5 Tips for Choosing the Right School

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For many parents, there is little mystery about the next school year. Their children will stay in the same school and move up a grade.

But for parents with children making the transition to another level of education (like kindergarten, middle school, or high school) and parents who aren’t satisfied with their children’s current school, now is the time to think about schooling options.

We promote school choice in part because we think that parents – not teachers, and certainly not educational administrators and publicly elected school boards – can best determine what their children need in terms of education. And they should have as many options open to them as possible. Good options don’t choose themselves, however, so I’ve put together a list of five things for parents to keep in mind as they sort through the often difficult process of choosing a school for their children:

1) Take Charge. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and study after study after study (and, I would say, common wisdom) claim that when parents are actively involved in the educational process, academic success is a likely outcome. Being “involved” starts with determining what is best for a child, weighing that against what is possible, and making the best choices one can.

2) Explore Options. It’s generally not a good idea to close doors too soon. Do you tend to distrust public schools? Some are wonderful, and some are mediocre with pockets of wonderfulness in them. The only way to find out is to go look for yourself. Think that you can’t afford a great private school? Check out scholarship opportunities and meet with school leaders face-to-face. Private schools often have financial resources that they don’t publish in order to help families in special circumstances, and summertime is when they’re looking to fill the last seats for the upcoming school year. Is a school you love a difficult distance away? Check out carpooling and other options. If a school is a great fit for your child, managing transportation is often a sacrifice worth making.

3) Study Curriculum and Methodology. Meeting enthusiastic, gifted teachers can be wonderful, but don’t forget that what they teach and how they teach may not be what you’re looking for. Make sure you know what your children will be getting and if it’s what they need. For example, lots of schools use the term “classical” to describe their curricula, but even a quick glance will show that these schools have a wide variety of reading lists and classes. Likewise, does “college prep” mean intensive reading, writing, and math or lots of classes geared specifically for Advanced Placement tests?

Along similar lines, some education professionals like to talk about teaching to a variety of “learning styles,” but many schools focus only on one (like “the Socratic method” or “direct teaching”). Make sure the teaching methodology (or “pedagogy”) of a particular school fits your child’s learning needs. Even a great curriculum won’t make up for a child’s ongoing frustration with methods that make it difficult for him or her to learn.

If you can still visit a school while it’s in session, do so. There is simply no better way to test the enthusiastic claims of teachers, administrators, and marketing materials.

4) Take the Long View. When you send a child to a school, you’re not signing a marriage contract. So if things don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world – it’s just time to find a different school. And if your child struggles all the way through the K-12 years, remember that great schooling can only give a child about half of what he or she needs for a meaningful adult life. The rest has to be picked up at home, in the community, and by experience. And thankfully, the United States has one of the best adult education environments in the world. For children who, for one reason or another, struggle in their K-12 years, the “second chance” world of community colleges, vo-techs, community education programs, job training programs, and universities is always willing to take on someone who wants to learn.

5) Stay involved. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably the type of parent who checks homework, communicates regularly with teachers, and intervenes when your child is struggling academically. Good for you. Again, studies and common sense show that parental involvement is crucial for academic success. Showing your commitment is the best way to get your children to value education as well.

Does this seem like a lot of work? I hope it does. Managing the education of a child requires sustained commitment and attention, and often includes tasks that are difficult and time-consuming. Finding a school is one such task and, like nearly all tasks aimed at improving the lives of children, well worth the effort. 

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