How to pick your child’s school

Jan 11, 2011, 2:23 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

School tours are underway at elementary schools throughout Western Washington. Soon the middle and high schools will open their doors to visitors too. How do you find the best school for your child?

I can see the anxiety on parents’ faces as they walk through the doors of my elementary school in Seattle. They’re in school because they’ve already looked at all their options on paper. They’ve studied test scores and demographics of the community. Now, they want to walk the hallways, talk with teachers and imagine Chloe or Charlie sitting in a classroom smiling and learning.

School When parents ask me how to find the perfect school, they’re almost always disappointed with my simple, blunt answer:

Pick the school that’s closest to your home.

That’s it? That’s the best I can do? I’ve covered the Seattle School district for several years. I can name all of the elementary, middle and high schools in Seattle and could rank them with 90 percent accuracy based on test scores. That’s my advice – pick the closest one?

I’ve always believed where a child goes to school is not as important as how much parents are involved with his or her education. You make the biggest difference in your child’s school life. You will help determine if he or she takes advantages of all their options. You can’t pass off that responsibility to any school or teacher. Even the best schools have a few lousy teachers. Sorry, but that’s true. Even the worst schools have educators who can inspire kids.

I put my overly-simple method for picking a school to the test a couple years ago when it came to choosing a high school for my oldest child. With college only four years away, my “it’s not where you go, it’s what you do” philosophy seemed naïve. I challenged my thinking by touring six of the comprehensive public high schools within a reasonable distance from my house in Seattle. I learned about each school’s unique academic programs and clubs, studied annual reports and AP classes offered, and talked with parents, principals and students. Those are responsible things to do when comparing schools.

A month of research did not change my mind. I could make a case for, or against, every Seattle high school we considered. Our neighborhood high school was still our first choice.

The Seattle School district has simplified the choice process by basically not giving most parents an option. Their enrollment system assigns most students to the schools that are closest to their homes.

For parents who have a choice and still want to explore as many options as possible for your child. Here are three things you must do:

  1. Schedule a school visit. Go beyond the basic tour offered. Ask to sit in on a class to observe a teacher.
  2. Go to a PTA meeting. Those meetings are open to the public even if you don’t have a child in a school. The PTA bunch is a fascinating, dynamic, involved, eager group of parents. They’re worth observing.
  3. Attend a school’s science fair, concert or any public event they have this spring. Nothing will give you a better feel for what a school is really like than mingling with a school community at a public event. Unlike the school tours, people aren’t overly smiley and helpful, they’re natural and real. That’s what you want to see.

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How to pick your child’s school