EVERY FALL thousands of Washington-area families with pre-school children make the annual pilgrimage to their local elementary school. Many parents even venture outside their neighborhoods to public magnet schools or to independent or parochial schools. Considering that the decision where to send your child for the next seven to eight years of his life rides on the outcome of this research, how can you best prepare to evaluate the options?
In our book, Choosing the Right School for Your Child, Missy James and I try to help parents facing this dilemma. We ask parents to consider that the issue is not how to pick "the best school," but rather how to find the right school, one that fits your child's learning style, personality and emotional needs, as well as the family's philosophy and goals.
Making the right match between your child and a school is a process that includes several steps, among them determining the family's goals and values, learning about early childhood education issues, assessing a child's educational needs, gathering information about the schools, and then narrowing choices through personal tours and assessments.
Diane Dunning Trunzo, admissions director at the St. Agnes School in Alexandria, gives the following guidelines for approaching the task:
Observe your child to understand his strengths and weaknesses;
Do your homework researching schools and gathering information early in the fall;
Visit several schools;
Understand what is involved in the admissions process;
Keep your perspective when applying to independent schools and realize that the schools, too, are trying to find the right match and to ensure that the child receives the best education possible.
One of the most difficult tasks for parents is to assess their own child. Not only is it hard to be honest, it is difficult to articulate what you instinctively know. Harder yet, without a background in education, is to know your child's learning style and thus the school environment in which the child would thrive.
Start with your child's preschool teacher and ask for help in evaluating his learning style. Make your own observations based on how your child reacts on the playground and at play groups at home. Some parents turn to educational consultants for testing and guidance. Patricia S. Lemer, a Washington-based educational consultant and diagnostician, said she finds that there are, in general, four types of learners requiring four different styles of teaching. Briefly, there is:
The highly focused, goal-oriented student who does well in any environment;
The cerebral, budding scientist who thrives in a busy, activity-oriented and well-stocked school;
The people-oriented student who needs a warm, harmonious learning environment;
The child who must learn by doing and wants a school filled with projects, objects, machines and field trips.
When you feel comfortable with your assessment of your child's "style," the next step is finding the school that offers the appropriate environment. Patricia O. Quinn, a local developmental pediatrician, makes many useful suggestions in this regard. For example, if you are searching for a school for a very active child, look at classroom size, playground equipment, time allotted for active play, individual workspace (how the desks are configured) and teacher flexibility.
Parents also may want to consider the school's philosophy and character, the curriculum, opportunities for parental involvement, quality of the facilities, enrollment and grades in the school, cost (if private), teaching staff and, most importantly, what makes the school unique. Taking each of these areas in order, parents might consider the following questions when touring schools:
School Philosophy and Character: You may think that if a school is public, there is no "school philosophy." While it may not be written and published, exactly the opposite is true. Every public school is different and the principal sets the tone and establishes goals for the school. Find out what the principal wants to accomplish; set up an interview at your public school.
Each public school will offer a different experience. For example, Oyster has bilingual (Spanish-English) instruction, while John Eaton focuses on a process approach to learning with a nationally recognized math and science program. The Capitol Hill Cluster, which is made up of Peabody and Watkins elementary schools and an associated middle school, Stuart Hobson, has a diverse student body and a unique reading instruction program.
If the school is independent or parochial, ask for its statement of philosophy. Other questions you should ask are: What is the school's religious orientation, or is there none? What is the racial, cultural, economic and religious makeup of the student body and teachers?
Curriculum: It may be tough for the average parent to evaluate the curriculum, but a comparison of answers to the following questions will begin to shed light. What is the reading program: beginning grade level, teaching methods, textbooks used? Are enrichment teachers or tutors available? What is the approach to math? How much time is devoted to science, art, music, social studies?
At the Six-School Complex, a group of four elementary schools (Hyde, Key, Stoddert and Horace Mann), an associated middle school (Hardy) and the Fillmore arts center, in northwest Washington, children go to Fillmore one day a week for art, music, movement and theater instruction. Curriculum differences can be seen in Lowell's and Maret's integrated-thematic approach, Barrie's Montessori program, or Green Acre's hands-on, progressive approach. If you are looking for bi-lingual education, Oyster and Washington International School offer good choices.
Parents should also ask if there is physical education instruction, and how many times a week? What is the computer curriculum? With what grade does it begin? Are computers in the classrooms? How many computers are available? While test scores may provide a comparative look at schools, focus more on the content of the curriculum. Each school should be happy to provide prospective parents with a written copy.
Parental Involvement: Find out the school's expectations and the extent to which parents influence school affairs. A strong PTA seems to be an important component in making a good school. Ask whether parents sit on policy-making committees or if the PTA can provide extra teaching help. What are the specific volunteer activities?
Enrollment and Grades: Is the school large or small? Some public schools are comparatively large: Murch has over 400 students, Lafayette and Wyngate more than 500. Others are comparatively small: Westbrook has approximately 250 students and schools in the Six School Complex no more than 200 per school. How many sections are there per grade? Is there a pre-kindergarten program? It is half day or a full day? Does the school end in grade 3, 6, 8 or 12? What grade does the school begin and at what level does the student have the highest chance for admittance? In public schools with a pre-K program, find out the deadline and whether enrollment is first-come, first-served. What are the school day hours? Does this fit your working schedule? Is an extended-day program available?
Costs: What are the application, testing, registration, out-of-boundary, or tuition fees? What is the school's expectation for additional financial contributions? What is the tuition payment schedule? What financial aid and financing options are available apart from direct aid or scholarships?
Teaching Staff: How do students and teachers relate to each other? Are teachers addressed by first or last name? What is the male-female ratio of the staff? What is the age range? What special teachers -- resource specialists in math or reading, for example -- are available? What is the current turnover? When touring a school try to get a feel for how the teachers and children interact in the classroom and on the playground.
The bottom line, after all, is what is special about a school, and the "something special" will differ for each family. It could be the approach to the curriculum, the religious orientation, facilities, school ambience, caliber of teachers, school head, educational philosophy, degree of parent involvement or unusual art, music or computer program. Each school has its own personality and special appeal. The hard part is finding the best one for your child and you.
Blythe Lyons is coauthor of "Choosing the Right School for Your Child," published by Madison Books. This article is based on information contained in the book.