Choosing a school for your child

a child's shoes surrounded by question marks
(LemonTreeImages/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

By Amian Kelemer

Around the year 65 C.E., Yehoshua Ben Gamla noted that fathers teaching their children at home produced inconsistent results, and he began to experiment with various models of education. He realized that 16 was too old to start a structured and formal education. He tried having one centralized location for a district, but when it was far away from a child’s home, it was also not a success. He mandated local schools where children were enrolled at 6 years old, and this is the model that stuck. He was experimenting with what made for success in school and hit upon a formula that worked for the times.

While 65 C.E. was a very long time ago, we are still imagining and reimagining schools. Since that time, we have analyzed what generally works and this extensive research has identified seven correlates or characteristics found in schools where all children are learning. These correlates are:

1. Safe and orderly environment;

2. Climate of high expectations for success;

3. Instructional leadership;

4. Clear and focused vision/ mission;

5. Opportunity to learn and student time on task;

6. Frequent monitoring of student progress; and

7. Home-school relations.

These correlates are not only useful for academics who are evaluating schools for research purposes. They can also help parents who are trying to decide which school will best suit their child’s needs. You can use these seven correlates as a framework for developing your questions and guiding your observations. It is important to remember that while you may interact with lots of people who have educational expertise, you know your child best. With the correlates in hand, and your child in your heart and mind, begin to do your research.

Start with a school’s website. Of course, you are going to see pictures of beaming children. The people who are marketing the school are trying to capture your attention, as well as the essence of the school. Look deeper to see what messages those images convey. When evaluating whether there is a safe and orderly environment (correlate 1), do you see space that looks well-maintained? When considering a climate of high expectations (correlate 2), are the children engaged in a variety of tasks such as sitting with a teacher, up on a stage or out in the playground? Do you see evidence of children collaborating? Can you find documentation of instructional leadership (correlate 3) such as different kinds of interaction between the teachers and the students? Do the images demonstrate values that match and reinforce the school mission (correlate 4)? For example, if the school states that they want students to become giving individuals, do you notice any evidence that the school is providing opportunities to give to others? Can you explore opportunities for learning and student time on task through the posted calendar and information about the schedule (correlate 5)?

And what if you do not see some clear images representing what you would expect? Now you need to become even more of a detective.

Some schools have unique philosophies. For example, schools may have a particular way of handling conflict between children (have you heard of a “peace table”?) or defining the role of the teacher (was your teacher a “guide on the side”?). These various methodologies may really appeal to you and mesh well with your own family values — or not. If there is a particular philosophy mentioned, Google and the library are your friends. Read up on these philosophies and see if they resonate for you. Make sure that your family can embrace the focus and approach of the school. Once you have a basic understanding of an approach, test your understanding with parents whose children are enrolled or with educators you may know to see if the implementation is as it is described.

Meet with the administration. Find out what they expect of their graduates. Even if your child is only in kindergarten, educators always keep goals and pathways in mind. How does a student succeed? Is it all about scores and grades? Is there a holistic approach (correlate 6)? What happens if your child struggles academically or socially? Is there a safety net? How does the school communicate with you about successes and challenges? What role can you play in your child’s educational experience (correlate 7)?

Get an insider perspective. Talk to parents who have children in different grades. Will you enjoy getting together with the other families? What do they love about the school? What kinds of activities do families gravitate to outside of school time?

And finally, get an in-person feel. Take advantage of open houses, shadowing days and information sessions. While COVID-19 procedures may have forced some changes, taking a walk through a school’s hallways, even without children present, can give you a flavor.

Parents no longer need to be as visionary as Yehoshua Ben Gamla and invent the concept of school. Rather, your task is to discern which of the plethora of options works best for your child and family. Remember that your process of discovery is a values clarification process too. Your child is watching how you make decisions, and you are a role model for your child’s outlook on education and schooling.

Have a wonderful journey as you launch your child into their future as a lifelong learner.

Amian Frost Kelemer is the CEO of the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.

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