Monday, July 2, 2012

Choosing a school

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Today I received an email from a very dear friend that has relocated to the Washington DC area.  Their son is nearing school age and they are looking for the "perfect" school.  Here's his email:

We're looking at neighborhoods and schools in our area so that we'll be one step closer to buying once our house in Columbia sells. I thought recently that I don't necessarily know what the most important factors are for choosing a school. Many of the schools in Fairfax County, VA (most likely where we'll be living) are good schools, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on which factors would have the most significant impact on a child's education - possibly factors like class size, training of teachers, standardized test scores, etc. Also, if you know of any good websites or publications that rank schools, my wife and I would be interested in that as well.

This email really got my motor running.  What makes a great school?  How would I, as a parent with no background in the everyday world of education, determine what school is best for my child?

My response:

I think first and foremost you need to gauge the climate of a school.  To do this you need to take into consideration the outer appearance as well as the inside.  How inviting is the school when you drive up, approach, and walk in.  Remember you will go into the school only a handful of times each year, your son will venture in each and every school day.  Call and make an appointment with the administrator to feel them out.  Ask to tour the school and possibly sit in on a few classes from all grade levels.  Don't forget that some districts' zoning policies, liken attending schools to an arranged marriage (or a gang), it's not easy to get out once you're in and you don't have much of a choice.  Think long term.  As you move throughout the school pay very close attention to how the students and adults interact.  Are the interactions something that you're comfortable with?  As you move throughout the school, continue to pay attention to the physical environment of the school making sure that you're looking past the "fairy tale & pixie dust" bulletin boards and cutesy displays.  Are the children and THEIR hard work being valued and on display throughout the school?  Gauge the teachers' attitudes as they facilitate learning in their class.  One of my professors in college wisely said, "if you're bored, the kids are dead!"  Talk with support staff as you tour, great work places generate amazing energy - you be the judge.  If a school doesn't pass the climate test, don't go any further!

Second, I would begin to dive into the academic side.  One thing that the current push towards standards and accountability has done is that it makes it easy to see if content is being taught.  A quick glance at test scores can answer the question of "are they teaching the students" with very little brain power.  Once that is determined, you must decide on the instructional method that fits your son the best.  You must honestly ask the question, "how best does he learn?"  One great thing about research is that its given every school a reason to try a "best practice" of teaching.  I place best practice in quotations because what may be great for your son may be a nightmare for my daughter.  You can gauge instructional practices by watching several classroom teachers interact through the course of a lesson.  Where is the teacher located?  What are the students doing?  How many students are working together at any given time?  Does the learning community feel chaotic, but the students are engaged or not engaged?  Is everything very rigid a structured?  No matter what, you must decide what fits your child the best?

Third, a school is also charged with the requirement to prepare students (K-12) with skills that will allow them to "work jobs that have yet to be created, to solve problems that have yet to be discovered, with technology that has yet to be invented."  How is the school that you are interested in going about doing this with the uses of technology in the classroom?  Be careful to not get the "bug to a bug zapper" mentality when you hear/see iPads or 1-to-1 integration or computer labs.  Ask the question, how is technology being used in this school to increase the level or rigor (higher order thinking skills)?

Finally, How does the school interact and communicate with parents and the outside community.  If you find a school that understands that they are but a microcosm of the larger community, then you've found a school that gets "it".  How does the school involve parents beyond the typical PTO functions?  How does the school serve and reach out to the the highest of the high and the lowest of the low?  Also, how does the school participate in the community through service opportunities?  (personal belief: I believe that a neighborhood does not make a school, a school makes a neighborhood.)

I would love to hear feedback and what you think parents should look for when searching out a school that fits their child's needs.

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