How to Evaluate and Choose a School
Public or Private Schools?
Whether parents live in a school district that offers school choice, are changing residences, or have a child entering kindergarten, choosing a school is a complex decision that includes the characteristics of the child, family, and schools.
School quality depends
many characteristics, not all easily measurable, and not all equally
important for each individual child or family. Parents may want to
consider the following characteristics when evaluating a school.
child's personality, learning style, and any special needs. Does the
child need the structure that a traditional school setting would
provide, or does he or she prefer to explore and take more personal
responsibility for learning? Could she benefit from some type of
alternative schooling approach? Does the child respond differently to
being in small and large groups? If, for example, a child learns best
in small cooperative work groups, then parents may want to consider
finding a school that uses this instructional strategy. If a child has
a special interest in music or a foreign language, then some preference
might be given to a school that offers or excels in those areas in its
regular curriculum or through after-school programming or clubs.
School philosophy. Parents can read the school's statement of philosophy or mission statement and ask about beliefs that guide the school's program and teaching approaches.
approaches. Multi-age grouping, looping, and traditional
classrooms offer different advantages, and parents will want to know
how the school is organized for instruction. Parents will also want to
inquire about average class size at the various grade levels. A school
with a traditional structure that provides clear standards and
expectations may be a good choice for some children, while a school
that allows extra freedom and places more responsibility for learning
on the child may work well for other children.
Your tax deductible contribution will spread parental involvement in your community and across America!
School facilities/personnel resources. Although modern, well-designed facilities do not guarantee higher student achievement, some basic features that parents can look for include a well-equipped library, a collection of age-appropriate books and periodicals in addition to textbooks in each classroom, a separate lunchroom and auditorium or large classroom for meetings and presentations, and adequate physical education facilities. With regard to services, parents can check to see whether the school has a full-time library/media specialist, on-site nurse, secretary, and social worker. Parents can also ask about the background and qualifications of the teachers and what specialties are represented (e.g., English as a Second Language, special education, music, art).
School policies. Parents will want to find out about school policies related to scheduling (traditional vs. year-round) and programming day (e.g., block, flexible, or traditional scheduling, hours of building operation). Parents will want to examine the school discipline policy to see if the rules seem fair and consequences seem appropriate. Parents will also want to find out about homework and grading policies.
School reputation. Parents can ask friends, neighbors, parents, and community leaders about the reputation of the school(s) of interest. After listening to each person's opinion, parents can decide whether the positive or negative views would apply to their family and children. Parents may want to find out about special areas of concern, such as whether community diversity is reflected in the faculty, and whether students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are well integrated into the school culture and activities.
School safety. Parents will want to know how they will be notified in case of an emergency; whether the school has an emergency plan (and they should ask to see it); the policy with regard to guns, knives, and other hazardous items; the school's policy toward bullying; and whether there are formal programs in place to combat bullying. If a parent is especially concerned about school safety, a call to the police department may be appropriate. The National School Safety Center provides additional information on safety.
Curriculum. Does the school have a strong focus on literacy and other key areas? Does it offer a special focus such as immersion in a second language? Parents can find out how well the school addresses core subjects and skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics by looking at the curriculum, visiting classes, and reading the school's report card (please see information below). Does the school's curricular focus match parents' expectations and educational goals for their child?
Family and community
involvement issues. Finally, schools that are working
toward excellence are developing many ways to involve parents. Parents
can ask for a packet from the school about any programs and policies
related to parent involvement. Once a school has been chosen, it is
important that parents maintain a real commitment to that school,
including supporting the staff and contributing time and talents as
they are able. Children who see their parents involved in this way have
a greater likelihood of school success . Strong bonds with local
businesses and community groups (for mentoring, guest speakers, service
learning, and financial support) and opportunities for community use of
school facilities after school and in the evening can contribute to the
quality of the school and the support that it enjoys in the community.
How Can Parents Find Information on Individual Schools?
School report cards. The No Child Left Behind
legislation requires an annual school report card for all schools.
