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Choosing Schools: What Other Parents Know (and What They Don’t)

KIds in the classroomRhode Island families with elementary school children–especially kindergarteners–are already deep into school-shopping mode. Providence Public Schools is inviting families into its elementary schools next week for Open Schools Week ahead of kindergarten registration, which starts on February 22 and runs through April 1 (a similar process for first grade registration runs from March 1 to April 1). I’ll be back next week with a post offering tips and suggestions for Providence families.

Many parents–from Providence and beyond–found Kidoinfo’s 2008 post “How to Visit Elementary Schools”  helpful; check it out if you’re in the process of visiting schools as you weigh the options and decide what’s best for your child. Even if you don’t check it out, visit schools! There’s no substitute for evaluating a school based on your own experience. For many working families with young kids, it can be hard to make the elementary school rounds, but if you can, the information you’ll get is invaluable.

For this year, here are some additional suggestions about how to talk with other parents about their experience as members of a particular school community–and how to assess whether their experience might (or might not) apply to your child and family.

In addition to having two sons in elementary school, I have a son in preschool. When I spend time with his classmates’ families at birthday parties and preschool drop-off , I notice a familiar dynamic that I’ve come to think of as the Playground Magnet Effect (hard to imagine now, but spring is coming, and we’ll all be hanging out at the playground without risk of frostbite). Here’s how it goes: Two or three parents of 3- to 5-year-olds start chatting about schools–what the options are for their soon-to-be-kindergarteners, what they’re considering, what they’ve heard. Inevitably, this conversation draws other parents and caregivers like a tractor beam. It’s impossible to resist, and for good reason: Friends and neighbors are a powerful and valuable source of information about school options. In a neighborhood preschool or playground setting, it’s likely (though of course not necessary) that parents will share with others who are demographically similar, thus providing basic familiarity that encourages us to extrapolate from each other’s experience.

It’s likely that parents are considering a wide range of options: public school, independent school, religious/parochial school, even homeschooling. Listening to people talk about their ideas and preferences–and asking polite and pointed questions–can reveal information about schools that we may not know much about and want to research. (For lists of and information about all schools in Rhode Island and beyond, visit GreatSchools, which offers useful resources for choosing schools.)

But also remember to find out more about what you’re hearing. When you hear, “Oh, no, there’s no way we could send Olivia there. It’s too loud/expensive/far away/sheltered/dangerous/unchallenging/precious,” it’s very hard to resist the urge to downgrade that school on your own mental top five list. Or it can be very easy to dismiss the dismisser, assuming you may not share values or priorities. Instead, try asking questions to learn about the source of the information. Has your playground acquaintance visited the school? Is the opinion based on hearsay? What’s the source? If you find out that he’s visited the school, that’s a segue to a much more meaningful and powerful conversation than if you find out that the source is his kid’s babysitter’s mother’s sister, who used to teach there.

Seek out families whose kids attend the school now; clearly, they tend to be sources of relevant and current information. At the same time, don’t make assumptions about their children or their family values. Instead, ask questions. What does their child love about school? What would the child–and the parent–wish to change? What kinds of challenge and support does the school offer to different kinds of learners? What you ask is up to you–but you must ask, rather than assuming that what you’re hearing may or may not apply to you and your family’s situation. Try to find parents who have been in the school community for several years. It’s great to get the scoop on who might be your kid’s kindergarten teacher next year. But you should also get a sense of school culture and how the school runs year in and year out.

And if you’re hunkered down, waiting out the cold, and don’t find yourself in situations in which the Playground Magnet Effect is in force, pick up the phone. Most schools have some sort of parent association or set of volunteers who are available to answer questions. Or post questions here in the comments section; the Kidoinfo community will help you find the information that you need. No matter which way you go about it, get brave and ask a thousand and one questions, and as with any other major decision, consider the source and make the best decision for your own kids.

Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is the co-president of Providence’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and works on education issues nationally as the publications director of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

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  • I just noticed as I reread this piece to prepare for writing my next Kidoinfo piece that the long comment I submitted on 2/5 never posted! So sorry–I didn’t mean to be silent in the presence of such thoughtful and useful comments. I wish I could recall the specifics of that comment, and do want to add that gut feeling does count for a lot, absolutely, and underscores the necessity of going to see for yourself.

    Sarah and Beth, I often think about ways to create discussion within communities about school options. Some communities do have such a thing: I think of San Francisco’s Parents for Public Schools website (http://www.ppssf.org/) which has a ton of resources that offer ways for parents to support public schools, be better advocates, and a members-only listserv with discussions about schools. There’s another listsev on Yahoo called sfschools which serves this purpose (I think that many cities have this, I just happen to be dialed into that one because I used to live in SF). NYC has Inside Schools, (http://insideschools.org) which offers comprehensive reviews of and opportunities for online discussion about NYC’s public schools.

    We don’t have a similar resource. This makes me think again about ways we could create one.

  • Beth and Sarah, I agree that local conversations among parents are essential. Usually they’re ad hoc, because around here, we don’t have a resource or organization in our communities (of which I am aware) in which we can talk with each other in an organized way. There is an organization called Parents for Public Schools that provides structure in some communities: http://www.parents4publicschools.com/ and other areas, and New York City has Inside Schools, http://insideschools.org – which is a fantastic resource. Here in Rhode Island, I am not aware of any cities or towns that have an independent forum for parents and families to talk about their community’s schools. I keep thinking about ways to start one in Providence…

    I really think that visiting, as Cristina says not only during open houses but while school is in session, is essential. Your gut feeling doesn’t tell you everything; you need to push and probe beneath the surface. But it does tell you a lot.

    The other piece of this is taking action and working with the school if things aren’t ideal once you start. We do our best to make informed choices, but once you’re in a community, it’s best to try to stick with it even if the start isn’t great. Beth, I hope that your work organizing the parents in your child’s kindergarten class improved the situation.

