Every once in a great while, I will be asked an odd question….
…..”how did your son complete all his high school math in middle school” was one of the more classic examples of the odd questions posed to me in the past.
But, last week I was asked by someone I know only through emails, if I could tell them about the elementary school at which I told them I was working as a newly hired Garden Club Advisor. I had to back up quite a ways in my emailed response explaining that I actually knew very little about this new school at which I was trying to claim as my home base. This was much different that the intense loyalty, dedication, and yes – even defensiveness, I felt towards the elementary school I had just left this past June after being an involved parent and volunteer for the past seventeen years!
I took this person’s question seriously, as I would hope anyone else would take a similar question from me. This acquaintance had revealed that she and her husband had two toddlers and even though their school years’ seemed far away, she was trying to learn as much as possible about the elementary schools in our area. I like a prepared person, and I also did some research (nineteen years ago) on the schools in this area. Although, it has been five years since I had a student in elementary school, I felt qualified to answer, having spent a great deal of time, in multiple different roles, at one of our local elementary schools.
So, I decided to try to help her out. Firstly, I congratulated her on looking into the upcoming event of her children starting school. Then, I reiterated that I knew next to nothing about the school I now found myself in as the Garden Club Advisor. The job was posted; I had just left a similar volunteer position. I applied, and was hired. I told her what I knew. The school was an “international” elementary school – a school of choice in a larger district that neighbors my resident district. Their international theme means that students and their families can choose from two tracks, a Spanish language and cultural immersion track, and a global track that focuses on multiple cultures the world over. The gardens, of which I now find myself in charge, also have an international theme – matching the school’s mission. I have my work cut out for me this spring, as there are many plants and connections to the various cultures that I do not recognize.
But, she essentially was asking me how to go about picking an elementary school or school district. Many families do not have the ability to choose. I know that. However, that particular social justice issue is beyond the scope of this post. But, she was telling me their family did have a choice. And, her question was logical, as the school I am now at receives many families from all over the area through open enrollment, as a school of choice. It is not a neighborhood school (although, it is in an upper-middle class neighborhood).
I suggested she should check out the various websites of the schools her family was considering. There is a plethora of information available now on district websites, as well as the websites of the individual schools in a given district. She can peruse, at her leisure, the mission/vision of the districts, the qualifications of the teachers, the courses offered, class sizes, and even extra curricular activities such as the garden club I offer at the elementary school.
When we researched schools, prior to moving from New York to Wisconsin, I used a service/website called SchoolChoice.com. Finding a high quality school district was important to our young family during the relocation process. On this website, I was able to select the area school districts I was interested in and for a small fee per school, get information on 25 or so different factors, including the number of tax dollars spent on each student. We found it revealing and it helped us narrow our housing search down to two districts. After that initial search narrowing, I did contact each of the districts regarding specific requests for information that was essential for our decision-making. The specifics of what I asked are not really as important as knowing you have the ability to ask! I remember telephoning one district, and being able to talk with both the superintendent and an elementary principal. Both were welcoming and helpful in providing information.
After some digging, while writing this blog piece, I could not find this service or website under the name SchoolChoice.com. Obviously, the term “school choice” has come to be a hot topic in recent years. However, I was able to find a similar service called School Digger.com that looks like it provides similar information. The point is that if you want information, do not be afraid to look for it or ask for it.
Other than directly asking school districts for information, which admittedly might be self-serving, and politically correct in the answers received, I advised my acquaintance to seek out parents with students who attend the schools they are considering. Many parents are happy to tell you of their experience with their child’s school. Be careful, however, to get more than one opinion. But, all in all, other parents are a great source of information.
Going to a PTO, or parent-teacher organization meeting, even before your child starts school is a great way to scope out what is important to other parents and staff at the school you are considering. We did this for a full year before our oldest started kindergarten, making games for the Spring Fling (now a Fall Festival) and helping out at the annual Chicken-Q. By the time he was in kindergarten, I knew other families and became a PTO officer, and class-mom, myself.
Here’s the tough part however, there are only about six people left at the elementary school we chose to have our boys attend that know this history. Principals and staff change. Districts are re-districted. New families come in, established families move on. Contributions are made and then, forgotten, along with the changing families and personnel. We were so involved in our boys’ elementary years that by the time they were no longer there (a timeframe which spanned 13 years), few of the staff knew why I was still walking the halls with book club students, writer’s club students, and holding garden club once a month.
With the research I did, we made a great choice. Our boys’ elementary years were among their best years of schooling! The staff was caring, attentive, and accommodating. The three administrators who served this elementary school over the span of seventeen years of our involvement all grew to know and appreciate our family contributions to the classrooms, and eventually, entire student body. But, boy, has it been tough to say good-bye to that school!
In essence though, is that not what you want? Don’t you want a place so nurturing and enriching that it becomes part of your family? This mom is on the right track by looking for that school – ahead of the time they will need to make a choice. Lastly, I would advise my acquaintance to look for teachers who invest in their students, who get to know them as people, and want to educate those students from the point they are at, not some arbitrary pre-set classroom curriculum or standard.
Caring, Investment, Individualization, Enrichment, and Belonging. These characteristics are things I would look for when choosing an elementary school for my children if I had to do it again today. The above characteristics are as important as those of safety, growth, convenience, communication, test scores, and funding. The former are the intangibles of a successful school choice. And, if you are lucky enough to find a place that offers your child a place to grow happily amongst their peers, with the full support of staff and administration, allowing them to be the best version of their very young selves, it will be a wise choice, indeed. Perhaps, you will also find it hard to say good-bye after a very long, but satisfying stay.