School report cards describe characteristics of the school, including
the number of children, various test scores, ratios of teachers to
students, ethnic ratios, poverty levels, and more. Report cards can
usually be obtained by contacting the department of education in the
state or the school district office where the school is located. If
more than one district is under consideration, several districts in the
same geographic area can supply this information for comparative
purposes. It may also be a good idea to examine school report cards for
the last several years and talk to the principal if test scores have
declined or if one subject/section of the test leads to dramatically
higher results than others. The National
Center for Education
Statistics provides an analysis of state report cards and links to
state's report cards. (See side bar for your state.)
Visiting potential schools. Parents may want to keep in mind that
no written set of assessments or test scores can take the place of
visiting a school and forming one's own opinion about the overall
environment and quality of the school and classrooms. Is the
environment welcoming and orderly, yet creative and child friendly? How
do the adults interact with the children (are they friendly, harsh,
respectful, etc.)? Does discipline seem to be maintained? Do the
classrooms have desks, or do the children work collaboratively at
tables located in various parts of the room? The furnishings in
classrooms can cue parents about the teaching philosophy at the school.
Classroom arrangement can suggest a structured approach or an approach
that encourages independent learning. When parents are thinking about a
school, they will want to think about what learning environment is best
for their child and how the school accommodates different styles as
well as students with special needs. Another important step is to talk
with staff and parents in the school. What do they see as strengths and
concerns at the school and in the community? What are their goals for
While visiting, parents
look for student work on the walls and in display areas, including
writing samples and other evidence of literacy projects and artwork.
Displays that feature work samples allow parents to see beyond test
scores to what the children are learning and how they are learning it.
Has the school been recognized with any excellence awards or awards for
dramatic recent improvements in achievement? Parents can ask during a
visit about turnover of staff and the rate of student transfers, as
well as student and teacher absentee rates.
Realtors. Realtors often have information about the reputation of particular schools in a geographic area. They can be a good resource when making decisions about which neighborhood or area of a city might be the best choice based on what the family is looking for in a school.
The following is advice from NAESP about choosing a school:
1. Check out the school district's annual report to compare the expenditure per pupil in each district you are considering. In many communities, this dollar amount will be closely linked to school quality. This information is often available on the state's department of education Web site. The National Center for Education Statistics offers a searchable resource called the Public School District Finance Peer Search. This resource allows users to find out the per-pupil expenditure for school districts of interest, how those figures compare to school districts that have similar demographic characteristics, and how the district's per-pupil expenditure compares to state and national averages. This resource is located at http://nces.ed.gov/edfin/search/search_intro.asp.
2) Check to see what services are available at the school. Look for guidance counselors, an on-site nurse, a librarian, and a secretary, and check to see if they work at more than one school. If any of these key personnel do work at more than one school, be cautious!
3) Check the structure of the school year. Do you want your child in a year-round school or do you prefer a more traditional school calendar?
4) If you are looking at a high school, check to see what percentage of the students go on to college.
5) Check the local library for books and videos on moving to a new school. Look for books for children as well as adults.
6) What is the school's discipline policy? (The school should provide a printed copy of this policy.)
7) How are students graded? (Ask for a sample report card and explanation of the grading system.)
8) How often are textbooks and classroom materials reviewed and updated? (There should be fixed schedules.)
9) Is there a school homework policy? (Some schools prefer to leave homework decisions to individual teachers.)
10) What is the school's safety policy? (Ask about rules for playground activities and strangers on school property.)
11) What extracurricular activities does the school sponsor? (Some schools have student councils and a variety of clubs for special interests like music, drama, and chess.)
12) How many students are assigned to a classroom teacher? (The smaller the class size the better, especially in the primary grades.)
13) Is the library/media center well equipped and organized? (Can children regularly check out books and use the center's resources?)
14) How do the teachers teach? (In many schools, teachers work with students in small groups or work in teams to teach larger groups.)
15) How does the school communicate with parents? (Is there a regular newsletter? Are parents' calls welcome?)
16) Is there an active parent organization? (Ask for a schedule of events and plan to attend the first meeting.)
17) Is there a before- and after-school care program? (This question can be critical for working parents.)
18) Try hard to tour prospective schools. Here's what to look for:
Revised August 2007
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