Thursday, September 16, 2010

That extra oomph

A group of moms at the park where talking about their school touring schedule and one woman asked, "But what do I look for?" She admitted that she was so focused on evaluating the kindergarten classes that she forgot to examine the rest of the school more closely. The conversation progressed to middle school and high school placement. I confess I haven't paid attention to the feeder patterns for middle school and how my requested selections are impacted. How many of you are looking that far ahead towards middle and high schools at this stage?

I wonder what is it that makes a school great beyond test scores and parent participation. When you're on a tour, what do you look for? Happy children? Engaging teachers? Do you rely on a feeling, sense, or vibe about the place?

I've started school tours and always leave wondering what (better) questions I should have asked. What does strong leadership in the administrative staff of the school look like on a daily basis? How can you tell from a brief visit with the school that the teachers are a strong supportive unit? How would you know if there is playground bullying or if it's a safe learning environment?

What is it that gives a school that oomph for you to put it on your list of 7?

25 comments:

  1. I tend to put a lot of stock in the principal's seeming vision, intelligence, articulateness, passion, and manner with parents.
    The parent guide can also be a big influence, negative or positive. A parent guide who seems generous with his/her knowledge, enthusiastic, organized, and sharp is a big plus, which seems unfair since it's really the luck of the draw as far as who volunteers to do it.

    Other than that it all seems like brief glimpses and weird "turn ons" and "turn offs." For me, overcrowding was a turnoff, and attentive but not overly regimented kids were a turn-on. Well-organized classrooms with lots of kids' writing and art on the walls: turn on. Chaotic playgrounds with little supervision: turn off. Teachers who seemed dynamic: turn on. Kids sitting glumly in time out: turn off.

    Random, right? I mean, without any kind of context, what does any of it mean? I just did the best I could. But I think there is such a thing as a "gut" feeling that a place is right or wrong for your kid, and you really have to listen to it.

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  2. The list of 7 was the old system. You can make your new list as big or as small as you want.

    Start with your attendance area school. What is it?

    Are you interested in any kind of language immersion programs?

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  3. For me, one thing turned out to be the best sign of the environment at a school: the feeling on the playground.

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  4. It's a vibe I think.

    Honestly, it's very difficult to tell much about a school from a brief visit. You really have to rely on your gut instinct. Ask yourself: can I picture my child here for 6+ hours in this classroom with this teacher? Would this be a good fit for our family?

    Beyond that it comes down to logistics: How is the after/before school program? What's the start time? Is language immersion important to your family? How large is the school? etc, etc...

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  5. http://www.ppssf.org/Enrollment/tours.html

    some questions to condsider when on a tour

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  6. In addition to what others have mentioned I think it's also helpful to look at how the school fosters children's social and emotional growth. I wrote an article about this last year ("Why Should I Look for Schools That Develop Children Socially and Emotionally").
    http://www.devstu.org/blogs/2009/12/01/why-should-i-look-for-schools-that-develop-children-socially-and-emotionally

    As others have said it can be difficult on a school tour to tell a lot about a school. One thing that we did was attend a school event in the evening. We attended a grades K-2 singing performance (Beatles Night) of the school we were considering as our wait pool school. Once we attended this event, we felt very positive that we would like the school. It gave us a deeper view of the principal, teachers, children, and parents. A lot of schools have fall events open to the public listed on their school websites (i.e., fall festivals).

    Hope this advice is helpful!

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  7. Who cares. You can spend so much time on this and then get none of your choices. You can think about what school you liked better and why, but in the end, you are going to get an assignement. You'll accept it or waitpool or go private. I say look at your neighborhood school, tour some immersion if you're into that, then put down schools near you that aren't awful (citywide or neighborhood), i wouldn't even tour them, it's a waste of time. Then turn your paper in and get your assignment. Then you can go and look at it and see if it's ok. Most likely it will be if it was something on your list. It just doesn't make any sense to fall in love with a school on a tour, you chances of actually getting it are so slim. Old system or new.

