By Olya Fessard JANUARY 2015
A comprehensive guide that will help you decide exactly which issues you need to explore with a prospective school.
When searching for the right school, you would do well to arrange a visit with your child’s present teacher—if any—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 child’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.
What is 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.
CHOOSING A PUBLIC SCHOOL
According to a major study from the National Center for Education Statistics, public school teachers tend to be more qualified than their independent school counterparts in terms of education and experience. For example, they’re more likely to have a master’s degree, and to have logged more hours pursuing in-service study—learning, for example, how to use computers in the classroom. The report also indicates that on average, public school teachers earn higher salaries than those in private schools do. Having said that, it is a matter of geography. Only you can decide if this ‘average’ holds up where you happen to live. Without a doubt, there are advantages in enrolling your child in a public school, one of which is it’s free.
How to Get a Great Education for Free
Each child deserves a basic and efficient education in any public school. So if this is what you are looking for, your first step would be to contact your local Office of Education or Superintendent of Schools for a list of schools within your local jurisdiction. The next step is to try to figure out how to get the best public education for FREE.
Is there a magnet school available to you? There are a number of magnet schools in Bibb County 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.
Another way to get a free education is with a charter school. Central Georgia now has one Bibb County charter school with at least three others ready to start with the 2015–2016 school year. The one that began with the 2014–2015 school term now has a waiting list of more than 700. Therefore, be sure to register early if this is what you decide is the best bet for your child.
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 on-line at 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.They must also provide 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.
Supplemental educational services (SES) are additional academic assistance designed to increase the academic achievement of students attending a Title I school that has been designated by the state to be in need of improvement for more than one year. These services include tutoring and are provided to students in subjects such as reading and math. SES must be provided outside of the regular school day.
If you are not 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 state contact, or go to the U.S. Department of Education’s Website at ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html for a list of contacts in your state.
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. If your child is disabled, your school system is required to meet his special needs with an Individual Education Program (IEP).
In dealing with a disabled child, you may want to go beyond the teacher’s assurance that he or she is “making adequate progress.” The teacher is giving you an opinion based on subjective observation. Your child’s progress must be measured periodically with objective testing, such as the Composite Scores & Subtest Scatter in the WISC-IV, Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Achievement (WJ-III ACH), Norm Referenced and Criterion Referenced Tests, or even the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). If your school uses one of these tests periodically, carefully compare each year’s report with the previous one to ascertain the progress of your child. After you get the results of objective testing, you will know whether or not your child is really making progress toward the goals in the IEP. Additionally, by Georgia law, a parent may request reevaluation every three years.
The Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program allows any student with a disability whose parents are dissatisfied with their assigned public school to receive a voucher to attend private school. According to Bibb County’s Special Education Director, Donna G. Poole, scholarships generally range from $2,500–$13,500. $6,000 is the average scholarship amount.
If you have questions or concerns about whether your child is really making progress, you need to get objective testing of the academic skills areas—reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling. After you get the results of objective testing, you will know whether or not your child is really making progress toward the goals in the IEP.
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 private religious or secular school may be the best choice for others.
CHOOSING A PRIVATE SCHOOL
A basic question that many parents struggle with is that of public vs. private school. Parents do not want to take on unnecessary expenses if it will not ultimately benefit their child. After all, many public schools do an excellent job of educating students. While it is true that public schools do not have tuition costs, the benefits of a private education can still far outweigh the costs depending on the local options parents may face.
Maybe your child has special needs that you feel the public school system cannot provide. Maybe you are less than satisfied with the academic achievements or safety records of the public schools where you live. Maybe you believe your child will be exposed to clearer value systems in a private school. No matter what the reasons are for your decision, with so many schools to choose from, you have a tough decision to make.
If you do decide to pursue private schooling for your child, start the research process early. Admission to private schools can be competitive, and finding a school that is a perfect fit for your child where he or she will also be accepted, may take some time. Be sure to check out our PRIVATE SCHOOL GUIDE, as well as the individual SCHOOL PROFILES in this issue.
How to Check Out any School
After studying the comprehensive lists below, the next step in checking out any school—public or private—is to call for an appointment to talk to an administrator and tour the facility. Be prepared with a list of questions that address the criteria you’ve selected to judge the schools you are considering. Such criteria might include safety; proximity to your home or work; transportation; class sizes; after-school programs or child care; facilities, materials, and maintenance; staff; curriculum; shared values; and/or special programs.
Familiarize yourself with application deadlines. Some schools require applications much earlier than others. Don’t miss an Open House! A school’s Open House can be quite revealing if you keep your eyes and ears open. Check out our SCHOOL OPEN HOUSES list in the TAKE NOTE section of each issue for dates and times.
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? 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?
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. These adults are mostly 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.”
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? (Can children regularly check out books and use the center’s resources?) 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 debate, drama, and chess.
Check to see what services are available at the school. Is there an after-school program and child care available? The question can be critical for working parents. Look for guidance counselors, an on-site nurse, a librarian, and a secretary, and be leery if they work at more than one school.
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.
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 restrooms, 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 perfect school, but applying your ideals to the school you’ve chosen is a way of supporting and maintaining excellence in education. #