When parents are choosing a school for their oldest child, they might imagine that they will find the perfect school. Compromise is more likely. But once you decide your priorities, you can go ahead and make the best choice for your child and family.
How to Find Information:
- Ask parents with children in the school. Keep in mind that their information will be biased. Once children are settled in a school, parents sometimes need to justify their decision and may minimize issues. They may also have an interest in encouraging parents to send to their school (or discouraging undesirable parents–that could be you). Keep in mind that not all parents are equally aware of a school’s internal problems.
- Ask parents who chose to send to schools you are not considering. I find that you can learn the most from parents who started off in one school and switched to another. Sometimes, though, parents blame a school for issues beyond its control.
- Talk to teachers, volunteers, and others who have interaction with the schools. Do they have biases too? You bet.
- The school itself. Go to the open house for prospective parents, read its literature and website, visit classes, and schedule a meeting with the principal. A school may gloss over problems, but it’s important to see how it presents itself to prospective parents.
Below are suggestions of questions to ask. You won’t ask every question, but choose what matters most to you. As you talk to other parents, you will get more ideas.
- Location. Don’t discount convenience. An extra hour of commuting is hard on the whole family and adds cost so make sure it’s worth it. Sometimes a long commute can help save you babysitting services. If your child will travel on a school bus, check that there is appropriate supervision and safety measures, including seat belts and insurance.
- Facilities. Is the school clean, including the bathrooms? Is there room outside to play? Ask about a library, computers, and sports facilities.
- School schedule. Find out about half-days, after-school programs, and extra-curricular activities.
- Fees. Include tuition, insurance, school supplies, meals, transportation, gifts for staff, and class activities. Ask if there are scholarships and how they are distributed.
- Class setup. How many kids are in a class? If there is more than one class in a grade, how are they divided? Will the class stay together, or are they redistributed each year? Are classes split up for certain subjects and if so, are they split randomly or by level?
- Violence, “behavior” problems, and learning issues. Despite strict admission standards, there will be kids who hit or disrupt class.You need to learn how the school deals with these issues. What is their policy regarding violence–and is the policy followed consistently? Can the school accommodate children with learning disabilities or giftedness? If the school employs a counselor or psychologist, how often is he or she present?
- Atmosphere. How easy is it to reach the school and talk to staff? Do the school make you feel tense or calm? Are kids running around the halls or working quietly? Listen to the way the administration speaks with staff, and the staff with students. Is the principal or vice-principal on-site and accessible? Are parents notified of events well in advance, and if so, do the dates stick? Look for a school where the staff works together, with the administration in control. What are the qualifications of the teachers, and do they send their own children to the school?
- Student body. How diverse is it? Even parents who value exposure to other lifestyles and cultures may draw the line at their child being the “only one” in a particular category. Will your child know anyone in his or her class? It’s not necessary for a child to go with a large group but it helps to know one or two children from before. Do you feel comfortable with the other parents in the school. In a religious school, find out whether the school’s outlook match that of the teachers and parent body.
- Gender equality. If the school has separate classes for boys and girls, the differences in class hours, facilities and curriculum send a strong message about priorities.
- Curriculum. Find out what kids are learning, at all grade levels, and with what texts. How many teachers does the child see each week? How much homework is expected per grade level? What methods are used, and how are special needs accommodated?
- Graduates. Where do most of the students continue their studies?
- Admission standards. Who is admitted into the school? If there is testing, who administers it and are the tests used for any other purpose? Sometimes, standards are lowered for younger siblings of current students. This is one area where the school may not tell you the whole story.
- Does the school suit your child? You might prefer a prestigious school, but the child would suffer from too much academic pressure. A school that is right-wing religiously could create a conflict for a child whose family is less observant than the school standard.
So loyal readers, what is important to you when choosing a school? Let me know what I forgot.