Having been a teacher (briefly) at one of the lowest performing public schools in Louisville, KY, I thought I would share my "best practices" and "pet peeves" for choosing a "best school" for your child (if you don't homeschool of course).
- Choosing a school based on test scores alone. Test scores are primarily affected by the income level of the students at the school, not the teaching or administrative qualities of a particular school. If you look at test scores alone, you could end up sending your child to a really terrible school that happens to have a lot of rich kids AND missing out on an opportunity for your child to become a leader in a diverse community and learn a lot more than their multiplication facts.
- Choosing a school based on "pricing out" students. Unfortunately, some people still subscribe to the theory that a school is higher quality if it costs more money. The school will obviously point to higher test scores, college admittance, and low class size. However, there is no correlation between dollars spent per student and a better education (once average income is taken into consideration).
- Choosing a school based on extra-curriculars. Don't choose the school based solely on the soccer team, or marching band or anything else likqe that. You can definitely make it a factor in your decision, but it shouldn't be the only factor. Your child that wanted to be on the top soccer team in the county may drop out after their first year to focus on their year round team. The child that really wanted to join the flag team may find themselves joining the marching band instead to be with their friends. And your STEM loving student may end up enjoying the violin more by the time they finish up at a particular school. You never know!
- Choosing a school based on your personality, not your child's. Don't choose the arts school for your non-artsy child just because you want them to be like you. Don't choose the STEM school just because your husband is an engineer. Don't choose the "open" model school for your Type A child or the foreign language immersion school just because "you were never good at languages either". In the same vein, don't eliminate a school based on your personality either.
- Choosing a school (or not) based on the personality of one person at the school. One of my acquaintances mentioned that they didn't pick a certain school because they just "really didn't like the attitude" of the principal. Now, normally this could be a concern, but knowing the particular person, I'm pretty sure the attitude was more a consequence of my acquaintance's attitude rather than the principal's, if you know what I mean.
- Not doing any research whatsoever on your child's school. I know people who say things like, "I went to X school as a kid, and had a great experience, so I'm really glad my grandkids are going there too." That may be true that the school was great 40 years ago, but, unfortunately, schools that were great 40 years ago could be awful today, and vice versa.
- Making a decision without visiting (preferably with your child). At the very least, you ought to be able to take a school tour with a principal or administrator once your narrow your list down. That's where you find out how the school really is. That's where you see the true attitude issues of the principal (in dealing with students) and the true safety issues or educational concerns or facilities/transportation questions. You can also typically see whether you child's personality and learning style will mesh with what's going on at the school.
- Before visiting any schools - make a list of what you are looking for. At a minimum take notes on your child's personality, learning styles, and any skills or special interests your child may have (athletics, foreign language, STEM, etc.)
- Make a "Short list" based on location (near home or work), transportation options, and familiarity (knowing a friend, neighbor, or teacher at the school already). Keep this list at least 5 schools, but aim for no more than 10 unless you are in a very large district with a LOT of options. DO NOT make this list based on demographics or test scores.
- Narrow the short list down by reviewing the school websites and visiting your districts "school fair". It's great to have a "short list" before you visit the school fair or you might fall in love with a school that's 45 minutes across town with no transportation availability - or you may just be overwhelmed at the sheer number if you visit a "Showcase of schools" with no plan in place.
- Visit at least 3-4 schools. Check out the buildings, the traffic pattern, the classrooms/teachers (if possible). Review the policies, class schedule, textbooks/materials used, extracurricular activities offered, and general personality of the school. I know I vetoed one high school because the principal snatched a sucker out of a girl's mouth while we were on the "school tour".
- Keep an open mind and honestly assess each school based on your criteria - style of learning, style of discipline, educational philosophy, and more. Look at your list honestly. You may not write down "race" as an issue, but ask yourself honestly when you are thinking about crossing a school off the list if the reason you are crossing it out is objective or subjective. We can complain about busing and go to school board meetings and be upset about the "lack of diversity" in our communities, but all it really comes down to in the end for most of us is a more genteel and underhand version of "white flight".
So, don't tick off your friendly neighborhood blogger. Make your school choices wisely, but remember, there's always next year if you change your mind.