BY OLYA FESSARD
One size doesn’t fit all. In finding the right school for their family, parents often have little more to go on than their own experience, the
advice of neighbors, or realtors. Selecting the right school can be tricky and hard work. Here are tips to aid you in choosing the best public
school—or any type of school—for your child.
One of the most important decisions your family will ever make is where your child will go to school. Choosing the best school for your child depends upon an awareness of his educational needs and a clear idea of your family’s values about education. Before you begin investigating schools, be sure to determine your child’s needs and what your family wants from a school.
YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS
When searching for the right school, you would do well to arrange a visit with your child’s present teacher to discuss his or her assessment of your son or daughter’s educational needs. This would be a good time to start a file containing your child’s education records and professional assessments. Such documentation can be valuable when addressing your individual student’s placement at a new school. If your child hasn’t attended any school yet, try to get an assessment of his present strengths and weaknesses by working with his preschool teacher or kindergarten teacher.
Parents will want to think about their child’s personality, learning style, and any special needs. Does the child need the structure that a traditional school setting would provide, or does he or she prefer to explore and take more personal responsibility for learning? Could she benefit from some type of alternative schooling approach? Does the child respond differently to being in small and large groups? If, for example, a child learns best in small cooperative work groups, then parents may want to consider finding a school that uses this instructional strategy. If a child has a special interest in music or a foreign language, then some preference might be given to a school that offers or excels in those areas in its regular curriculum or through after-school programming or clubs.
FAMILY VALUES AND NEEDS
What’s important to your family in the education of your child? Take the time to explore this question and make a list of ideals that are important to your family. In addition to family values, practical considerations such as transportation and tuition costs for private education are important. When you know what your child needs and what’s important to your family, you’re ready to evaluate new schools.
THE PLUS SIDE OF GOING PUBLIC
Every child is unique, and while some fare better in private school settings, there are many that thrive in public schools. Before you make a decision about your child’s education, give Middle Georgia public schools a second glance. The systems boast some special and unique programs that just might be the ideal fit for your child.
There are a number of magnet schools that offer specialized curricula in subjects from mathematics to performing arts, with the goal of bringing together talented students of different social, ethnic, economic, and racial backgrounds. Generally, each magnet school also serves its geographical area which brings children who are not especially gifted into the school as well. This serves to create a more diverse student body for all students. Many magnet schools offer a way to get an excellent education for your child without paying private school tuition. Unfortunately, there are no charter schools in Middle Georgia, but if your child doesn’t get into a magnet school, then look for one of the most academically-successful regular schools.
Given the size and scope of most public schools, athletic programs tend to be top-drawer, offering athletes the chance to work with seasoned coaches and compete in baseball, softball, golf, basketball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse. and of course, football.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
Know your options under the “No Child Left Behind Act.” Parents of children in public schools designated as “in need of improvement” can choose another public school or supplemental educational services (free tutoring). If your child’s public school receives federal Title I funds, it must let you know how well the students in the school are learning.
The school district must contact parents if the school does not meet the academic standards set by the state for two consecutive years. You can find out how well your neighborhood school is doing by looking at the school’s report card online at www.gppf.org. If your child’s school has been identified by the state as in need of improvement, the school district must give you the choice of keeping your child in that school or sending him or her to another public school.
If your child must attend a school that has “needed improvement” for more than a year, your school district is required to give you a list of organizations and institutions that provide tutoring or extra help outside of the regular school day. This extra help is called “supplemental educational services.” If your child is eligible for this help, and your income is low, the school district may pay for these extra services. Such services may include before- and after-school tutoring in reading, other language arts, or math.
If you aren’t sure whether the school is “in need of improvement” and whether your child qualifies to receive supplemental educational services, contact the school or the school district and ask for the person(s) in charge of choice and supplemental services programs. You can also go to http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/ for a list of schools in need of improvement and approved supplemental educational services providers. If you have difficulty finding these lists, call the U.S. Department of Education at 1-888-814-6252 for help in reaching your Georgia contact, or go to the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site at www.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html for a list of contacts in Georgia.
You can address your child’s unique needs and abilities by asking about special programs offered by the district or within each school. Special education, gifted programs, art, science, and music classes, are all special programs offered by many schools and within most school districts. Alternative programs are classes that offer an alternative to the traditional education curriculum. Such programs are usually parent initiated, and are the school district’s attempts to accommodate parents’ desire for attention to the special needs of their children. If your child happens to have a disability, not only would she have the choice of public schools, but recent legislation stipulates that she would now be eligible to attend one of several local private schools with hefty financial aid from the state.
Choosing the neighborhood school regardless of other factors may be the best option for many families with close ties to their neighbors and neighborhood community, while choosing a magnet, alternative, or private religious or secular school may be the best choice for others.
