Sunday, October 25, 2015

Focusing your School Search: Practical Tips

Last year I wrote a series of posts that used much discussed books on education and teaching to figure out the best way to approach my family’s search for a kindergarten for my son. You can read the series here:

Now that I’m on the other side of the kindergarten search, I am adding to my list of key practical takeaways to help folks who are now going through the process.

(In case you’re wondering, we ended up enrolling my son in AltSchool. It’s been a great fit for him thus far. We loved most public schools we looked at, and got a good pick in the lottery, at Rosa Parks JBBP, but realized that these schools would be a terrible a fit for our kid. We didn’t look at other private schools.)

Update: We have since pulled our child out of AltSchool. It started out as a promising fit but rapidly went dramatically downhill. It was a truly awful experience that I don't wish upon anyone else.

  • Know thy child: We all know this, but always bears repeating and constant reflection during this process. 
    • Bottom line: Everyone’s school search should and will be different because our kids are all different.
  • Be clear about your priorities: As I talked about in one of my blog posts last year, take the time to ask yourself “What do I want my kid to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” If your top priority is a community for you and your family, then you will evaluate schools very differently from a parent whose sole focus is academic education. Embrace your priorities and filter all advice you get (including mine!) through that lens. If you tell yourself -- or others -- that you’re just looking for a “good school” or “the best school,” you’re probably setting yourself up for a lot of anxiety. What does “good” mean? 
    • Bottom line: List out your specific priorities, the sooner, the better.
  • The point of touring: I noticed that many parents spent most of the public school tours trying to figure out what they should be doing (and, perhaps, why they were even there). Is it important to look at the artwork on the walls? Ask about field trips? Connect with the principal? (Private school tour parents knew that their job was to make nice and win over champions for their application.) Heck, how many tours should you even go on? After all, it takes a ton of time! My sense at this point is that there is value in touring a small handful of schools of different kinds mostly to get a sense of context. We toured 10 schools, which was about five too many. After the first two, I was not shy about leaving after 10-20 minutes. I really appreciated the effort that many school parent groups made to organize a robust tour, but if you go into the tours knowing what you want to learn, then you’ll pick up that information quickly (and get back to work in time!). 
    • Bottom line: Figure out your focus and touring strategy before you start signing up.
  • Worksheets and depth: If you’re evaluating schools for academic impact based on test scores, you probably already know that there are many ways for schools to achieve high scores. Of course, not all of those ways will necessarily agree with your child. I found that the best way to quickly understand how a given school would try to educate my child was just to ask to see the worksheets. Almost all of the public schools, and many private schools, have kids doing worksheets for large sections of the day. So look at the quantity and quality of the worksheets and ask yourself if your child will get the education you want from doing them. (And whether you’ll be motivated to ensure that they do the homework worksheets; if you find them pointless or otherwise underwhelming, you’re probably not going to be motivated to cajole a reluctant child to do her homework.) Also watch to see whether kids who finish sheets fast and with little effort are encouraged to go deeper, beyond the basic content of the sheet. Or if the kids who are struggling with the sheet appear to get the help they need to figure out the skill. Most schools didn’t trot worksheets out on the tour, and instead focus on the garden, lunch program, etc. CIS DeAvila was the only one that invited me to look through binders of homework worksheets (thank you!). So spend your time in the classroom tours seeking out the worksheets. Or, probably better yet, ask parents whose kids go to the school to describe their experience. 
    • Bottom line: Look at the worksheets.
  • Discipline revealed: Most San Francisco schools have a relatively progressive approach to discipline, at least on paper. But that may not mean that the reality in the classroom is what you want for your child. When you’re touring, look around for evidence of systems: behavior sticker charts, etc. Or keep your eyes out for adults yelling at kids in the hall (yep, saw that on a couple tours.) Keep in mind that these systems are usually determined teacher by teacher unless the school has a strong training program around a particular philosophy. Not touring? Then ask friends at that school to describe the systems. Do you like what you see? Do you agree with it? If you have an easy child, this may not matter to you (though I have a friend with an easy child who is nonetheless very concerned about the system in her child’s kindergarten for what it teaches her child about other people.) If you have a child with triggers for classroom conflict, then this is going to be very important. We ruled out most schools we otherwise liked based on this one evaluation point because our child is extremely passionate about doing things his own way and on his own timeline. 
    • Bottom line: Pay close attention to physical manifestations of the school’s discipline system.
  • Minimizing anxiety: Many of us have heard horror stories about other parents who have ended up taking drastic measures -- whether it be prescription anti-anxiety medicine or moving out of the district -- to get through this process. While I’m not saying that you can get rid of all stress, I do believe that a) knowing your priorities and b) doing enough research to feel like you have all the information that’s relevant, even if imperfect, will let you make decisions with considerably less stress and second guessing. My husband and I followed this strategy and felt relatively calm throughout the process. I watched the process like a hawk, and hit refresh on my mail and email (and this blog!) way more than usual when we were waiting for results, but we didn’t feel nagging doubt about the decisions we made. I also observed another friend whose son got a mixed bag of results in the first round stay calm and make confident decisions through the next few rounds. She had spent the time to focus on defining what they wanted and doing enough research to make choices that they didn’t second guess. 
    • Bottom line: Minimize the stress of this process by defining your goals and research threshold, to the extent possible.

No doubt many other veterans have loads of other advice. I’ve skipped some of the basic stuff, like ruling out schools whose logistics (start time, location, etc) would make you dread waking up in the morning every day. But I hope this helps!

Best of luck to everyone going through the process!

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