Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Decision Number 3: Choosing a Mortar and Brick School

Once you have decided to enroll and to go forward with a mortar and brick setting, you'll have to figure out which school to send your child to.  For many, this is a financial decision as well.  The advantage of going with a public school is obviously, the cost.  There are many wonderful districts and schools out there that really have a lot to offer with skilled teachers, warm classrooms and additional and valuable extra-curricular activities that are also low to no cost when compared with similar private options.  All schools - whether public or private - include a cast of people who have chosen a livelihood in education because they love kids and love education.  These people want the best for your kid.

The disadvantage to public schooling can often be the budget constraints and pressures exerted on schools today.  Many are understaffed, underfunded and the infrastructure needs repairs the school can't afford to make.  There are many demands on teachers and even the best ones are often stretched pretty thin.  Many teachers are sacrificing their own funds in order to purchase materials in order to continue be able to complete hands-on lesson activities that are effective and popular with the kids.  Because of new legal pressures and budget constraints along with an ever growing administration and the strain that adds to the budget (and additional paperwork for teachers that have a growing number of bosses to please),  many schools have given up on their arts and music programs altogether.   I recently even learned of a highschool that has done away with its PE program.  Although PE is mandated for schools to address, this school has found a way around it by working out hours with the nearby-gym (I don't remember if its a Monster Fitness or Crunch or another one) that kids can have access to the gym between certain hours of the day.  Your child will get basic skills and information at most public schools, but fewer and fewer of them are offering enriching educations to our kids.  It is also of great concern that our kids are graduating with a growing defecit in math and science skills and knowledge when compared to other countries - those math and science figures include scores from private schools. 

Any school, whether public or private offers the advantage of a faculty with expertise in children, child development, child pcsychology and methods in education.  This training and information is truly an asset in trying to reach children that don't want to learn a particular topic, or in reaching children that are "stuck" on a particular skill or topic.  While a parent is the expert on an individual child, a teacher can compare your child to the "norm".  This is actually often a reassuring thing - especially with first children - as it frequently means less worry for the parent as we tend to worry about a lot of perfectly normal things not realizing how normal they are.  Teachers also have practice in thinking about things in different ways and on a scaffolded (or layered) approach.  This means they know which parts of a subject to introduce and which ones to leave out - for the time being - for the age group with which they have been trained to work.

Schools offer structure that can be helpful for children as well as difficult to maintain on your own in a household.  Routines and flow of one season to the next is often adopted into the program in ways that are beneficial to children and that parents often don't think of.  This structure and routine can even help kids cope with a difficult time in family life such as divorce, death of a loved one, illness etc.  as it gives them something regular they can count on when routines are falling apart at home.  This structure also offers up a support system of adults that know the child other than their parents. 

Having your kids in school when they are too young to be home alone, also addresses a need for childcare in many families and provides parents to have some time to get what they need to get done, done without interuption.

Private, magnet and charter schools can offer an environment to your child that offers a focus on a specific topic (such as science) or value set (a specific religious school) that is important to you.  There are schools that specialize in specific populations as well - schools for the gifted, schools for children with Autism, schools for the deaf etc.  Seats at charter and magnet schools often fill quickly and private schools can be costly, but the advantage of the additional enrichment or shared values or specialized expertise by the faculty can be worth the money or effort for many families.

Choosing a School: Things to Know - Whether You Go Private or Public
Know and understand what the school's mission statement says.  Part of accredidation includes having a mission statement.  This expresses the general beliefs about what the goal of education is within that school community.  Not all schools pay much attention to their mission statement, but you should have a general idea of what the school publicizes as its goal for your child. 

Know homework standards.  Some of the specifics will be dependent on specifically which class your child is in.  However, Principles - especially at the upper grades but increasingly even in Kindergarten - often give minimum amounts of homwork that should be assigned to kids - even when the teacher feels the class has fully understood a lesson they are mandated to assign a certain amount of "practice work".  Know how much you can expect for an average week and an average night
Know the school schedule and attendence policy.  This may seem as though it is an obvious one, but which holidays the school decides to offer time for, how often there will be half days and when there will be additional fridays or mondays off can be revealing about what a school expects from parents and community in terms of time and commitment.  For example, if you take a family vacation during school sessions can your child expect to get make-up work in advance?  Is there a difference between kids leaving because of berievement vs. family holiday? etc.  For each day missed, how many days are allowed time to make-up the work for full credit?  Is there a difference between an absence for illness and an absence for other reasons?   What about Tardiness?

