslexia, will the school be able to provide enough support? If their student is interested in robotics, will the school feed their curiosity? The language we hear real estate agents use describes matching a family with the school system they believe will best fit their needs.

In order for them to do so, however, your area real estate agents need to know where your schools excel. So help agents match prospective parents with your schools. Give them basic information about your district, but then, consider what makes your schools shine. While you may want to point out everything your teachers are acing, pick just a few examples. What core programs do you love to talk about at board meetings or with your peers across the country? What do parents in your community value? Your district’s core messaging lies at that specific intersection: What does your community need that your schools uniquely provide?

Click here for help developing your core messaging.                                            

Once you’ve narrowed down your messaging, make that information accessible. In Barrow County, Rountree’s team is building out a landing page for real estate agents with downloadable printouts for each campus. That way, agents have access to information about a school whenever they need.

Rountree also keeps communications with real estate agents specific. Before the pandemic, she drafted a quarterly email newsletter just for them. “Realtors are busy,” Rountree acknowledges. “So we highlight some of the key things that we want to emphasize with them on a regular basis.” She includes the district’s most impressive programs, focusing on arts and innovation.

But she also tailors each newsletter to the time of year, with an eye toward enrollment. “In July, it’s new student registration,” she says. “So if they just helped someone move in over the summer, they can send them the information about how they register their student with our school system, where they find supply lists, bus routes, and more.” The updates provide value to real estate agents, while giving families the tools they need to enroll at Barrow County.

To real estate agents, these types of connections are helpful. “We try to learn about what’s happening in schools all the time,” says Stuart Mackey, Executive Vice President of the Hathaway Real Estate Group in Arkansas. “We, as an association, have invited the Little Rock superintendent to come to our general meetings to tell us what’s going on in schools,” he says. “That is important to us.”

By supporting the superintendent, Mackey believes that real estate agents can help build better schools—which, in turn, increases home values. “We think it’s important to open the communication between the schools and the public, and we enjoy being a liaison to help make that connection,” he says.

Get real estate agents into your schools.

School today doesn’t look like it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago—and many real estate agents have lived in their communities for decades. At Barrow County, Rountree’s team created programs that invite all sorts of community members onto campus. “One of the most successful things we’ve seen is when you can get community members directly into the school. Then they walk away going, Wow. And they are huge advocates for us,” she says.

One of the most successful of these programs is Principal for a Day, a collaborative initiative with the district and the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce that kicked off last year. As part of the program, members of the chamber signed up to shadow a principal at one of the district’s schools. Last year, many of the attendees came on Halloween, getting to see school administrators in action and in costume.

But here’s what makes Principal for a Day great: the program is carefully crafted to leave a positive impression for attendees. Instead of throwing participants into a day in the life at Barrow County, administrators host an orientation breakfast days in advance. Community members sit next to their
mentor principals and learn where to park, what to wear, what they’ll eat for lunch. Afterward, participants are asked to reflect on their experience. A week later they reconnect, and the Barrow team plays a video of the day, complete with interviews from participants.

Images: Albert Smith, Principal of Westside Middle School, and campus visitors with the SchoolCEO caption: 'Barrow County’s Principal for a Day program gets community members onto campus to see firsthand how the district has changed. Last year, the program fell on Halloween, allowing stakeholders to see administrators in action and in costume.'

Of course, it’s not just real estate agents. In Louisiana, Milton is pulling prospective homebuyers onto campus as well. “We always remind real estate agents: We’re glad to give tours of our schools. We’re glad to bring prospective parents or employers in,” says Milton. “They’re usually blown away. You’re opening eyes of parents who realize: This school system offers a lot. This is something that I need to be a part of.

Buying a first home is one of the most exciting and expensive purchases of a person’s life. But when a family closes on a new home, the school district’s job has just begun. Think of enrollment as a pipeline. The average family makes a series of decisions from the time they show interest in a neighborhood to the time they enroll in school.

In marketing, touch points are every interaction your audience—potential homebuyers—has with your brand. In a great campaign, these touch points are optimized to share your brand’s story each step of the way. Many of the touch points in home buying are controlled by real estate agents, but not all of them, especially after the home is sold. In most cases, you want to be a step ahead of your audience, making it easy for them to accomplish your end goal.

When families move into your area, reach out with congratulations. Invite your new neighbors onto campus for a personalized tour. Answer questions. They are part of your community, so take the initiative to extend an invitation. You might just add a few new students to your district family.

Click here to learn more about building advocates for your schools.


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