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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Finding a good-enough school

It's that time of year again.

No, I'm not talking about the holiday season.
(Although, it is the holiday season.  Happy Holidays and all that.)

I'm talking about school choice. Our local school district offers school choice, if the local school has any room after taking all the kids in its' designated area.  There are also several charter schools in the area.  This means that signing up for school isn't as simple was walking to the neighborhood school and filling out a form.  For most of us it means we have to make an active choice.   At PSD registration deadline for school of choice is in January 27 for secondary schools, February 10 for elementary.  Dates on applications to the charter schools vary, so check out each school directly to be safe.

I've been asked (sometimes with voices tinged with desperation) "HOW?  How do we choose?  How do we find the perfect school for our child?"

My answer? 
You don't.  There is no perfect school.  If you're lucky there might be a good-enough school.  If you're super-duper-extra lucky, that school will be your local school.  Actually, for lots of folks, especially those people whose kids fall into the "normal" category, your local school may be an excellent choice, but wouldn't it be nice to feel confident that it was?

So, given that, and a recent question that showed up on FB,  I thought I'd share our process with you, in the hopes that it might help you think about your own process and what your priorities are.

Basically, we visited all the schools that seemed like they might be a good fit. We sat down w/ councilors at each school, did a peer tour, etc... made a spread sheet with pro and cons of each school and compared it to our kids' list of priorities. We supported them as they did this, they didn't do it alone. If we thought they'd missed a category we ask them to consider it, if we'd picked up on a nuance during the school visit we'd ask them about it... etc.

Things you might want to consider as you ponder schools:

Location - there's a lot to be said for being able to walk to school.  If you can't walk, is there a school bus?  A public bus? What is the schedule like?  How far is it to bike and/or drive and is it on the way to other places (like your work, another child's school, etc.)  Is a carpool possible?  What are your limits around driving time?  Consider that if your child does after-school activities the school bus probably won't bring them home.

Why is your kid going to school?  
Academics?  Social outlet?  Sports?  Music or art?  Some schools are better at somethings than others.  Some have a specific culture, or some special teachers and/or programs that really stand out.  What does your kid need?  What do they want?  What are you seeing at the school?

How much does inclusivity  matter to you?  A higher rate of free/reduced lunch likely means that there's more racial and socio-economic diversity, which can be of value.  It might (not necessarily, but might) also mean a school is overwhelmed with higher need students.  Think about your values, your child's needs, and compare it to the actual school.
Here's a list of questions we asked during our visits:
(pick and choose freely)

Can you describe your school culture?
How do you think you are perceived in the community?
How is that perception accurate?  How is it inaccurate?
How would you describe the relationship between the staff and faculty with the students?
How would you describe the relationship between the school and parents/families?

How many students attend this school? (ask for break down of grade levels, free/reduced lunch, number involved in extra-curriculars, graduation rate, attend college rate...)
What is the student/teacher ratio?
How do you handle special needs kids?
What kind of gifted programs do you offer?
Do you have experience with profoundly gifted students (ask more if they say "yes", PG applies to 1/10,000 or fewer students, so they might not realize what you're talking about)
What kind of support for students with learning differences/disabilities?
What kind of differentiation?
Does your school offer co-enrollment (college credit during high school)  Under what circumstances and how to access that?
What other special programs (IB, AP, experiential learning...?)

What enrichment programs do you offer?
What kind of music program do you offer?  Classes vs. before or after school?  Marching band required for all band instruments?  Different instructors for band, orchestra, and choir (for bigger schools, not realistic for small schools to have many music teachers) Ask to meet the instructor if this is an important area for your kiddo.
 What kind of art classes are available? (If you have an artist kid, ask to meet the teacher)

What clubs are on campus?  Which are student run?  Which are supported by school/teacher/coaches?
Can students from a different schools or homeschooling join your clubs/teams/extra-curriculars?

What programs do you have set up to help students make connections, fit in, "find a home" in a large school?

 Is part-time school an option?
Is this an inordinate amount of work?  

If your kid is comfortable where they are, then you probably don't need to change anything.  If, however, your kid is struggling, is not feeling challenged, is acting out, etc... then it might be worth thinking about what is working and what isn't, and what you can do about it.

For us, all that work paid off with our oldest when he was picking his college. After his high school experience he had a strong sense of his priorities, what he could and could not put up with. He's in his first year of university and really enjoying it.  Woot!  
Let's celebrate the victories when they happen, eh?

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