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  8. When I toured I started the process thinking it would all be about the parent recommendations. Then I discovered that any parent at a school would tell you it was the greatest place ever. Any parent who had left would tell you it was hell on earth.

    I also abandoned looking at Kindergartens. Face it, keeping 5 and 6 year old kids having fun and looking cute is relatively easy. Except for one school where the teacher had clearly just given up. Plus the classes are still reasonably small.

    So I started looking at 4th and 5th grades. The class size is bigger at most schools so it's harder. It gave me a better idea of the work quality and the general attentiveness. It also made it easier to spot places where all the artwork looked exactly the same (several of the higher scoring schools) and eliminate them.

    In the end I made my choice. It's the greatest place ever.

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  9. 9:37, I'd love to know where the greatest place ever is. Perhaps it's near our flat? Please tell.

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  10. As a teacher, I think schools develop an emotional climate that's a pretty easy read for anyone but hard to quantify. That sounds really touchy-feely (because it is) but that's my experience.

    When I visit schools, I like to look at the wall displays. Any cool new ideas to steal? Are the projects current? Done with classroom teachers or with specialist teachers? Clearly the work of individual children (as another commenter said) or regimented and boasting of adult interference? Are mistakes allowed? For me, these decisions have meaning and speak to the school's ethos.

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  11. 9:37 has the best idea. That is also where you will see if the academics are on par and also if the social enviornment is ok (though hard to tell, that is when most bullying is at it's peak, etc.) so would look for kids on the playground at that age seeming to not ostrasize others, etc. Again, these are hard things to tell. Pay attention to the work on the walls at all grades as they put up their "best" work. Try to peek into classes you aren't taken through as tours take you through the best classes. Try to observe when people do not think they are being observed - for example, can you see the recess in progress from a window while the computer teacher or the librarian is talking? You can still hear what they are saying but will get a glimpse into how things are when no one is around observing.

    I disagree that touring isn't worth it because you are sending in a ranked order list of seven so you should be sure you are ok with all of them.

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  12. I start with logistics: Is this a realistic start time and location? I know it's lame and lazy but I am not going to make a 7:50 start time even if it's right down the block, which automatically eliminates a lot of otherwise desirable schools. I did not have my kid until I was 41 and I'm set in my ways. Also, I need to be able to get from school to my job without going back home to park first. This means a school where I can walk or I can drive, park and catch a bus or streetcar to work. Finally, on-site after-care for non-low-income families is non-negotiable. We've got to have it. Even with the new attendance areas, I'll still look at these factors to fill out my list.

    Second, I know I don't want immersion. By now I know my kid has a very hard time keeping English straight and I don't want to throw another language at him. Also, nobody in our family has any familiarity with the languages offered by SFUSD. We're not comfortable having most of the work and instruction in a language that would prevent us from independently evaluating his progress.

    With those two things out of the way, the main things I look for are the atmosphere in the classrooms and on the playground. Do the kids seem happy to be there or bored and fidgety? Do the teachers seem happy to be there or stressed and burned out? Do they interact nicely on the playground? Do the kids appear to be adequately supervised when they're not in class? Will they show me all the grades on the tours or just the youngest, most tractable children? Not being shown the upper grades on a tour is a red flag in my mind.

    I have learned to look past the physical plant. Some schools that are quite attractive have real problems. My kid has gone to two bare-bones physical plants with awesome, effective teachers and lots of nice kids to make friends with.

    Food: I don't worry about the lunch program. I can pack a healthy lunch my kid will eat.

    Principals: This is a tricky one. Certainly a visionary, inspiring principal sets the tone for a school. A bad principal can demoralize the faculty and discourage parent contributions. The trouble though, is that principals move on. I think it's a mistake to base your decision over-much on the principal. Better to try (hard as it is) to get a sense of whether strong teaching and parent involvement are entrenched in the school culture independent of the principal's leadership.

