What’s the best way to size up a school? It’s a seemingly simple question that, as any parent knows, actually can be fraught with confusion and misinformation. This past May, 5280 assembled a panel of experts to discuss the state of local education and discover smarter methods for evaluating schools. The word the panelists kept returning to was “character,” the elusive, varied, often unquantifiable quality that arises frequently in the top schools—and sometimes where you least expect it. Sure, a quick Internet search will reveal test scores, class size, and graduation rates, but these numbers tell only a sliver of the story. In fact, true character can be found throughout the Denver area, in schools rich and poor, public and private, homogeneous and diverse.

Our 2008 guide to Denver’s top schools uncovers which of these institutions are best demonstrating this crucial quality. We highlight the old standbys, uncover the hidden gems, and supplement our roster of 44 noteworthy schools with stories and information to help you make smarter choices. We’ll assess alternative school options, describe the latest changes to standardized testing, reveal the untold influence a strong PTA can have on a school’s development, and grade Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet’s performance so far. We’ve even offered a few lists from education insiders that will help you choose a new school or better evaluate the one your child already attends. Do yourself—and your children—a favor, and see what’s behind the numbers. Educational character may be closer than you think.

Read “The Power of the PTA.”