In your school district you may have a choice of which school your child will attend. In addition to public schools, there may also be private or parochial schools to which you might decide to send your youngster at extra expense. It is important for you to familiarize yourself with the schools from which you are choosing.
Once you understand the differences among the schools, you will be better able to make an informed decision. No school is a perfect fit for each child. Knowledge about your child's school is important both to prepare her for the year ahead and to equip you to work with the school as an advocate for your child to assure that she receives the best education possible.
Elementary schools have traditionally included kindergarten through the sixth grade (K-6) or kindergarten through the eighth grade (K-8). In recent years, children have been grouped in different ways to accommodate their developmental needs, as well as to make better use of the school district's resources. In some districts students may be attending schools with structures such as K-2, K-4, K-5, or a 3-4-5 combination.
Educators are also becoming increasingly aware that pre- and early adolescents (ages ten to thirteen) have particular educational needs. These youngsters can benefit from more autonomy and an increased ability to experiment than is available in most elementary schools, yet they need a safer, more structured, and more overtly supportive environment than that of the usual high school. Educational programs for these children, called middle school, are becoming a specialty of their own, with students grouped in grades 5-6-7-8, 6-7-8, 7-8, or 7-8-9 combinations.
What to Look For
When selecting your child's school, here are some questions to ask and some information to obtain.
Expectations. What are the school's academic, athletic, and social expectations for students in the grade your child is entering?
Individuality. Is learning individualized? That is, are each child's individual skills and needs considered by the teachers, or is the entire class taught the same material at the same pace at the same time? Some children simply do not fare well in a high-pressure, highly organized atmosphere, while others thrive in it. You need to assess what environment is best for your child. Keep her out of classroom situations that may lead to frustration, poor performance, and a dislike of school and learning.
Disabilities and Special Needs. Is the school able to meet the special needs of your child and in compliance with the federal statutes protecting individuals with disabilities? Are special education services available? Most important, do you feel your school is welcoming of those with different physical, educational, and emotional needs?
"Grouping." Are children grouped by ability, or do all classes have children at different levels?
"Climate." What is the climate at the school? If you visit the school during the academic year, you will learn a lot. Do students and teachers treat one another with respect? Do teachers communicate a love for and an excitement about teaching and learning? Is the school an orderly, but not repressive, environment? Are the children well behaved but still allowed to be playful individuals? Is the work of students displayed on the classroom walls and bulletin boards, showing that their efforts are valued? Is praise from teachers commonplace? Do you sense a positive relationship between the school and the surrounding community?
Cultural Variety. What is the school's racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition? There are many lessons that a child can learn from developing friendships with youngsters of different backgrounds and cultures. Does the school consider differences in race, religion, and culture to be assets of which everyone is proud? Does the school handle holidays with religious significance sensitively?
Do programs exist for meaningful study of different cultures (curriculum units, appropriate educational trips)? Are students provided with opportunities to interact with students from different backgrounds, through visits, school-to-school pen pals, and the like? Are parents from the school interested in working together to provide their children with these experiences?
Are children treated equally regardless of their family's income? For example, do all children go on field trips regardless of their ability to pay? Are children who receive free or reduced-cost lunch made to stand in separate lines?
The Principal. Is the principal a visible presence at the school? Do you see him or her welcoming children in the morning, visiting classrooms, or walking through the halls? The principal's leadership is one of the most important factors in contributing to a school's effectiveness and sets the tone and standards for the school.
Student-Teacher Ratio. What is the student-teacher ratio? Most educators believe that, from kindergarten through the fifth grade, a ratio of twenty-five-to-one or less is adequate. When the ratio exceeds thirty-to-one, the ability to teach can be seriously impaired. Even so, there is more to the story than these numbers: In a classroom with many children who need a significant amount of individualized attention to help them control their behavior, a ratio as low as fifteen-to-one may still be too high and might be improved by, for example, the presence of a teacher's aide. Conversely, if the majority of children are capable of independent work, then a higher ratio might be acceptable.
Teachers. How do teachers and children interact? Do teachers spend most of the classroom time lecturing? Or does the teacher coach the students' learning, and does the school day consist of a mixture of talking to and with the students, and include lots of student input? Are small-group activities encouraged, with or without direct teacher participation? Students can learn a great deal by helping one another within a structured setting.
Resources. In addition to academics, what is the quality of other aspects of the school, such as the library or resource center, art and music classes, guidance counseling, and physical education programs? Is there access to computers and the Internet? Physical education classes should be more than a time to blow off steam. There should be a balance between fitness activities and skill development. In some schools, classroom teachers are responsible for PE classes, while in others, where formal PE instruction is provided, classroom teachers may supplement it with coordinated activities that have been designed by the PE teacher.