    Parents: I don't really want to be "part of a school community" so I don't care very much what the other parents are like personally. However, I DO want to know how much money the PTA raises, because that clues me in to the extent to which the parents are engaged in their kids' education. I want my kid in a school where the culture is highly supportive of education.

    Extras: I want art, music, PE and an opportunity to work with computers.

    Obviously different people are going to have different feelings about these things. Some people really want immersion, some want to really be involved at school so will care deeply what other parents are like. My point is not to say you should care about the same things as I do , but to give you ideas about what you might care about.

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  13. I'm with 9:30 am. Why are all the bloggers this fall writing about all the public schools they are going to go on? Doesn't anyone understand the chances of getting a decent school that is not your neighborhood school or a citywide school are slim to none? I'm not criticizing the new system, just wondering why everyone seems to be devoting so much time to a pointless effort.

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  14. talk to other parents at your neighborhood playground

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  15. And ask at kid activities like soccer. I've had some surprising comments. I particularly remember an Alvarado mom telling me she thought it was lame but they were stuck there because they could not afford private. Alvarado has so much buzz and such an engaged parent community I was shocked. Grattan parents are enthusiastic across the board. A Clarendon mom said, "It's OK, a little loosey-goosey for me." You hear all kinds of stuff. Fascinating. And in the end, 9:37 is right anyway.

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  16. "I don't really want to be 'part of a school community' so I don't care very much what the other parents are like personally."

    While you may not want to be part of the community, your child will be, and you will have relationships with the parents of your child's friends. It's much easier to foster your child's relationships if you have some affinity with those parents. It doesn't mean you have to hang out with them.

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  17. here's what i'd focus on, had i to do it again (my kid is in second grade at fairmount):

    -- if you're interested in the school and you might have a chance to get in ('cause it's citywide), attend a school event (preferably several events, preferably fundraising events).

    -- prioritize logistics (location/schedule/hours/aftercare) much higher than you might think.

    -- vibe is huge (you may spend a decade or more in this community).

    -- remember that teachers and principals are only temporary; families tend to stay -- and characterize a place -- longer.

    -- it does make sense to focus more on upper grades and less on what you see in K, but keep in mind that some schools have had major demographic shifts midstream and you might see a very different picture than what your kid would really experience there.

    -- ask about grade-level collaboration. i think it's really important. it shows a certain level of leadership and observation of best practices. ask how they free up teachers -- give relief time -- for collaboration.

    -- have offline conversations with parents of older kids at the school (some schools give out a list of parents you can contact). i actually haven't found that parents who've seen a school grow and change through 2 or 3 kids are that likely to blow smoke; they're pretty honest if asked.

    -- personally, i think parents of preschoolers -- and i would have included myself in this group -- are too wrapped up in test scores, the specter of bullying, marketing shiz, the principal's public speaking skills and current parents' ability to "give good tour." we tend to ask the wrong questions and lack the experience to identify true engagement. you can ask teacher-friends or parents of older kids about these things.

    -- K-8 sees appealing when your kid is in K, but for many reasons, it becomes less of any issue -- or a bonus -- later on, for many kids (i.e., comprehensive middle schools often offer things small K-8s can't).

    had i to do it within the new system, i would make my assignment area school the one to beat, tour immersion schools (only because i drank the kool-aid) and would shave my tour list from 25 or 30 in the old system down to about 8-10.

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  18. 8-10 school tours? Don't waste your time. Absolutely tour your attendance area school. Even if it's not on your list, you might get it as a default. If you're on the fence about immersion or Russian or Japanese, go check it out. Otherwise, test drive the commute and see about afterschool programs. These logistics will be with you for 6 years.

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  19. I think 9:30 is right.

    I just went through the whole process a few months ago. To tell the truth, I don't think my instinct told me much. All schools looked fine and kids were happy. At the end, those are the considerations.

