Choosing The Best School for Your Child

EV's Education Corner

With lottery season almost upon us, here are some things to consider as you visit schools and evaluate programs.

First and foremost, the school MUST be a good fit for YOUR family. Think about the following.

  • Getting your child to and from the school. How will you get there? How long will it take? Can you get there on time every day? How hard will it be to pick your child up after school/aftercare? Is there a school run shuttle?

  • Are the school hours convenient? Does school or before care start early enough, school or aftercare end late enough? Is there homework help after school? Does the aftercare program satisfy your requirements (snack, homework help, outside time, arts, enrichment activities)?

  • Is there regular communication between the school and home?

  • Do they notify you regularly (not just at report card time) if your child is falling behind?

  • If your child qualifies for ESL, does the school have the resources to serve this need?

  • If your child has special needs, an IEP or 504 Plan, is the school equipped to serve this need? Technically public/charter schools are required to, but do yourself a favor and don’t pick a school that is obviously incapable of serving your child’s needs.

  • Is the model of education appropriate for your child (this is a little harder, but basically when you visit the classroom does it look like an environment in which your child will be comfortable socially and academically)?

  • Is the school hard enough for your child or conversely is there enough remedial help if your child is behind? Are there pull-out groups for enrichment, leveled math groups, tracking in reading to make sure your child’s reading materials are on the appropriate level?

How well does the school perform? How are the DC-CAS scores? These scores do not necessarily impact how your child will perform academically, but they do indicate the overall problems that might exist in the school. Scores and school profiles for DCPS and charter schools can be found here: www.myschooldc.org.

Be aware that the DC-CAS is not given until third grade. If the school serves only children below third grade (charters), how is the school scored on the charter school board assessments? Much of this information is available here: www.dcpcsb.org.

When you decide on some schools that might work for your family, you should visit the schools. Most schools have open visit times that are listed on www.myschooldc.org.

Some of the things to look for when I visit a school are:

  • How friendly is the reception from the school office/teachers/principal? Do they seem happy to have you there and to show off their school?

  • Is there colorful and appropriate student work proudly displayed?

  • Are the classrooms orderly and visually pleasing?

  • Do the students seem well-behaved and kept in control yet happy and eager to learn and be there?

  • Do they seem engaged in the activities?

  • Are there enough adults in each room?

  • Is the school clean and would you want to spend your day there?

  • Are there resources such as a gym, playground, and library?

  • Is your child going to be an “only?” It’s something to think about.

  • If your child has special needs, IEP or 504 Plan, does the school have the appropriate spaces and accommodations to serve your child (ramps, elevators, space for Physical Therapy)?

Don’t be surprised that modern classrooms look a lot different from those of our schools when we were growing up!

  • Most classrooms for kids up until at least middle school are arranged in a more cooperative manner.

  • The desks (or even just tables, no desks) are set up so the kids face each other in small groups.

  • Teachers rarely stand at the “front” of the room. In fact there really isn’t a front, just different areas.

  • There is a lot of emphasis on small group learning, projects, independent group work, cooperative learning, social/emotional learning and the classroom reflects this too.

  • There is almost always a carpet where the kids gather, even as old as fifth grade.

  • There are various areas where students can work together on self-correcting work.

The class should:

  • be tidy but well-used (so not too tidy);

  • have a separate and convenient place to keep coats and backpacks;

  • have enough room for the kids to move around comfortably;

  • be bright, preferably with natural light;

  • have reasonable access to bathrooms, the playground, and other areas of the school.

  • Classroom supplies should be easily accessible to the children – things such as tissues, pencils, paper, books, should be readily available so that no time is taken away from instruction to get those items.

  • There should be a plan in place for routine needs – for example, use of simple sign language to indicate need to use the restroom, get a tissue, get some water. The child signs, the teacher nods, no interruption.

  • Everyone should look happy to be there!

  • There can be some sort of “reflection area,” but there should not be public shaming (names on board, naughty area) or a seat away from the other students.

What does the discipline look like in a modern classroom?

  • Students need help learning what behavior is proper for the school environment. It is a distinctly different environment from the home or even day care and learning how to navigate it helps prepare kids for the working world (hence all the emphasis on cooperative learning).
  • Dangerous, extremely disruptive, wildly inappropriate behavior should be handled immediately, preferably by sending the child to the appropriate administrative person. (The below refers to other situations).
  • Good classroom management starts from having an extremely organized system of expectations and consequences for not meeting those expectations.
  • Everything should be made as simple as possible so that the kids have few reasons to misbehave. There should be classroom “jobs” so that most things in the classroom can operate automatically and therefore confusion is lessened.
  • There should be a daily schedule so that kids know what they are doing when and what to expect.
  • There should be clear procedures in place for doing things such as switching activities, lining up, eating lunch, getting ready to leave for the day. If the kids know what they are to do, they can do it better.
  • When possible, the adult should not be arbitrary in her actions – don’t line up three-year-olds to go to the playground and then make them stand there for 5 minutes and punish them for not standing still!
  • Consequences should be positive and useful in learning and growing – recess should never be taken away, it is counterproductive and negative, children should perform duties that “fit the crime.”
  • So a student who repeatedly doesn’t keep his desk area tidy and trash off the ground will spend 5 minutes tidying up the room.
  • A child who says mean things to another will go to a special area and write about what she said and how it might have impacted that child and then will have a talk with the teacher and the child.

A positive, supportive environment works best for all involved!

E.V. Downey is the principal educational consultant at Downey School Consulting, where she consults on public, charter, private, and special needs school choices and issues. She started consulting after years of teaching kids of all ages and working in private school administration. A graduate of DC Public Schools, E.V. lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and 2 children.


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