InsideSchools, founded in 2002, grew out of a series of books: New York City’s Best Public Elementary Schools, New York City’s Best Public Middle Schools and New York City’s Best Public High Schools.
When I first wrote the books, the conventional wisdom was that the public schools were beyond repair, avoided by anyone with a choice. But as I looked for my own children, I was heartened to find dozens of inspiring schools across the city, not just in expensive neighborhoods but in poor and working class neighborhood as well.
Figuring out how to get your child into these schools was another story. I’d been a newspaper reporter at City Hall and a foreign correspondent for many years—I’d even covered the Vatican—and I thought I understood secretive bureaucracies. But getting information from the Board of Education in those days was like nailing Jell-O to the wall. I wrote the book to help parents make sense of a complicated system of school choice.
I was working at Advocates for Children, a non-profit organization that provides legal services to children with disabilities, when my boss, Jill Chaifetz, suggested that we build a website to give more parents access to the information in the books. With a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, InsideSchools was launched in 2002, with entries on all the public schools in New York City—not just those in the books. Along with Pamela Wheaton, the managing editor of InsideSchools, reporter Jacqueline Wayans, longtime volunteer Judy Baum, and a group freelance writers, we set out to visit every school in the city, about 1,100 at the time.
The next decade was a time of rapid change in the school system. The state legislature gave Mayor Mike Bloomberg, elected in 2001, control of the school system. Bloomberg’s first school chancellor, Joel Klein, moved aggressively to close hundreds of schools, to open hundreds more, and to rapidly expand school choice, including charter schools. At InsideSchools, we scrambled to keep up with the changes.
In 2010, InsideSchools found a new home at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, a public policy think tank. The number of public and charter schools had grown to 1,800 and it was becoming increasingly difficult for our small staff to visit all of them. At the same time the city was getting better at gathering and publishing data about schools—not just test scores and graduation rates but information on safety and climate from surveys of hundreds of thousands of teachers, students and parents. We compiled this data into easy-to-read graphics called InsideStats, launched in stages from 2012 to 2014. We continued visiting schools, but InsideStats meant we had up-to-date information even for the schools we couldn’t visit.
Mayor Bill De Blasio, elected 2013, rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten offering seats to every 4-year-old in the city. We added statistical profiles for 1,800 pre-kindergarten programs, the majority of which are housed not in ordinary public schools but in child care centers, private and parochial schools and community organizations.
We redesigned the site for mobile devices in 2017. We added “guided searches” for high schools and middle schools in the 2018-19 school year. Our traffic grew to 1.9 million unique visitors a year.
I stepped down from leadership of InsideSchools in the summer of 2019, confident that our work will continue and the website will continue to be the most trusted source of information about New York city’s public schools for many years to come.
--Clara Hemphill, founding editor