24 July 2008 09:15 AM

Choosing the Right School Continued...

by Dr. Rick
Here are five guidelines to keep in mind for choosing a school:

1. Know what’s important to you. Do you want a school that has before- and after-school care to serve your family’s busy schedule? One with plenty of services for an elementary pupil with some special needs? One that has lots of opportunities for your rambunctious middle schooler whose interests are changing faster than her hormones? One that has a stellar debate squad, football team, or school newspaper for your teenager with unique talents and dreams?

2. Visit the school. No matter what kind of school it is, it’s good to see it, get a feel for the place, try it on, take it for a test drive. Don’t just drop in, though. Schools are busy places, so make an appointment to meet with an administrator, guidance counselor, student leader, or some representative of the school who can give you a tour and answer questions. First impressions are important. When you get there, you should be treated like a potential valuable customer, met with a friendly smile and made to feel welcome. Be generous if things are a bit hectic – schools are full of daily crises large and small – and be forgiving if someone doesn’t get to you instantly.)

3. Notice the surroundings. Does it appear that the adults are in charge? It should be quiet, but not eerily so. Sometimes learning can be active and enthusiastic kids can be noisy. What’s on the walls in the public hallways? There should be student artwork from kids of all ages and talents; awards for everything from reading contests to chorus performances; a “Wall of Fame” of distinguished alumni, parents, community supporters. All of these should be recent. Nothing worse than dust-covered artwork of students long since graduated.

4. Watch for active learning. Is learning going on? This, after all, is the very reason why the school exists in the first place. Are teachers in charge in the classrooms, with focused students busily working alone or in groups? Is the library well stocked with recent books and technology? Is there a librarian? What about non-state-tested-but-vitally-important-subjects? Music? Art? Physical education and health? Civics? Extracurriculars? Field trips? Opportunities for tutoring? What about teacher credentials? What’s the teacher turn-over rate? For high schools, what’s the graduation rate? The percentage of students going on to post-secondary schooling? Finally, what are the school’s test scores? I say “finally,” because you should ask those more important questions first.

5. Learn about the school’s values. Look at the behavior in the cafeteria at lunchtime and you can learn a lot about a school’s personality. Is there evidence of important behaviors like respect and responsibility? Elsewhere, do you see an enthusiasm for teaching and learning? Are the adults motivating the students to do their best? Are the adults acknowledging effort and achievement? Is there an active PTA? Are there parent volunteers helping out in classrooms and offices? Do the kids and the adults feel safe? Talk to other parents, to students, to alumni, to neighbors of the school. They’ll tell you what you want to know.

If you haven’t been in a school for a while, you’ll be amazed at how much things have changed. Have an open mind for the new experiences, sights and activities you’ll see. But also, watch for those timeless universals that shouldn’t change: adults who enjoy being with and nurturing youngsters, kids who see the potential in what they’re learning, and everyone working together in a place that’s safe and highly motivating. It shouldn’t sound like some dream place. It should be real.


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