Strangers often ask me how to pick a good school. They are transferring into the area or moving from one local neighborhood with struggling schools to a place they hope will be better. Choosing a school is often as much about taste as judgment (see item 9 below). Here is a list of what a parent can do to get the best sense of the differences among the various places they might send their children.
1. Attend a school’s PTA meeting before you enroll. Nobody is going to toss you out. At these meetings, said Montgomery County parent John Hoven, “meet as many parents as you can, get phone numbers, call them later and ask who else would be good to talk to.” If you think the school is for you, go ahead, jump the gun and “become an active, participating member of the PTA” even if you are not yet a resident, he said. The parents of the students already enrolled will be grateful for your participation and for your endorsement of their own choice of school.
2. Talk to the principal. I think you need at least a half-hour with the principal to get a good sense of the school. Some principals complain that they don’t have enough time to see every prospective parent. But only a few very smart parents are going to seek an interview. Be one of them. “Ask about the curriculum, the school’s goals for kids’ learning, and how they try to attain them,” said Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless. “If one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit your child for some specific reason,” Hoven said, the principal might have specialists at hand who can fill that need.
3. Observe a class. This is a controversial suggestion that in the past I didn’t think would work well. Parents wouldn’t have time for it or know what to look for. Then I encountered several parents who convinced me they would get much from sitting quietly in a class for at least an hour.
In many cases, schools have barred the practice, calling it too disruptive. But Virginia Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) submitted a bill to require public schools to accommodate observations. Loveless said he likes the idea. “The kids should look comfortable and engaged, not necessarily quiet, but working and productive,” he said.
4. Experience the school corridors and the neighborhood. Schools often provide tours even if they don’t let you spend much time in class. Cedric Sheridan, a Prince George’s County parent, said his wife took that opportunity to “observe how orderly, how clean and how engaged the school as a setting seemed to be. She would take stock of how the administration received her, and she noted the behavior of the students and the staff and faculty responses to the students.”
The Sheridans went one unusual step further: “We would drive by the schools during school and non-school hours to see what the local environment was like, to see if we would be comfortable with our children being there.”
Prepare for variety. G.F. Brandenburg, who is a District parent, a former D.C. teacher and blogger, said he has visited schools “where sheer chaos reigns, places where mostly regimented boredom reigns, and places where there appears to be at least a reasonable amount of learning.” Loveless, a former teacher, recommended checking out “the hallways during breaks and playgrounds during recess. They should look like controlled chaos, not overly regimented but not dangerous either.”
5. Don’t worry if you hear that a middle school has problems. There is something disturbing to many people about the coming-into-puberty group that attends middle schools and the way they are organized.
I expected criticism of middle schools in communities where all schools struggled. But when I was advised by parents-in-the-know that Scarsdale Middle School, in one of the nation’s wealthiest villages, and Sidwell Friends Middle School, one of the most selective private schools, had flaws, I concluded that wise parents should ignore the standard critique of the local middle school unless there is other data confirming the concern.
6. Research Web sites and blogs for parents in your new neighborhood. Brandenburg recommends D.C. Urban Moms and Dads (www.dcurbanmom.com). Suburban school districts and D.C. public schools have good Web sites. Search for the district name or the name of the state — Virginia, Maryland or the District — and “school report card” to get the best data.
Brandenburg warns against putting too much faith in the D.C. school surveys of parent-student-teacher attitudes toward individual schools. “Response rates go from around 2 percent up to almost 100 percent, and you have no idea whether the sample that the results are culled from is in fact representative,” he said.
But in every district, there are schools with a large majority of low-income minority children and fine results. Some of the best D.C. charter schools — public schools that act independently of the district — have students that are almost all from low-income families and achievement levels as good as those at affluent schools. College-educated parents in Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties and other districts find their children thriving in schools in which many children are poor. That is because the quality of teaching in those districts is very high.
8. Check the local high school ratings on The Washington Post High School Challenge at washingtonpost.com. They are based on participation in challenging courses and tests, such as Advanced Placement. That is only one aspect of schooling, but it provides the most useful comparisons across state and district lines of how much your child will be stretched. Too many high schools see it as their duty to get students to graduation but worry that demanding too much will be too stressful, particularly for average kids. If you have an average kid who wants to go to college, beware of such schools.
9. Trust your instincts. After consulting all possible sources, Brandenburg said, “take all of their answers with a lot of salt. Nobody is a better expert than you are.”
The neighbors might love the school. It might be No. 1 on The Post’s challenge list. But if you don’t like it, look elsewhere. Your children will not adjust well to a school about which you have doubts.