7 TIPS FOR RESEARCHING SCHOOLS
1) Safety First
A safe school is the top priority of parents everywhere. Unfortunately, like society at large, schools generally have become less safe for children. The two areas of growing concern are violence within the schools among its students, and the potential for crime and violence from surrounding neighborhoods.
First, evaluate the neighborhood in which the prospective school is situated. An interview with your local law enforcement agency will give you accurate statistics about crime in the neighborhoods within its jurisdiction. This information may help you to narrow your selection of schools. When you tour each candidate school, observe playground interactions and ask about school rules, how they’re enforced, and about the incidence of violence among the children.
Find out what safety measures and policies are in place at the school. What are procedures for adults taking students out of school? Are playgrounds fenced and locked? Look for smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and ask about practice drills to prepare children for an emergency. Talk to the school nurse if one is on staff to find out if immunization requirements are strictly enforced and how communicable illnesses and diseases are addressed. What are the policies on corporal punishment, and do you agree with them? Is safety education part of the school curriculum?
2) Class Size
The ideal number of students per classroom is a hotly debated issue across the country. Schools save money by hiring fewer teachers when they maintain large classes. Some schools divide their grades or groups into large classes, but provide each teacher with one or more adults to aid in supervision, as nonprofessionals earning a lower wage and generally possessing less formal training. This increases the ratio of adults to children in the classroom and can minimize the disadvantages of large classes. Ask about adult to child ratios in the classrooms and on the playground. Also ask about certified teacher to child ratios. How many students are assigned to a classroom teacher? The smaller the class size the better, especially in the primary grades. How do the teachers teach? In many schools, teachers work with students in small groups or work in teams to teach larger groups.
Question the school administrator you interview about the school’s staff, its teachers, and other professionals as well as support staff. Ask about the number of teaching positions and the average tenure of the teachers to get an idea of staff turnover. Arrange to interview the teachers at your child’s grade level if the school looks promising. Does the administration offer flexibility in their teaching positions, such as shared assignments? These arrangements can be an advantage for students and administrators because they get the benefits of two qualified professionals for nearly the price of one. This kind of flexibility also can reduce stress on teachers, minimizing the risk of classroom “burnout.”
4) Curriculum and Extracurricular Activities
Ask questions about the school’s curriculum with your own child’s needs and abilities in mind. The administration should be able to provide you with a printed curriculum by grade level. Talk with your child’s prospective teacher to get a better idea of how the standard curriculum might be implemented. Is the library/media center well equipped and organized? If you are looking at a high school, check to see what percentage of the students go on to college. What extracurricular activities does the school sponsor? Some schools have student councils and a variety of clubs for special interests like music, drama, and chess. What about intramural or extramural sports?
Check to see what services are available at the school. Look for guidance counselors, an on-site nurse, a librarian, and a secretary, and check to see if they work at more than one school. If any of these key personnel do work at more than one school, be cautious!
Is there an after-school program and child care if your child could benefit from these programs? The question can be critical for working parents.
How does the school communicate with parents? Is there a regular newsletter? Are parents’ calls welcome? Is there an active parent organization? Ask for a schedule of events and plan to attend the first meeting. What is the school’s discipline policy? (The school should provide a printed copy of this policy.) How are students graded? (Ask for a sample report card and explanation of the grading system.) How often are textbooks and classroom materials reviewed and updated? There should be fixed schedules. Is there a school homework policy? Some schools prefer to leave homework decisions to individual teachers.
7) Facilities, Materials, and Maintenance
When you tour your child’s prospective school, look at it as a health and safety inspector would. Ask to see the rest rooms because their maintenance will give you an indication of the cleanliness standards at the school. Look for a well-lighted, ventilated, adequately heated and cooled facility. Is drinking water readily available? Where do the children eat, and are school lunches provided? If so, ask to see a current menu.
Are the playgrounds well equipped with safe and challenging structures or game areas? What kinds of learning equipment can the students access? Are computers available? Is the library well stocked with a varied selection of quality reading material? Look at textbooks for their condition and publish date. Older language textbooks are not as critical as obsolete science books. How are textbooks selected, and how often are they replaced?
When you’ve done your research and applied some thoughtful introspection, talked it over with your child and other family members, and checked with members of your community, you’re ready to make an informed decision about which school is best for your child. You may not find the ideal school, but applying your ideals to the school you’ve chosen for your child is a way of supporting and maintaining excellence in education.
ERIC Documents and Journal Articles
U.S. Department of Education
Buying, Selling, and Owning Your Own Home by Kathleen McBride
10 Top Things to Look for at a Glance
• Children are neither invisible nor scared to be at school
• Gut reaction that this is the school for your child
• Rigorous curriculum
• Families like yours are welcome, and your concerns are acknowledged
• You are satisfied with the school’s results on standardized tests and school report cards
• High expectations
• Busy students
• Great teachers
• Great principal
• Vibrant parent-teacher organization
Source: Minnesota Department of Education