Blog-Will Your Home Choice Make the Grade
For most parents, school zoning will be a primary consideration in deciding where to buy a house. Where will their children thrive and be engaged in learning in a positive environment. The physical structure of the school itself is important, but making this decision will require more than a tour with the assistant principal.
1. Judging By Appearance
Are the hallways clean, freshly painted, and lined with glassed cases displaying student art, invention and athletic prizes, or does it more closely resemble a dimly lit eastern bloc orphanage from the seventies. It might be a clue to how positive or negative the learning environment might be, but it is not enough to judge the school or the quality of the faculty. Get into the classrooms, as many as you can, and observe. Are the children active and involved in learning, is the teacher inspirational, keeping them engaged, or are they watching yet another movie? Do the students appear to be bored or are they misbehaving? Do they respect the teacher and the other students?
2. Looking Beyond the Kindergarten Class
Kids grow up and faster than you imagined, so assess all grade levels at the school, from academics to team and individual sports and after school programs. Ask for examples of non-fiction or opinion papers authored by fourth and fifth grade students. Look at the athletic facilities and equipment. Observe the cafeteria at lunch time. Are the children seated before their trays like automatons, is it chaos, or are they permitted to develop their socialization skills? Then, observe them on the playground. Is the school a positive climate.
Location considerations include proximity to work, shopping, recreation, and interstates. Schools should be included on that list, if for no other reason than assuring that they will be there on time. It is hardly fair, but school administrators have no one to punish than the child for the mistakes or tardiness of the parent. The drive to school is one some parents must make at least twice a day, five days a week, for 180 days, year after year, in the absence of car-pooling or the bus. Also, living far from the school will make it more difficult to have your child entertain a class mate at home or participate in athletics and other school centered activities.
4. Are the Basic Needs of the Parents Met?
Mom has to be at work by 8:00 AM, but school does not start until 8:30 AM and there is no early morning care. Practical and logistical issues frequently involve transportation of the student. What do you do when there is no bussing and the school is ten miles away? It may be a great school, but just not the one for your child.
5. What is the Student-Teacher Ratio?
How much individual attention will your student receive? Is there a teacher’s aid or parent volunteer. From kindergarten through third grade, where studies have shown the need for more individualized attention, 22 students to one teacher is at the upper end of the ratio. From fourth grade on, any more than 30 students to one teacher is too much to handle without a full time aid. Because some schools skew the student to teacher ration by counting staff and librarians as teachers, it is important to measure the statistics given against what you see in the classroom. Find out if the school offers tutoring, learning specialists, or small group instruction during school hours.
6. How are Behavior Problems Handled?
The school should have a written disciplinary policy. They tend to vary widely and they tend to graduate from a warning to consequences that range from missing recess, to in-school suspension to suspension to expulsion, which can include being sent to an “alternative” school. Parents need to be comfortable with the policy. Schools are required to maintain disciplinary statistics on suspensions and in school violence. Inquire about the school’s policy on bullying and what training the faculty and staff receive on this trending subject.
7. What Distinguishes the School?
Some schools, public and private, stand out for their special focuses in the arts, a language immersion program, technology or science. In Columbia, there are magnet programs and international baccalaureate programs. Determine the schools commitment to their focus and whether it is a fit for your child, his interests, strengths and personality. Absent such a focus, find out where the school takes its pride, the level of parental involvement, and how extensive are the library and the computer lab resources. These matters go to establishing the identity and values of the school.
8. How Much Homework Should Your Student Expect?
This issue will not apply so much to the kindergarteners as it does to the upper grades. A general rule is ten minutes of homework per grade level, as well as reading every night. Learn if homework is assigned over weekends and holidays. In some cases, it will vary from teacher to teacher, which can be a signal that the teachers do not share the same teaching philosophy. Also, find out whether the after school programs includes help with homework.
9. Support for Different Learning Styles and Needs
We don’t all learn the same way. Some of us are more visually oriented, others by language, and still others are described as learning disabled. A child working above grade level needs to be challenged more with accelerated programs. At the other end of the spectrum, a child with a learning disability may require a learning specialist, with expertise in the child’s area of challenge. Are children with learning differences integrated into general classrooms or are there separate classes for kids with special needs? What are the resources that your child will need and will they be provided?
10. After-School Activities
If your child needs after-school care, what extra learning programs, clubs, and sports are offered. Art, music, drama, science and other clubs frequently meet after school hours. Does the school provide transportation to practices and games, and what are the requirements for participation, such as academic standing?
11. Are Teachers Supported and Held to a High Standard?
Understanding the professional culture of the school and the level of collaboration toward a unifying vision and goal for the students is not likely to happen immediately, but it can be asked whether teachers at each grade level coordinate with respect to the material to be covered and the amount of homework assigned. Ask whether teachers regularly meet to discuss projects, teaching techniques, or the needs of specific students. Referred to as “professional teaching community,” research suggests that it improves teaching effectiveness and teacher morale.
12. The School's Expectations for its Students
Perhaps the most important question to ask, do test scores support the conclusion that the school expects their students to perform at a high level, and when they don’t, what does the school do about it? As compared to prior years, are grades trending up or down? Are their magnet programs for which a higher percentage of students are not really qualified or is there a higher percentage of learning disabled students? These issues could factor into test grades. How do kids matching the demographic profile of your child perform?
The school district websites below have links to each of their schools and this may be a good place to start. Additionally, there are websites, like GreatSchools.org, that provide reviews of schools by zip code, though the reviews are subject to the experience of that particular parent.