For those of us in districts with school choice, or those house hunting with consideration for school assignment, the fall brings a flurry of school tours. Many will ask, “Where do I start?” I was in your shoes last year and put serious consideration into my son’s school. Here are some basic steps you can take today:
- Decide whether you want to consider public, private or both. Don’t forget charter schools, which are independently run public schools.
- Research the school assignment process, whether public or private. Are there any tie breakers or school preferences based on your home address, IEP status or financial status?
- Write out the list of most important criteria for you, so that you can focus your search and tour evaluations. Below, I listed my factors, which are a good place to start.
- Prepare a tour list by soliciting opinions from parents who’ve recently been through the process, followed up by web research.
- Don’t forget distance/transportation options. You may be taking your child to this school for many years, and spending hours there volunteering. Make sure the commute is manageable.
My key decision factors included the following. Notice that popularity did not rate on my list, as different people judge different factors differently. Furthermore, schools can change over time. My assignment area school was considered one of the worst in the district until a group of parents decided to turn it around; this past year, it was ninth most popular in the district. Other schools that are still at the top of the list are now considered to have slid a bit. If you do have a ranking list to prepare, be sure to include schools that are less popular, or at least not the top ten or even twenty most popular in your district. Just like when we applied to college, have a “safety”.
- Location. Your child will attend the school for six or eight years, depending on whether it’s K-5 or K-8, so convenience is even more important than preschool.
- School Hours. Is your child a morning person? What are your work hours, if any?
- Aftercare. Is it onsite or offsite? What is the cost? Is availability guaranteed, or what happens if you don’t apply right away?
- Activities. Either as part of aftercare or supplemental to it, does the school have after school activities, such as sports, languages or science discovery offered on campus?
- School Community. Elementary school is a wonderful place for you and your child to make friends. Are these the types of families that you enjoy spending time with?
- PTA. How strong is the PTA? How much money do they raise? What do they spend the money on? I found one school with a PTA raising substantial funds, yet the priority was different than mine.
- Student Performance. Most states have websites that provide basic student performance data, both generally and broken down by subgroup. While easily quantifiable data such as standardized test scores are important, keep in mind that they are not the only source of data and correlate strongly to parental English. Often schools maintain information about student and parent satisfaction and other data points that give a feel as to the softer features of a school.
- Physical Setting. What do the classrooms, library, playground, cafeteria, and, if applicable, computer lab look like? How much light? Room to play? Time for recess at different ages? How are desks or chairs laid out? Are kindergarteners given stations or put at desks?
- Diversity. To me, a critical part of school is teaching my son to work with different types of people. So, I looked at all types of diversity – racial, religious, income, family composition, to start with, so that I could get a sense of the school body.
- Learning philosophy. While all public schools in a district work to the same standards, many use different approaches to get there. For instance, our school uses art and music to teach children academic subjects. Some are more academic or traditional, while others are considered progressive. How much homework is assigned at different ages?
- Language immersion. Especially if your family speaks a second language, these programs can add richly to your child’s education. I asked a principal of a local Chinese immersion program how to assess a strictly English speaking child’s ability to learn a new language. She replied that unless your child has learning differences, issues are rare, and that patience the first year is critical.
- Differentiated Learning. What is the school’s approach to teaching different levels in the same classroom? It’s the rare elementary school that splits the classroom by ability, so the teachers must teach a broad spectrum of children in the same class. Your child may fall in different spots for different subjects, as is common, and may change dramatically between now and when he starts school. You want a teacher that teaches to your child’s level as much as possible.
- Middle School Pathway. Does the school feed into or contain a middle school, and if so, what is the reputation of that school? While important, try not to worry too much, as schools can change dramatically in six years.
- Parents for Public Schools. Google your local chapter. San Francisco’s is http://www.ppssf.org and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Parents-for-Public-Schools-of-San-Francisco/61086669705.
- School district and schools have websites, such as http://sfusd.edu.
- For private schools, look for your local chapter of independent schools, such as the National Association of Independent School and Independent Schools of the San Francisco Area.
- For parochial schools, check with the local archdiocese or house of worship.
- Great Schools (http://www.greatschools.org/) has parents reviews and performance data for most schools in nearly every city and state.