BY OLYA FESSARD
FINDING THE RIGHT SCHOOL FOR YOUR CHILD HAS NEVER BEEN EASY, BUT IN TODAY’S FALTERING economy and with the rise in private school costs, the choice is even more important. So we asked Middle Georgia’s admissions directors of public and private school systems to help us demystify the myriad of available information and provide a side-by-side analysis of schools. And once again, we’ve produced Middle Georgia’s most comprehensive guide to local primary and secondary schools.
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
If your child is presently in school, 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. It’s important that your child’s present teacher provide you with a clear idea of your child’s academic level. This will indicate his mastery of skills when compared with other children his own age. You’ll want a developmental and social assessment to let you know how your child manages the challenges of the classroom and interacts with classmates. Such information is comparative, like academic ability, and identifies your child’s abilities when compared to other children. You’ll also want an assessment of unique qualities and special abilities, especially those that aren’t easily identified through testing. Talk to any specialists or resource teachers who have worked with your child and may have an understanding of his special needs and abilities.
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. Don’t be discouraged by all the negative press and funding shortages challenging our schools. Your ideals about what education can be are the schools’ best hope for the future. When you know what your child needs and what’s important to your family, you’re ready to evaluate new schools.
To begin your school search, contact the Superintendent of Schools, headmaster, or principal for the schools you’re considering. For public school consideration, ask for a list of schools and a map of the school districts within its jurisdiction. Your range of options in public schools might depend on where you will be living.
Check out the selection of schools within your local jurisdiction before considering private schools or transfers to other districts. The best way to check out each school 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; and special programs.
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?
Close to Home or Work
Choosing a school that is close to home or work depends on your transportation, and after-school activities or child care needs. Get the information you need about transportation, after school activities and child care available through the school, and select on the basis of convenience, if all other factors in your decision are equal.
Investigate your child’s transportation options including taking a school bus, riding in a car pool, having parents drive, or walking or biking to school. Your principal considerations are safety and convenience, with the weather as an added factor.
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, to some extent, the disadvantages of large classes. Ask about adult to child ratios in the classrooms and on the playground.
After-School Programs and Child Care
The appeal of these offerings depends upon your family’s need for them. If your child could benefit from after-school care or programs, consider these important criteria in your choice of a school.
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?
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.”
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. Some districts address curriculum preferences by focusing an entire school’s curriculum in a particular area, such as the arts, science, traditional three R’s and alternative programs. Ask about specially focused schools within your new school district. Talk with your child’s prospective teacher to get a better idea of how the standard curriculum might be implemented.
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.
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.