In the last nine years, our family has tried five different types of elementary school: home school, private school, parochial school, public school. and charter school. We're extremely lucky to have found one that works very well for us, and it's hard to imagine switching for any reason other than, say, statewide devastation by asteroids. With all that switching around from school to school, we've learned a few things about the basic marks of a good elementary school. (There are often fewer options for high school; and older kids have different needs, and are more resilient than younger kids.) Since this is the time of year when parents are assessing whether or not their kids are in the right place, I thought this would be a good time to share what we've discovered.
1. If you visit a school during class hours, it should not be deathly silent, but there should not be a din. A good school is cheerful and busy, but calm and orderly. It is simply not possible to teach kids if they're not under control. At the same time, teachers should not require kids to behave like adults or robots. The best schools alternate quiet time and active (preferably outdoor) time all day.
2. A good school seeks out parent involvement. I don't mean demanding lots of donations of cup cakes and cleaning supplies and volunteer hours. (That part can be exhausting, but is increasingly necessary in most school to keep their budgets afloat.) I mean that the teachers want to talk to the parents; the teachers want to meet prospective students; the teachers give you detailed updates about your kids and what the class is doing when you ask for it and, ideally, even when you don't. We once got a progress report that said, "Your son/daughter is a pleasure to have in class." Contrast this to our current school, where we got an email from one kid's teacher yesterday, just to let us know that he did something cute and funny, and that she was proud of his progress. A good school also surveys parents about the school's performance.
3. A good school is constantly reviewing itself, but not constantly reinventing itself. It's a very healthy sign when the curriculum coordinator realizes that there are gaps, or that some program is not producing the desired results. But it's a red flag when the school wants to revamp every aspect of program or mission. Sweeping change means that your kids are being experimented upon, not taught.
4. A good school is not stuffed with cutting edge technology. There is nothing wrong with new technology in itself, and kids do need to learn how to navigate the world of technology; but the most important things that kids need to learn can be taught with very few materials. If they try to dazzle you with all the magnificent toys and gadgets they've recently installed, that may be a sign their priorities are wrong. One school we visited was very proud of the interactive SMART boards they had instead of blackboards or whiteboards. These are incredibly pricey, and insure that the teachers will spend a good part of their class time struggling to make them work right. Kids spend enough time looking at screens out of school -- they need less technology, not more. Our current school has, as far as I know, one TV monitor, which they keep on a wheeled cart in the bathroom.
5. If your school offers "health" class or any type of sex education, they must be entirely transparent about what the materials are, who will be teaching it, and what the purpose of the lessons is; and they must give you the choice to opt out, if you don't want your kid to be learning some or all of these things from a non-parent. It's very important in itself for parents to know exactly what goes on during any lessons about sexuality or reproduction; and the school's approach to these issues is a good bellweather in general: do they respect the parents' primary authority over the kids, or not? Any hint that the teachers are encouraging kids to be secretive about what they're learning is a huge red flag.
6. A good school retains its teachers and other employees. A no-brainer, but worth pointing out. If there is lots of turnover, there's a reason for that. If the school's employees don't want to be there, then you don't want your kids there.
7. A good school insists on old-fashioned basics like penmanship and memorization of math facts. A good school stresses development of writing skills from an early age, and incorporates science at all levels. And a good school has kids reading every single day.
8. The administrators who communicate with the parents and the public can speak in plain language, without getting caught in a tangle of trendy jargon. Teachers and policy-makers who can't clearly express what your child is doing or what the teachers are teaching don't actually know what your child is doing or what the teachers are teaching. Thick jargon is camouflage, either for incompetence or for something more sinister.
9. A good school at least understands the importance of art and music, even if they don't have the money to supply as much of it as they'd like.
10. A good school tries to build community, and encourages kids of different ages to help each other out. One principle who gave me a tour of his school reassured me that the younger kids wouldn't have any interaction with the older kids. I immediately wondered what was wrong with the older kids! Were they dangerous? If so, what was happening to them to make them that way? In general, it's unnatural for kids to spend time only with people their age.
These are the traits which are most important to our family. How about you? Are you happy with your kids' current school? What are the things that you most appreciate about it? Or if you've left a school, what were the deal breakers?