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Wealth's a Poor Way to Grade a School

(By Julie Zhu/montgomery Blair High School)
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I found your school tips ["Sorry for the Bickering: Let's Pick a Good School," Extras, Feb. 28] so disturbing because the implication is that you can't find a good school unless you buy an expensive house, and in today's market there are many young families that simply can't do that. Even our wealthy suburbs include many families living in small apartments. Plus, there are genuinely good schools in poorer communities. Here are my tips on how to look for them:

-- Does the school have a friendly face? Some schools feel welcoming from the minute you step inside, and other schools feel like forts. A helpful person should welcome you as soon as you walk in. Student work should fill the halls, whether it's a kindergartner's first attempt to write a story or a high-schooler's physics project.

-- Do the teachers remember why they chose teaching? As you tour the school, watch the way teachers interact with one another. Do they catch a few moments to chat excitedly about an upcoming project? When they talk about kids, do they get a twinkle in their eye or do they sigh and seem overwhelmed?

-- A school is a mini-community; does it feel like one? Even in a large, noisy high school, you can tell when students in the halls respect one another and the adults around them. Does the elementary school offer after-school programs that are fun and connect to what goes on in the classroom? Does the middle school have activities that are meaningful to adolescents who face the lures of dangerous alternatives? Does the high school champion all sorts of kids; is the high school play as big a deal as the football game?

-- How does the school support its teachers? Teachers don't get paid what they deserve, but there are other perks that can help show they are appreciated. Does the school bring in trainers who inspire and motivate them, as well as hone critical skills? Do the teachers plan together as a grade-level team and get to work with colleagues from other grades and subjects?

-- What's the school's motto? Don't laugh -- successful businesses have vision statements, and so do schools. It's not an accident that Fairfax County's Parklawn Elementary School's motto is "Children succeed at Parklawn because parents, teachers and students work together. Our kids learn here!" This award-winning diverse school has been a model of what students can achieve when a school expects every child to succeed and goes the extra mile in engaging parents of all backgrounds and cultures.

-- What does the school offer beyond average test scores? Sure, data about the school are important, but not the way most parents think. Parents typically zoom right in on the school's average test scores, assuming the highest test scores always translate to the best school. But teachers and principals will tell you that average test scores shouldn't be your only measure of the school. What you want is a school where every child is challenged.

-- Is there a mix of kids from different races, cultures and economic groups? Parents often talk about valuing diversity, but when push comes to shove, they don't value it enough to make it a top consideration in choosing a school. Big mistake. Diversity isn't just about making friends from other cultures. If you want your child to learn the essential 21st-century skills of collaborating in a diverse group, thinking beyond the obvious. Understanding the complexities of our global society, seek out a diverse school! Learning comes alive when kids learn not only from textbooks and teachers but from other kids who bring insights from their own experiences and cultures.

-- Is there diversity in the enrichment programs and in rigorous classes? Good schools should have enrichment programs and rigorous classes for kids of all ages. How else will they be prepared for those Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes in secondary schools? It's also important to check out who is in these classes. Are gifted and talented programs and rigorous classes filled with kids from only middle-class backgrounds? If so, then those students are missing out on the benefits of learning from peers with different perspectives who challenge them to think more deeply.

-- Does the school want you there? A good school welcomes parents into the school as partners. This means that the principal is easy to reach at school and is often seen at meetings outside the school. It means that teachers realize that kids do better when their parents are engaged, and they try new ways to connect with parents who might be on the sidelines. It means that parents who are involved reach out beyond their social clique. It means that community members are welcome as mentors and classroom readers and fundraisers, and that the entire community takes ownership for the school in times of trouble as well as success.

Eileen Kugler

Fairfax County

I would not ordinarily let a reader beat me up like this. But you are the author of the wise book "Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids," and much of what you say makes sense. As you said in another message, we agree that a good principal is key to a good school.

My tip on expensive houses signaling good schools was not meant to deride schools in less-ritzy neighborhoods but to encourage affluent parents to check out the public offerings before going private. My only quarrel with your good recommendations is your belief in mottos. I have seen some wonderfully inspiring slogans attached to some very sorry schools.

Please send your questions or suggestions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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