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 each 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. Project Appleseed engages parent involvement in schools. 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 the year?
While visiting, parents can 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. Project Appleseed says 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.
Recommendations from the National Association of Elementary School Principals
Project Appleseed obtained 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. Project Appleseed provides a resource 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. Project Appleseed has homework help here.)
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? Check out free internet and discount broadband thru Project Appleseed's partnership with everyoneon.com)
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:
A warm welcome by the principal and staff members.
A clean, well-maintained campus.
Children who are actively involved in learning. Instead of sitting silently, they should be responding to teachers, discussing class work, and using such technology as calculators, computers, and audiovisual equipment.
Teachers who maintain good classroom discipline.
Classrooms and hallways filled with students' work.