Choosing a school that fits your needs
Not long ago, school choice was as simple as locating the nearest school within walking distance of home. Subjects were essentially the same at each school, and a high school diploma guaranteed a livable wage job.
Not anymore. With technology transforming the way the world operates, and nations around the world beginning to outperform American students in math and science, schools are under pressure from corporate America and the government to raise the rigor of education. If they don’t, the U.S. economy has the potential to suffer when those high-paying math and science jobs go to better-educated workers in other countries.
Adding to the academic pressure are skyrocketing operating costs to run schools, at a time when the State budget is dealing with a significant deficit. State funding for schools has been frozen at levels from two years ago, despite rising inflation and health care benefits for teachers. In order to meet greater academic goals, schools need to stay current with technology, which means regularly replacing obsolete equipment, an operating cost not seen even 10 years ago.
Schools are resorting to cutting programs and staff and in some cases taking on debt to deal with operating deficits. Competition among schools for students is intense. Since state dollars are assigned to each student attending a public school, and those funds follow them to whichever public, public charter or magnet school they attend, each new body seated in a classroom adds valuable revenue to the school.
Private schools need students as well. With declining contributions from supporting congregations and tuition fees becoming unmanageable for many families because of the Recession, new students are needed to bridge the gap.
It can be a dizzying experience for parents, trying to wade through the many choices for schools. Should they choose a private, public, charter or magnet school? Should they home school or choose an online or alternative school? A personal philosophy about education and teaching values, along with location, academic needs, and tuition (for a private or parochial school) should be among the factors used in making your decision.
Here are some helpful tips in making your decision.
Choosing a school
It takes time and "legwork" to search out schools that meet the academic and teaching style needs of your child. Before you begin, determine if the location of the school is a feasible distance for your family. Then compile a list of questions and call the school office for an appointment with the principal and to tour the school and classrooms. While there, ask questions and observe the environment. Important points that a school should address include:
• Its educational philosophy or mission
• Its approach toward student discipline and safety
• How it encourages and monitors students’ progress
• Library resources
• Use of technology to support teaching and learning
• Extracurricular opportunities
• Busing for students
• Policy to support students with academic, social or emotional difficulties
• Strategies used to teach students who are not fluent in English
• Professional development opportunities for teachers.
For even more information, observe details such as:
• Do teachers seem enthusiastic and knowledgeable, asking questions to keep the students engaged?
• Does the principal seem confident and interested in interacting with students, teachers and parents?
• How do students behave on the school campus?
• How well are the facilities maintained?
• Most private/parochial schools do not have the same budget as public schools. They may have more amenities, or fewer. Be sure the basics are in place and well-maintained.
• Discuss tuition for private/parochial schools. If you are not a member of the church affiliated with the school, tuition rates are normally higher than those paid by church members.
• Confer with parents who have students attending the school. You should sense from your school visit and from the parents you have talked to that your child will not only receive a good education, but will also be developmentally nurtured.
• Visiting as least three schools provides a broader range of options and a basis for comparison before making a decision.
A parochial school is usually controlled and supported by a local church congregation, which is the financial backbone of the school, along with tuition.
A regional synod or diocese designs a philosophy, goals, curriculum (including religious studies), teacher development programs, code of conduct, school calendar and grading policies. Schools usually can modify policies regarding tuition and the hiring of staff and teachers. They may even adopt the local public schools’ yearly calendar, for convenience in sharing busses, for example.
Most parochial schools are straightforward about religion being an integral part of the school’s philosophy, and that all children will attend religion class.
Charter schools fill a niche between private and public schools. Although funded with public money (except for their facilities), they are an alternative to regular public schools. Instead of being accountable to the many regulations applied to traditional public schools, they are accountable for academic results and for upholding their charter. A private group can get a charter approved to run their own school. They have independence to try new forms of teaching, new experiments and find what they believe is the best way to reach their students. If academic performance lags behind comparable public schools, then the charter is pulled and the school is closed.
Questions to ask specifically of charter schools:
• Why was this school created?
• What teaching methodology does it embrace?
• Does the school have a specific focus?
• How is academic progress measured according to its charter requirements?
• When was the school established and how long is it into its charter?
• Has it shown academic progress?
• How are students enrolled?
• Is this the permanent location or facility for the school? If not, will the school be moving to another location in the near future?
• Who is the charter holder, or the group that created the school?
• How does the school select its teachers? Are the teachers certified?
Magnet schools are different from private/parochial and charter schools in that they remain part of the public school administrative system. What distinguishes them from other public schools is that magnets usually have alternative modes of instruction and usually a focus that is taught in all classes within the curriculum.