from Spirit - Teach Your Children Well


by William Bainbridge, Ph.D.

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With hundreds of thousands of families moving every year and many school districts offering magnet schools and other types of choice, more and more parents are making decisions about which schools their children should attend. As with so many other things parents do, itís often hard to know how to go about it.

It is possible for parents to actively seek out the right schools for their kids. However, it can be difficult for an individual to get meaningful information about these issues. A recent study found that 90 percent of all school districts reported that their schoolsí average test scores were above the national mean. Friends and coworkers may give you their impressions of the schools their children attend, but their priorities may not be the same as yours. Real-estate agents may try to be helpful, but they are unlikely to pass along negative information about a school district in which they are trying to sell houses.

At SchoolMatch, we have done much of this research and created a computerized database containing information on 22 variables for 15,892 U.S. public school systems and 14,856 private, parochial and international schools. Thousands of parents use this database every year, either by calling us directly or through their personal computers. We have recently summarized statistical and descriptive information programs for over 1,200 public school districts in 60 metropolitan areas in our new reference book The SchoolMatch Guide to Public Schools.

We also offer a counseling service for parents of children with very specific needs. For example, a father may call and say that his daughter is a soccer star and he wants to find the school in his area with the best soccer coach. Or a family with a disabled child may seek a school district with particular facilities or programs.

Most often, however, parents want to know about student-to-teacher ratios, standardized test scores and how much money is spent per child on instructional materials, as well as teacher salaries and whether sports are offered. We also provide information about the towns the schools are located in, such as the average income levels and property values, and the number of children in the neighborhood. Our service helps parents narrow the number of possible schools Ė usually to about 15 Ė to those that fit their needs.

With a short list of schools, parents can concentrate on individual schools. At this point, going to visit a prospective school is always a good idea, since statistics cannot tell the whole story. By visiting, you can get to know the atmosphere. Some parents are only comfortable with schools that emphasize order and discipline, while others prefer the quiet buzz of creative activity.

By simply looking around a school you can get a sense of how well it will meet the needs of your child. Does it appear safe, orderly and well maintained? Could you enter the building without being stopped? Do the students appear interested or bored? Are there students who are obviously not where they are supposed to be? I always recommend looking at the restrooms; they can reveal a lot about a school.

Make an appointment with the principal, who often set the tone for the whole building. By asking questions about the administrationís priorities and other issues, such as curriculum, you can get an idea of how accessible the administrators are.

You may also want to ask about how, and how often, the school communicates with parents. How often do report cards come out, and do they include written comments? Are there newsletters or open houses? Is there an active parentsí association? Can parents easily visit the school and observe classes, or is this discouraged?

Actually, even if your children arenít changing schools you may want to ask some of these questions about the schools they are currently attending. If you arenít satisfied with the answers you get, seek change by becoming active in your parentsí association.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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