    And I want to echo Valerie’s point – the charter schools have their own admissions processes, some of which are under way now, I believe. A list of local charter school is available at http://www.richarterschools.com/

    These are great comments – thank you everyone!

  • I agree that gut feeling counts for a lot. When I visited Ocean State Montessori with my then-3 yr old we both loved it. She didn’t want to leave! She is now in 2nd grade there and it still is a good fit for us. Visiting a school during the week as opposed to an open house is important and gives such a different picture. With Montessori it’s sometimes hard to imagine how 20 kids can all be occupied doing “works” with just 2 teachers but when you see it in real time it is amazing.

  • Sarah,

    I think there is definitely an opporunity to have by-community discussions on schools. I often wish for the same thing, especially to cut through the mystique surrounding certain districts.

    We have had a nightmare experience in our local public elementary with our kindergarten teacher this year. It wasn’t until I sent out an email to all the parents in the class that we were able to come together as a group to discuss our shared concerns and act as a team.

    Localized parenting discussion would really be great and foster a greater sense of ownership.

  • As a parent and owner of a preschool/kindergarten private school, I second the comment from Lauri. I have taken many families on a tour of our school and spent much time talking with parents. Some end up enrolling their child and others do not. You need to think of what you are looking for such as…
    1. Cost – what are you willing and able to spend
    2. Academics and Play – what ratio of academics and play are you looking for? Do you want a school that is just play (which is totally fine if that is what you want), all academic, or a combination of the two.
    3. Location – I know here in RI distance can be an issue. Do you want something close to your job? This may be important if you have a little one in school.
    4. Feel – Nothing can replace the feel you get from the staff and environment. Go and visit! Ask if you can call a few current families.
    No school is perfect for everyone!

    Keep in mind that you may not be able to check off everything so decide what are your must haves.

    ??? Was it ever this hard for our parents??? 🙂

  • Take your child WITH YOU to the open house. Sometimes parents need to realize, they are not the ones attending, but the child. See how the child interacts with the classroom, the teacher with the child. Prepare a list of questions you would have them answer. Is the classroom integrated? How many students? How long has the teacher been there? The T.A.? How does the teacher feel about your volunteering in the classroom? Is there a PTO? Is the PTO cliche based??? Do you like the layout of the classroom? Does it feel cramped? Is your child allowed to eat snacks? How long is art, recess, music? Do they have these programs? Is there a FT nurse on staff? Weekly progress reports? Is the teacher very communicative? How would someone “rate” that teacher? Sincere? Kind? Or should’ve retired or found a new career field 5 yrs ago?

    I think the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about your child. If you have a child who has separation issues, behavioral issues, communication issues, etc. to be open and honest about the experience and talk to the teacher. Also, realize when you drop your child off you will NOT be allowed to stay the first day or the next day to calm your child down to the new environment. You should have begun that process NOW, so you dont cause an emotional uproar the first day with that child or any other child. As a parent of an emotionally empathetic child, its difficult to explain to my child why another child is crying when they are being dropped off. It causes emotional upset with him, so part of exploring each school is understanding if you will have a tolerable teacher towards an emotionally sensitive kid, preparing your child for what they will experience on their first day if they are a first timer and preparing yourself (yes you probably will cry) when the time comes to drop off your little one…

  • what a great piece! i can think of an example in my community (i’m no longer in RI, alas) about why it’s important to do your own due diligence and not rely on conventional wisdom: one public elementary near me is often described as “chaotic.” i visited twice, and didn’t see chaos! i saw a lot of energy and enthusiasm and very engaged kids! maybe it’s chaotic to someone who expects schools to be very quiet…but i think the adjective has simply been handed down like a verdict from on-high for years. it may have been true a decade ago, but i don’t think it’s the current reality.

  • Excellent points. I also recommend deciding on your criteria for “the perfect school” before you start visiting schools, so that you have a checklist to compare them against. Some parents like to see a lot of homework, whereas other parents like to see plenty of recess and movement opportunities – everyone is different, and every child is different. An environment that works well for one child may not work well for another – so remember, too, that you may need to go through this school choice activity with different lenses on for each of your children.

  • Getting in touch with PTO or PTA for the school you are interested is this best option. If there is no PTO or they do not get in touch with you, ask to meet with the principal, get a tour while school is in session and ask if there are open events to attend. We visited an arts night at a prospective school and it was helpful to see the school in action and talk to other parents.

  • Does anyone know of an online forum for RI where parents can get feedback on schools from families who already attend? I’m trying to get information on the Kindergarten teachers for my neighborhood school and am having no luck getting in touch with the PTA (probably not a good sign).

  • I totally agree with Erin. When we were looking at kindergarten for our son, we visited a much-loved private school that several of our friends’ children attended. We knew within five minutes that it wasn’t right for us.

    We are now very happy in our second year at Paul Cuffee School.

    Just a note – check the deadlines for charter school applications if you are interested in them. The deadlines (and application process) are different than the other public schools. You can apply to the charter school lotteries and also do public school registration. If you’re admitted to a charter and you want to attend, you just withdraw your name from the public school to which you are assigned.

  • “When you hear, “Oh, no, there’s no way we could send Olivia there. It’s too loud/expensive/far away/sheltered/dangerous/unchallenging/precious,” it’s very hard to resist the urge to downgrade that school on your own mental top five list.”

    thank you for this!!!

    i have definitely noticed myself doing this. feeling great about an option we are considering and then second-guessing when i hear the kind of things you listed above.

    i really appreciate your reminder to dig deeper and ask more questions.

    i’ve been surprised to find that even people with whom i’ve been friends for many years are often looking for very different things in a school for their children than we are for ours.