If you’ve ever moved into a new town and tried to navigate all the school options, you know choosing the best fit for your child can be overwhelming. In many towns, there are a myriad of options including public charter schools and magnet schools, as well as private and parochial schools.
I remember those stressful months of debating my husband about where we would send our precious first-born to kindergarten. It felt like we were determining her future at age 5. When it came down to handing over our little one for eight hours a day to a total stranger, we were terrified.
We survived a sub-par, rocky year of kindergarten, changed schools for first grade, moved to another state when she was in fourth grade and then again when she was entering her senior year. Thankfully, there are no visible scars. She may actually be stronger for learning to endure change.
I must also confess that I’ve taught in public and private high schools, worked in two different admissions offices as well as serving on a local school board. I’ve been the confused parent and the confident admissions counselor. I’m not trying to sway you one way or the other. Instead, I’d challenge you to thoughtfully consider your options and celebrate your freedom to choose which school is best for your family and even each individual child.
Whether you find yourself confident or confused, I’d suggest five things every parent should do before choosing a school for their child.
1. Discuss your priorities with your spouse and your student if they are old enough to be part of the decision. Is academic rigor most important to you? Are you looking for a college-preparatory school that has an established curriculum like International Baccalaureate? Are you looking for a school that will provide an environment that will support and encourage your worldview or religious convictions? Does your child need special services for a learning disability? Does your student have a special interest in theater, music or athletics that will be enhanced by a certain school’s extra-curricular programs or flexible schedule? What is most important to you as you’re choosing a school?
2. Do your homework. Learn all you can about the options in your community. Do an online search for your schools’ report cards. Each state has its own rating system for their schools. And, if you live in an area where there is a failing school, you may be allowed to choose a different school in your community. You may even be able to transfer your student’s state funding mid-year to a private or charter school of your choice. If you’re new to the community, ask your realtor for information on the school choices in your area.
3. Ask lots of questions. When investigating a new school, ask about student-teacher ratio, standardized test scores, average class size for your student’s grade level. (These questions can be answered differently to the school’s advantage, so be specific in what you are asking for.) Instead of “What is your student to teacher ratio?” Ask, “How many fifth graders do you have? How many sections of fifth grade do you have? With how many teachers?” Ask about teacher credentials and teacher retention rate. Ask how long the principal has been at the school. If you have middle or high school students, ask to meet with a guidance counselor to learn more about the options that may be available for your student’s special interests.
4. Attend an open house, schedule a visit, or just show up. Not only will this give you a feel for what the campus atmosphere is like but it will also show you how campus security works. Visitors should be required to sign in, wear a visible tag and not be left alone in the building. Your student may even be able to “shadow” a student at a prospective school during a school day, which is a great way for a student to get a feel for what it would be like to attend school there.
Make an appointment to talk to the principal, a current family or a teacher. The principal should have time for prospective parents and see it as a part of his or her job to answer questions from families in their community. Parents who have students at the school can tell you first hand how the school has impacted their family.
5. Be ready to invest in your child’s education. Whether you’re interested in a private school with a $10,000 tuition bill or a small charter school that needs your time and energy, be ready to give of your time, talent or treasures. Your involvement, no matter how big or how seemingly small, communicates that you support not only your school but more importantly, your child. Have lunch with your student occasionally. (Or drop off “take out” for your teenager!) Volunteer in the classroom or the front office. Offer to teach an extra-curricular activity in your field of expertise. Or be willing to write a donation check. It really does “take a village” to raise a child–and run a school.
While it might be tempting to let your child decide what school he or she prefers, remember who is entrusted to whom. As the parent, you are responsible for this little learner. You have the wisdom, the best interest of your child, and the long-term vision for your child’s education. Do your homework. Ask questions. Consider your options. And be willing to make an unpopular decision if you know it’s what is best for your child in the long run. Don’t worry. Your child (or your best friend) may be upset with you for a week or two, but they will survive, hopefully even thrive, and on graduation day, may even thank you.