Comparing schools is challenging because each institution offers unique programs in a unique environment. One may present a specialized science curriculum geared toward a future in engineering, while another focuses on developing cooperation and compassion through active community service. The comparisons parents must make are apples-to-oranges at best. Faced with so much detailed information about so many exciting opportunities, it’s hard to stay focused on the end goal: finding the best educational option for your student.
Approach the school-selection process with this three-step strategy to make sure your kids’ needs come first.
Step 1: Assess your Values
Start your school-selection process at home. “Ask yourself what you expect of a school and what you expect of your child, in terms of attitude, behavior, motivation and achievement,” says educational psychologist Jennifer Little, Ph.D., founder of Parents Teach Kids. You may want a school that has high cultural or ethnic diversity, or whose students and staff have religious values similar to those of your family. Clarifying your values will help you put schools’ marketing materials in context.
Acknowledge practical matters as well. Determine how far you’re willing to drive and how much tuition you can afford. Be honest with yourself about the level of involvement you will have in your child’s school. Many schools require parents to volunteer a specified number of hours. Create a personal checklist of your requirements and limitations so you don’t overlook important factors.
Step 2: Seek Info
For each potential school, collect information on curriculum, student-teacher ratio and academic outcomes. Study data that show how students scored on placement tests for math, English and foreign languages, and pay particular attention to how many students graduate and what schools they attend next. Also, pay attention to accreditation. The National Association of Independent Schools and similar state associations require member schools to uphold rigorous standards and to undergo periodic review. This makes school officials accountable to other educators who are in touch with national standards and teaching trends.
Examine course descriptions, materials and teacher preparation to evaluate the quality of a school’s curriculum. Also, ask about choice. You want your child to have a firm foundation in primary subjects and a choice among interesting electives. Kids are motivated to learn when they can pursue subjects they select. Learn about the availability of special programs that interest your child, such as language immersion or music instruction.
Visit schools on your short list to evaluate the academic workload and environment. Ask students how much homework they do each night and attend classes to see how teachers affect learning. Do they use readings, lectures or group discussion? Do students do projects, community service or internships at local businesses or universities? A school’s instructional strategy should match up with its educational objectives and your child’s learning style, Little says. Highly competitive classes can undermine learning for some students. Others might be frustrated by a collaborative approach.
Keep in mind a school is more than its academic programs. It is a community of learners. Observe social dynamics among students and ask how teachers encourage cooperation and manage behavior problems. Kids can’t learn when they’re struggling with classroom chaos or feel left out of exclusive cliques.
Look at how adults are involved in the school. A strong parent-teacher association ensures that ideas and information flow both ways. Involvement from alumni suggests a strong sense of pride in the institution. Find out how long teachers have been at the school and whether they receive regular professional development. High turnover may reflect bad management. It can also create a poor climate for learning.
Step 3: Focus on Fit
“Ideally, you want to match the school to the learner,” says Faya Hoffman, founder of the Washington, DC, learning concierge service, My Learning Springboard. “A school with a phenomenal reputation may not be the right fit for your child.” Be honest about whether an institution’s approach fits with your student’s interests and temperament.
If your child has an Individualized Educational Plan due to learning (or other) disabilities, find out what services are available to meet his needs. Smaller schools may not have fulltime staff to provide speech or occupational therapy or counseling services. Speak directly with staff members who provide services your child needs, so you understand how your child will get help. Knowing what to expect sets everyone up for success.
Although it may be inconvenient, Hoffman says siblings may need different educational approaches – and different schools – to learn and thrive. Focus on each student as an individual to make the best educational decisions for your family.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom of two. She is the author of Detachment Parenting.