    1. Starting time. 7:50 vs 8:40 vs 9:20. For me, 7:50 is too early and 9:20 is too late, so I only looked at 8:40 schools.

    2. Immersion. Some people would insist on immersion, some would avoid.

    3. K-8. Big advantage to stay out of the city politics.

    4. Principal. I cross out the schools which the principal didn't come out to speak at the tours, then evaluate his/her priorities based on his/her speech.

    5. The SFUSD enrollment fair. I simply stayed until the end and see which parent volunteers stayed the longest. My take is that the parents are involved and happy if they are willingly staying late.

    6. Tour the facilities. Paid special attention to lighting. Bright schools have happier kids.

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  20. Money, money, money. How much did the PTA raise last year? This is the most important question in this time of budget cuts. It tells you volumes about the efforts of the parents and the principal. We were at a school with great teachers but with a principal and a PTA that never could get its act together to fundraise effectively. And without those two, you are in big trouble these days.

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  21. Agree with the posts about what a big waste of time school touring is.

    The chances of getting into a school that has good, experienced teachers, an accessible afterschool program, good programming outside of core subjects (math and english), as well as path to middle school, are zero.

    Unless you happen to live near Stevenson, E R Taylor, Lafayette, Alamo, Lilienthal, Clarendon or Sherman.

    In which case, you can just write one of those on your list and hope for the best. But you would be a fool not to have a parochial or private school back up.

    You can also play the immersion program odds.

    That's it in a nutshell. No need to waste your time on this blog.

    If you live in the Castro, Mission, Noe, Bernal or Excelsior, you might want to have a look at Denman or Everett Middle Schools, because there is a pretty good chance that your K-5 is going to be streamed into one of these schools.

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  22. Wow - I feel so bad reading all these posts. Some of you are just entering this process so wide-eyed and confident that you will get a top school of "your" choosing. I remember feeling that way. Others who have been through it are burnt out, disillusioned and disappointed. I remember feeling that way, too. We went through it last year - toured 16+ schools - public & private (which was VERY helpful for many reasons - more on that later) observed recess' from my car, went to PTA meetings, enrollment fair, multiple PPS events, talked about it to everyone all the time everywhere we went, read this blog and others....and got none of our 15 picks. Ironically, a school which I did not think I liked so much initially on the tour was the one we decided to hunker down and waitlist all summer because by the end of the grueling year we had a better understanding of what was really important in a school, how very different they all are, and what the stakes really were. We were initially placed in an under-performing school in our neighborhood with a very small (if brave) group of PTA parents, that we were not comfortable accepting. At all. Considered moving. Considered parochial. Can't afford private. Considered Charter. Considered inter-district transfer. Considered home-schooling until something opened up. Cursed the district, went through all their hoops, cried and cried, fought with my spouse, calculated every option. But, if I had not done all that touring and asking questions and reading up on different schools in the beginning, I would not be as happy as I am now to get an offer at my (originally) 9th choice school. The principal is SO much better than I thought from the tour. The parents are SO much more involved and positive and friendly than I could have known then. The kids are SO much happier than I projected them to be after judging the school by its somewhat depressing, colorless grounds. I am SO much happier than I was just two months ago, agonizing about the fact that we had no appealing back-up plan. Gather all the information you can, and talk to lots of people to figure out all the options that *might* work out for you. Put logistics ahead of everything else. Most important: Easy pick ups and drop offs, start time and after school care are TWICE-A-DAY, EVERYDAY of the next 6 years of your life. Choose a variety of schools that you really would be happy getting, and if you don't get any - be ready to look at the waitlist numbers and compromise - quickly. There are no tours in May and June and July! Have a solid back-up plan. Look for schools with happy, supported teachers. Everything else is gravy. Don't feel like you have to shoot for pie-in-the-sky, or the same things everyone else is choosing - just think of what works for your basic family needs, where you can picture your child happy. Be aware that your expectations, "turn-offs", whatever you want to call it are largely based on your own childhood school experiences, and that your child's does not necessarily have to match exactly (it won't) but that you can find a place that he/she will flourish and be challenged, and learn. And, please don't listen to the people who say don't bother going to tours or events. Put importance on how you will feel going there everyday. Gather all the information you can to know your options as best you can. Think about why certain things are important to you personally, not everyone else. You will only know what seems good for you personally if you go see for yourself. Think of it the way you would aim for a career. It's something that you and only you have to feel good about doing every day, you have to afford, and do not choose something that you see everyone else seems to like. And, you may not get your "dream job" but if you listen to your gut and make reasonable choices you will be happy. I truly hope some of this helps, and I wish you luck.

