Like most of us, I went to the public school that I was assigned to based on my address. My parents bought a house in a specific district in order to eliminate the need to make a choice about where to send us to school. One decision and the rest of my school experience was taken care of. But leave it to us Gen Xers and Millennials to make it more complicated! The trend of school choice has been building for quite a while and I don’t see it changing anytime soon so the reality is that many parents are now having to choose a school for their child and that can be overwhelming. Magnets, charters, private, public; it’s a pretty exhaustive list and based on the many, many conversations I’ve had with my friends and their friends, I know it can be stressful to feel the pressure of finding the perfect school. My experience as an educator and a parent have given me some unique perspectives that I hope resonate with others who are in the midst of the process.
First of all, you can’t mess it up. Let me say that again. You.can’t.mess.up. If you’re worried about choosing a good school for your child, I promise you that your child is already going to do fine because you are a concerned parent who cares about your kid. There are are no perfect schools and your job as a parent is to know what you value and what your child needs and then make the best decision from there.
Taking time to evaluate your own values and the needs of your child is such an important step in ensuring that you’re making an informed decision. These are the first questions to ask yourself. Don’t start with a school’s reputation or the playground gossip about which school is “the best”. All schools have strengths and weaknesses and finding the best fit for your child is about aligning your values and needs with a school that matches those. Before you set foot in a school for a tour or spend time researching you have to ask yourself what you’re looking for. Here’s my list of things to ask YOURSELF before you start your search.
Important Questions to Ask Yourself
What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses? When is my child most stressed and when is she or he at her or his best? What does the environment look like when those things are happening? Who brings out the best in my child? Who pushes my child to grow the most?
What do I believe learning looks like? How will I know when my child is learning? Is it based on my own experiences in school? What does a successful school look like and why do I think that?
What kind of relationship do I want with my child’s school or teacher? What are my expectations of a school? What things would make me disappointed?
What are my family values? What are the top three priorities of an education for my child? What do I believe is the purpose of an education? What is my role in educating my child? What is my role in being part of a school community or even the community at large?
Your answers to these questions, even if they’re not fully formed, should help direct you thinking about what you’re looking for in a school. Be as honest as you can so that you are really clear about what you’re looking for when you begin visiting schools.
I do think it’s important for you to go to schools and talk with the principal and teachers in a building. They are the most knowledgeable professionals who can help you with this choice and they should welcome your questions. Sure, you can ask around about other families’ experiences, but because kids and families are each different and value different things, you really do need to experience a school for yourself in order to make an informed decision. Here’s my suggestions on some things to ask when you take a tour or attend an open house.
Great Questions to Ask a School
What kind of family/child is a great fit for your school? What kind of family/child has struggled in the past and why?
Tell me what your teachers value here. Tell me about the culture of the school.
Tell me about your school’s philosophy for learning? What is the role of the student in the learning model?
How is curriculum chosen? Who has an input into that decision?
What is your philosophy of classroom management?
What is the role of a parent in your school? What are the best ways for me to build a relationship with the school?
What resources are available to help my child when he or she is struggling? What does intervention look like at your school?
What do you hope a child who attends your school leaves knowing or believing?
Hopefully a school’s responses to these questions gives you a clear picture about what the school is focused on and how they structure themselves. You may not find a school that checks off all your wish list items but you can make a decision that’s guided by your values. For example, we picked a public city school for my children because of it’s diversity and inclusiveness. Those are things we value but it does mean that we don’t always have the extracurricular programs because the school isn’t as well funded as some others. In choosing a school, we are always saying yes to some things and no to others and the best way to make that decision is to be guided by our beliefs about what matters most.
Hang in there moms and dads, as you go through the process of picking a school. Know that good and caring teachers are in almost every school and that great teaching and learning can happen in a thousand different ways. Make your choice (even if it’s your second or third because the lotteries are hard) and then become a strong and powerful advocate not just for your child but for all the children in your school. That is what really makes a great school and your child will find that no matter where she goes because you’ll always be with her!
Have you been through the school search recently? What’s your best advice for others who are looking right now? Anything you wish you would have known? Leave a comment so others can hear from you!