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Shadyside-based Niche.com mines surveys, data for school ratings

Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, 10:30 p.m.

Substitute Superintendent Robert Scherrer of North Allegheny School District pursues public input on how his schools are performing.

He hosts monthly forums with parents, convenes regularly with business professionals and faith-based leaders, and asks committees of students, parents and community members to guide major decisions such as a plan to equip 2,100 students this year with iPads or laptops.

“When you start to talk to kids and parents,” said Scherrer, who oversees 12 schools centered in the McCandless area, “then you see it through their eyes, and it allows us to get better at what we do.”

That's why Scherrer and his administrative team recognize the value in a nationwide K-12 school ranking by Shadyside-based Niche.com Inc.

Niche — which was founded in 2002 as CollegeProwler.com, a website that compared colleges — combines federal and state data with parent and student surveys to rank more than 100,000 American public and private schools on metrics from best outcomes and best teachers to best sports.

“We don't chase rankings, but the power of the Niche rankings is that you get qualitative feedback,” Scherrer said. “It's the nuances you can pull out that help you see we're really organized to help students become successful.”

In the greater Pittsburgh region, Niche users said North Allegheny Senior High School is the safest and highest-performing, Pittsburgh Public Schools is the most diverse district and City Charter High School, Downtown, serves the best food.

“People can pick and choose what matters most to them, and the rankings help to guide them in that process, since statistics can be overwhelming,” Niche spokeswoman Alex Caffee said.

Review-driven rankings

What sets Niche apart from other school rating systems, including state school report cards, is its heavy reliance on self-reported student and parent surveys.

“Parents can look at a ranking, but they want to know more: What do people think about this school, or what is it really like?” Caffee said. “Our reviews can tell that story.”

Niche is poised to do for K-12 families through reviews what Rotten Tomatoes does for moviegoers and Yelp for diners — bolstered by federal Department of Education statistics.

“Brand new science labs and building. Great study space in the library,” wrote a high school senior in February about private Sewickley Academy in Edgeworth.

“The school cafeteria takes extra steps to feed to students healthy foods instead of just greasy items,” one user wrote in July about City Charter on Stanwix Street.

The website claims to have collected 27 million reviews from about 300,000 users posting as students or parents. Its opinion pool includes reviews from 210,300 users across Pennsylvania and 21,000 in greater Pittsburgh, according to Niche.

At Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, a high school senior wrote: “There isn't much diversity. Most students are middle- to upper-class and are of white ethnicity. However, there is an ever-present population of exchange students in the school.”

Niche ranked Quaker Valley No. 6 in Pennsylvania and gave the school an overall “A+” — but a “B-” for student culture and diversity. Eighty-six percent of its students are white.

A parent said of Hampton High School in Allison Park: “We moved to Hampton from another state and the office staff and counselors were very helpful.” Counselors connected the son with a student who told him about the school via text messages and “even met him on his first day and showed him around.”

Top schools

Niche uses as its boundaries the census-designated Pittsburgh metro area of 2.36 million residents. It includes some schools in eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and Maryland. Its map tool shows the region's most overall “A+” schools clustered in Pittsburgh's South Hills and areas surrounding Sewickley and Franklin Park.

North Allegheny claimed the top overall ranking in the metro area and third-highest in Pennsylvania. The district has a 99 percent high school graduation rate, according to Niche. Eighty-nine percent of the 8,190 students scored proficient in reading and math on standardized tests.

“Our focus is on developing a strong curriculum that really engages students,” Scherrer said.

In comparison, North Allegheny ranked seventh-highest in Western Pennsylvania when averaging its schools' latest state School Performance Profiles.

Edging it out to claim the top spots were North Hills, Mars, Mt. Lebanon, Moon and Peters.

Rounding out the top five districts on Niche are Upper St. Clair, Quaker Valley, Mt. Lebanon and Hampton.

Caveats to consider

The state Department of Education's School Performance Profiles, or SPPs, assign ratings on a 100-point scale published at paschoolperformance.org . The formula is based 50 percent on test scores; 40 percent on academic growth; and 10 percent on indicators such as graduation and attendance rates.

The SPPs have some advantages over Niche. They pull data from school districts unavailable to Niche, including details on school spending. The state report cards are more current; federal education data tend to be two to three years behind.

Niche cannot verify the identity of its anonymous users, though it flags and removes inappropriate posts or off-topic remarks. The site offers incentives to draw reviews, including a monthly contest that awards a $2,000 scholarship.

“We do not have a system in place to check the validity of reviews,” Caffee said, “but luckily users can only review a place once.”

Niche will publish updated K-12 rankings in November, based on 2012-13 government data and surveys taken this year.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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