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  23. Wow - I feel so bad reading all these posts. Some of you are just entering this process so wide-eyed and confident that you will get a top school of "your" choosing. I remember feeling that way. Others who have been through it are burnt out, disillusioned and disappointed. I remember feeling that way, too. We went through it last year - toured 16+ schools - public & private (which was VERY helpful for many reasons - more on that later) observed recess' from my car, went to PTA meetings, enrollment fair, multiple PPS events, talked about it to everyone all the time everywhere we went, read this blog and others....and got none of our 15 picks. Ironically, a school which I did not think I liked so much initially on the tour was the one we decided to hunker down and waitlist all summer because by the end of the grueling year we had a better understanding of what was really important in a school, how very different they all are, and what the stakes really were. We were initially placed in an under-performing school in our neighborhood with a very small (if brave) group of PTA parents, that we were not comfortable accepting. At all. Considered moving. Considered parochial. Can't afford private. Considered Charter. Considered inter-district transfer. Considered home-schooling until something opened up. Cursed the district, went through all their hoops, cried and cried, fought with my spouse, calculated every option. But, if I had not done all that touring and asking questions and reading up on different schools in the beginning, I would not be as happy as I am now to get an offer at my (originally) 9th choice school. The principal is SO much better than I thought from the tour. The parents are SO much more involved and positive and friendly than I could have known then. The kids are SO much happier than I projected them to be after judging the school by its somewhat depressing, colorless grounds. I am SO much happier than I was just two months ago, agonizing about the fact that we had no appealing back-up plan. Gather all the information you can, and talk to lots of people to figure out all the options that *might* work out for you. Put logistics ahead of everything else. Most important: Easy pick ups and drop offs, start time and after school care are TWICE-A-DAY, EVERYDAY of the next 6 years of your life. Choose a variety of schools that you really would be happy getting, and if you don't get any - be ready to look at the waitlist numbers and compromise - quickly. There are no tours in May and June and July! Have a solid back-up plan. Look for schools with happy, supported teachers. Everything else is gravy. Don't feel like you have to shoot for pie-in-the-sky, or the same things everyone else is choosing - just think of what works for your basic family needs, where you can picture your child happy. Be aware that your expectations, "turn-offs", whatever you want to call it are largely based on your own childhood school experiences, and that your child's does not necessarily have to match exactly (it won't) but that you can find a place that he/she will flourish and be challenged, and learn. And, please don't listen to the people who say don't bother going to tours or events. Put importance on how you will feel going there everyday. Gather all the information you can to know your options as best you can. Think about why certain things are important to you personally, not everyone else. You will only know what seems good for you personally if you go see for yourself. Think of it the way you would aim for a career. It's something that you and only you have to feel good about doing every day, you have to afford, and do not choose something that you see everyone else seems to like. And, you may not get your "dream job" but if you listen to your gut and make reasonable choices you will be happy. I truly hope some of this helps, and I wish you luck.

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  24. 4:34, please tell us what school you ended up with. It would help to know!

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  25. To 4:34
    With all due respect, including the name of my school would undermine my whole point, that it shouldn't matter to you where anyone else ends up.

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