Choosing the right school for your child and your family can be a daunting task. When determining what educational community will be a good fit, I encourage parents to understand the unique values, philosophies, and approaches that each school offers.
Whether your child is starting school for the very first time, "moving up," switching schools within the same district, or moving to a new location, consider the following suggestions as you evaluate the options and familiarize yourself with each school.
School Culture and Values
Understanding the core set of values that shapes the school's culture and informs decisions, policies, and programs can help parents determine how a school will align with their child and family.
While academics are often used as a comparative measure of success and achievement, underpinning values such as ethics and character are equally important traits in an educational environment. Test scores are not the only factor that leads to impressive learning outcomes, educational success, and the development of future leaders.
Parents can gain insight about a school's culture by spending as much time at the school as possible. I encourage parents to take advantage of open houses, private tours, visit dates, social events, and orientation activities. In order to understand how the school community works together, ask for specific examples. This could include hearing more about students who have been successful in that learning environment or descriptions of a student or a teacher that embody the school's culture. This could also include asking about the type of student who would not be successful at this school.
I often suggest that families attend a school's musical performance, theatre production, or athletic event. In these venues, one can truly see the school community in action and get a sense of authentic school culture.
Many schools follow specific educational models and philosophies that vary from a focus on a traditional academic curriculum to a play-based approach. Examples of particular educational models include Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia. Parents should seek a deep understanding of a school's educational model and how this influences daily instruction. For example, is the school formally aligned with a particular model or is it influenced by one or more approaches? Why has the school chosen a specific approach?
Understanding the learning experiences available to students can also inform the decision-making process. How are students engaged in learning in a typical classroom? When do students work cooperatively, in small groups, or by themselves? Is the teacher serving as a facilitator or the "sage on the stage?"
Understanding how the school supports individual student needs is also important. How are differences, such as learning styles and academic strengths, accommodated?
For example, a highly active group may learn better through a hands-on guided approach, whereas a group of strong readers may be assigned individual reading the night before to internalize the content and then dive into an interactive discussion the following day.
Ultimately, it comes down to asking yourself, "Will my child's learning style and needs be well-suited to this school's approach?"
Community and Parent Partnership
Evaluating life inside and outside the classroom can also help parents find the right school for their child and their family. An active partnership between home and school is a critical element for student success. The sense of the community and belonging among families can be remarkably different among schools. In what ways does the school support inclusion and diversity? I am a firm believer that relationships among parents, teachers, and students have a powerful impact on learning.
Parents may want to consider asking questions about opportunities for involvement beyond the typical school day, such as parent volunteering and after school programs. Do parents volunteer in and outside the classroom? Is there an active PTA? How often do parents meet with their child's teacher? How do teachers and the administration keep parents informed? Do students have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities? How is participation encouraged or discouraged?
In the greater Seattle and Bellevue areas, there are many public, private, and independent schools. Take time to learn about the options, understand each school's educational programs and philosophies, and seek insight into the unique culture and community. After all, you are not only finding the best match for your child to thrive and grow, you are looking for a school to call home for several years.