Know and understand discipline policies.  Even if your child never mis-behaves they can be affected by these policies.  For example, how likely is it another child will be able to push, hit or otherwise demeen your child and get away with it?  At one school where I worked "redirection" was the standard policy for discipline.  This means, when a child misbehaved in some way he or she was to just be distracted with a new activity to do.  While this works most of the time (in Preschool and younger grades) the result when it was strictly adhered to was that children were simply redirected even when they were physically agressive toward other children. 

A lot of stock is put in ratios.  Ratio of adults to children DOES matter a lot.  The optimum ratio (for all grades really) is about 15-30 kids (although at the elementary level anything higher than 25 is too much).  If you go much lower than 15 school-aged children, the energy in the rooms is draining, much higher and you can't truly get to know each individual and their learning styles, strengths and weakness.  However, ratios are often misrepresentative of what is actually true in a given school.  It is an average schools produce for the information of the families looking into them.  Ratios in the standard classroom can be higher than what is published because enrichment classrooms which may have a ratio of one to eight are also averaged in.  Other times, a ratio might be given as an over-all.  These ratios are purely the number of staff (including support staff that is not IN the classroom such as the receptionists), faculty and administrators.  Sometimes staff is left out of this ratio, but administration almost never is.  Almost every school I have interned or worked at has had ratios that paint a picture that is very different from the actuality.  Since this is true overall, when comparing a ratio at one school to another school it is still valuable information for you, just make sure you know that a ratio of 20 to one does not actually mean your child will be in a class with no more than 20 kids per adult within the classroom. 

Know policies for special needs - you may have a child who is academically gifted and will need a more challenging or specialized curriculum - you just don't know it yet, or you may have a child that is really smart but his/her as-yet undiagnosed  dyslexia or dysgraphia makes it very difficult to read so your child will need extra reading supports.  What is the process for determining a child may need extra supports and how long does it usually take?  Are there in-classroom adjustments that are made for fast or slow readers? What is the schools policy on holding back or skipping children?  I have a niece that is particularly advanced in a couple of subjects, but rather than skip her she is given work about the same topics the other kids are studying that is deeper - or more challenging.  She is NOT given EXTRA work but work that is appropriately challenging for her.  What a healthy and advantagous policy for her in her educational journey! 

Know about additional fees and incidentals.  If your child attends a private school there are often book fees, uniforms, activities fees (for field trips etc.) that are not considered part of the tuition.  Even at public schools there are additional supplies the school does not suply, field trip costs and fees for extracurricular activities.

You might also look at sample report cards to know what will be considered important in terms of grading at different grade levels and to know what the gist of formal evaluation is aimed at in your school community.  Some schools put a lot of emphasis on effort while others focus more on scores on homework and tests.  Many really don't emphasize any of the subjects except math and reading until much later grades while others give scores for all subjects studied no matter student age and level.

Know test scores.  The public and private schools all administer standardized tests for the purpose of evaluating the success of the school itself.  Too much stock is often put into these scores in terms of evaluating teachers and administrators as these tests usually only focus on reading and math at the elementary level (science is added in 5th grade at public schools) and they don't consider factors that the school as no control over such as how many kids are in the school that don't have a computer at home, whose parents don't read to and with their children, or how many of their students come to school hungry every morning.  However, when you compare the school's current score to its scores from previous years you can see whether the school is improving and growing or whether it is faltering.  It also gives you an idea of how one school preforms compared to another when you are able to choose between two ore more school options.  At this time, schools are expected to show a rise in performace each year or their scores do go down slightly so a consistent score does not demonstrate stagnation.  In the public schools, a score of 800 is considered acceptable performance by the state. 

Know policies about what is or is not allowed at school.  I've known of more than one story of a child getting in trouble for the butter knife that was packed in a lunch pail by the mother.  Many schools (especially in the upper grades) also have policies about cell phones and other electronic gadgets

Don't forget to ask about environmental and safety standards as well.  Pesticides and Herbicides are often used extensively on school grounds and athletic fields.  What are the safety standards?  How long does it usually take for a needed repair to take place?  Here in California, we should be sure that schools are following standard earthquake safety precautions - are bookshelves strapped to walls?  Are microwaves, TVs and other appliances strapped down?  Do filing cabinets latch closed?  All schools are required to keep food rations and emergency supplies, but the regulations and compliance with regulations often lag behind the best safety procedures and practices.  Even if the answers aren't make or break for you, asking these questions lets the school know you care and are concientous.  It may even lead to improvements in school standards if enough parents start asking these questions.

Don’t forget to check out the cafeteria and make sure you are satisfied with the "hot lunch" offerings and their nutritional value.  Look up Jamie Oliver for more information about evaluating school foods.
Next, Get Ready and put together your backpack and school supplies.

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