In its athletic activities does the school emphasize cooperation, or is the atmosphere competitive? Is winning emphasized over participating? If competition is too intense, it can result in injuries or emotional stress.
With reductions in school budgets, physical education programs are often one of the first areas to be cut back or even eliminated. In schools where this is occurring, classroom teachers frequently have taken on more responsibility for these programs, particularly those teachers who have some training in this area. Also, parents have come together in groups after school to organize physical activities.
Nutrition. How seriously does the school take good nutrition? Is the food served in the cafeteria consistent with the principles of good eating that are taught in the classroom? Unfortunately, this may be difficult to accomplish. The surplus food made available to schools at a discount is often high in fat and salt content; by contrast, fresh vegetables for salad bars tend to be more expensive, harder to keep, and more time-consuming to prepare.
With parent and community support, however, many schools have implemented innovative, cost-effective programs to decrease fat and salt content in cafeteria meals. For example, schools have reduced the number of times they serve fried foods each week. They have made low-fat milk available to students. Multiple school districts have joined together to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables in bulk at lower prices. Schools have also encouraged students to bring healthier snacks to school for birthdays and other classroom celebrations.
Some schools have initiated a government-funded breakfast program in order to help low-income families supplement the nutrition of their children. The presence of this kind of program can indicate the school's commitment to students' nutritional needs.
As a way to increase achievement, some school districts are experimenting with an increase from the usual 180 days to 220 days of school a year. These districts are trying to avoid the loss of students' skills and learning momentum that occurs during the ten-week summer vacation. This experiment is different from that of schools that are rearranging their schedules to stay open all year to relieve overcrowding, with each student still attending only 180 days a year.
The main drawback to the 220-day, year-round program is financial. Teachers have to be paid more for their increased workload. In a time when many school districts are already financially strained, these additional costs may be prohibitive.
Whatever happens to this movement, parents should give some thought to helping their own children maintain skills over the summer, especially children having difficulty in school. Although there may be formal programs in which you can enroll your child, most youngsters will also be helped with a regular reading time and by playing numbers games with their parents. (For example, how much will this vacation cost? How many miles will we cover on this trip, there and back? What percentage of the trip will we take today? What is the total amount of money we are spending shopping today?)
Safety. Are the children physically safe at school? Safety should be a paramount concern in the classrooms, the playgrounds, the kitchens, and parking lots. Many schools keep a daily log of injuries and accidents on playground equipment and elsewhere on the school grounds and review these records to try to implement programs for greater safety.
Inquire about other safety and environmental issues. Is there a nonsmoking policy in the school buildings? Are arts and crafts materials safe for children? Is ventilation adequate, and are room temperatures kept at moderate levels? If appropriate, have radon levels in the school buildings been evaluated, and has the water been tested for lead? Has asbestos still present in the ceilings or walls of classrooms been appropriately dealt with?
How are health services delivered in the school? Who provides emergency first aid? How do children or parents gain access to the nurse or health aide? Does the school have a clinic? A dental screening program? What is the school's policy in creating a healthy environment? Is it striving to become a model as a health-promoting institution?
Before- and After-School Programs. Are early morning activities or an after-school program available at the school? If not, are there any school-based resources to help parents find this needed childcare? If programs are scarce in your community, consider joining with other parents and approaching YMCAs or other agencies to encourage them to start an after-school program.
If your efforts to find out more about a school—public or private—are not met with open arms or do not answer most of your questions, do not allow yourself to be put off or intimidated. If you show some flexibility, such as making an appointment for a day that is less busy than others, the school staff should be willing to accommodate your visit. Most principals, in fact, will be proud to show you their school, and will welcome your interest and involvement in your child's education.
New Learning Structures
Maintain an open mind about learning situations with which you might not be familiar. For example, some schools have an open structure, in which classes are all under one roof without walls between them. Teachers might have their own distinctive style of teaching. While some prefer having their students in assigned seats, others work best with an approach that seems less structured, with students free to roam through the room during particular assignments. Some teachers utilize learning centers for independent learning or solitary study. To some degree, your child's success will hinge on the match between his need for structure and choice, and the teacher's own approach to teaching. Even if your child is growing up in a fairly structured home setting, you might be surprised to find that he does quite well in a relatively unstructured classroom environment. In any event, a high-quality teacher will adapt his or her own teaching style so that students are more likely to learn.
In addition to teaching style, evaluate how well your child's teacher communicates and resolves conflicts in the class. Also, what are the teacher's areas of special skill or interest?
If magnet schools are available in your community, consider them as another option. As their name implies, these schools attract students from surrounding areas. They tend to emphasize a particular area of the curriculum—for instance, science, the arts, foreign languages—and students may choose them because of a special interest or talent. In some school districts students are assigned to these magnet schools. Free transportation may be provided.