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In search of the perfect school

Blogger says it doesn't exist - unless you want to create it yourself.

When Len Lipkin was growing up in Morristown, N.J., education was pretty simple. You went to your local public school.

So when he and his wife, Jill Maderer, a rabbi, started a family in Chestnut Hill, they did not know where to start looking in the maze of magnet, charter, and private schools.

Google searches yielded little information, so Lipkin, 40, began blogging about his hunt for the right school for his children, Moshe, 5, and Pria, 3.

The blog, "Philly School Search" (, has become a go-to source for many parents. It has covered such topics as whether it's wise to take school advice from friends (his answer is no) and what diversity really means.

Inquirer reporter Miriam Hill spoke with Lipkin, who works in information technology, about his search and the site:

Question: How did you come up with the idea for "Philly School Search"?

Lipkin: When I started the process of looking for schools, probably somewhere around when my son was 3, I was kind of overwhelmed by it and was trying to understand things like voluntary transfers. [These transfers allow Philadelphia School District parents to apply to send their children to district schools outside their own attendance areas.]

In Philly, you might go to an elementary school, and then you might go to a magnet middle school, and then you might switch up again in high school.

I just figured I'd write down what I was doing.

Q: How many visitors does your blog have now?

Lipkin: I started in December 2009. By March 2010, the site had 4,100 page views per month; by March 2011, 10,000 page views per month.

I wrote a couple of posts about Masterman and the Independence Charter lottery, and I think those probably started coming up in Google searches.

Q: How do you decide what to write about?

Lipkin: The bottom line is that most of the things I end up writing about are things I'm thinking about. If I had a diary, it might look like exactly what I'm writing about.

I'm not interviewing principals. I'm not making special visits to schools that go beyond where my own personal school choice would take me. The only thing I have done for the sake of the blog that I may not have done for myself was to go to one of the charter school lotteries to see what that's like firsthand.

[Of the lottery to get into Independence, a coveted charter, Lipkin wrote: "It was dead silent. Parents' faces showed anxiety and sadness, but nobody spoke except for school officials, who were clearly heartbroken themselves."]

Q: How many schools did you consider?

Lipkin: We were considering moving, so we probably ended up with 12 to 15 schools in the running.

Q: Is all this studying and obsessing good for us, for the kids?

Lipkin: People want the choice, and they kick, scream, beg, borrow, and steal to try to do it, but I think the consequence is it does create a lot of anxiety along the way. When I had that sort of epiphany while I was doing the blog, I felt a little guilty about continuing it, but the anxiety existed beforehand.

You can get caught up in really collecting every single sliver of information about every school, and that can kind of drive you nuts.

Q: So how do people boil it down?

Lipkin: I would tell people that there is no perfect school out there unless you are ready to start one yourself. As you are bombarded with information from friends, schools, and, yes, the Internet, try to determine what two to three things are most important to you and your family with regard to your child's education. Let those core things drive your choice, and don't let the rest of it drive you insane.

Q: Wouldn't it be simpler to just move to Lower Merion?

Lipkin: It was on the list. For us the commute was part of it. We both work in the city. We were hoping for a little bit more diversity than what was there, but the schools seemed really top-notch.

Q: Did you look at your local public school?

Lipkin: Yes. It just didn't fit. [He tries not to share his opinions about specific schools.]

Q: Finally, you chose Germantown Friends.

Lipkin: Yes, and we'll be eating ramen noodles every night. [Germantown Friends tuition starts at $18,000 for kindergarten and rises to $27,500 by 12th grade.]