Experts Help You Choose A School


Each week in August, the Work/Life Team has invited a psychologist, an educational consultant, and a school administrator to address questions about how to choose a school. For our first blogpost in this series, we have invited our experts to address the following question…

When thinking about school choice what aspects or features of a particular school should I be examining?

From Dr. Sharon Leuenberger, Director of Testing at 3-C Family Services:

What a parent feels is an important feature of a school will vary depending on his/her values, the age of the child, if the child has any special needs, if the child has any special interests, etc. Some factors parents might want to keep in mind include:

  • Student/teacher ratio, especially in the younger grades where students tend to need more help.
  • The level of teacher turn-over can also be telling of how happy the staff is at the school. Does the teacher appear to feel overwhelmed, is he/she supportive of the curriculum, is he/she excited about having your child in class, etc.?
  • The type of curriculum being implemented. Will your student learn better from a curriculum that incorporates direct instruction and repetition or will your student learn better from a spiral curriculum?
  • The focus on test performance versus actual learning and how much pressure is placed on the students and teachers to perform well on standardized tests.
  • The type of technology is used at the school. Technology can be good and/or bad depending on the child. I frequently get complaints from parents that their children become very distracted when homework has to be completed on the computer/tablet. On the other hand, tools such as Smart Boards can allow the teacher to easily access informational videos, demonstrations, etc. to support the lesson that is being taught.
  • Whether the school has an anti-bullying program and a program the emphasizes and teaches core values (such as cooperative learning, how to communicate with peers, opportunities to gain confidence, etc.).
  • Parent involvement. If you are a parent who wants to be very involved, you may look at a school that promotes opportunities to volunteer, parent lunches, etc. If you are a parent who works and can’t be as involved, you may want to look at a school that does not emphasize parental involvement.
  • Finally, as a parent I liked to see the administrative staff involved in the daily routines of the school (such as greeting the children at carpool, greeting the children in the hall, participating in school assemblies, etc.). I feel an administrator should care about who his/her students are as people rather than just how they perform on a test.
Dr. Leuenberger is the daughter of a public school administrator and school psychologist. She is also the mother of two children who are now college-aged. She has her Ph.D. in counseling psychology with a specialty in school and neuropsychology. Her area of expertise is providing diagnostic evaluations to gain a better understanding of an individual’s cognitive processing, academic, emotional, behavioral and social strengths and weaknesses.

From Michael Williams, Educational Consultant with Capital Educational Solutions:

School choice can be a daunting task for some families. There are several key factors that I encourage families to look for when choosing the “right fit” school.

  1. The number one factor is the teacher/student/family relationship. You want to look for staff who are engaged with their students. Active participation, teachers facilitating instruction, cooperative groups, and project-based learning are key components to an engaging, student-friendly classroom. Teachers should be able to speak about individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and be well informed of their background, interests, emotional and academic achievements.
  2. You should feel comfortable from the moment you walk in the office. The way the staff interact with you is typically the way the staff will interact with the students. Look for friendly faces, smiling children, happy staff. Listen for student engagement, powerful conversations, and creative learning. You should feel the friendly vibe once entering the school or classroom.
  3. The administration should have a clear vision for the school. The vision should be pronounced, and the mission of the school should be driving the school’s programs. Look for the mission statement and ask questions about how it is implemented throughout each classroom.
  4. I encourage families to ask about the history of the school; discovering its purpose and vision for all students. Where has the school come from and where is it going? Where do the graduates go next and what does the school want them to take when they leave?
  5. Parents should look for their family values woven throughout the school. You want a school that will encourage your values and create new ones that you feel are necessary in your child’s life. Make sure that character education, specialty programs, after school activities, parent engagements, and the Parent/Teacher Organization are well established and meet your child’s creative mind.
  6. Lastly, use your five senses and explore on several occasions, drive by, walk around, ask questions and gain insight from many people. You should walk out of the school smiling, happy and without question that your child would grow, learn, achieve and be excited about learning.
With an undergraduate degree in education and a Master of School Administration, Michael Williams has extensive experience in preschool, elementary, middle, and high school in both the public and private sector. Mr. Williams has specific training in both Academically Gifted Teaching and International Baccalaureate (IB). He currently works closely with AdvancED on North Carolina School Accreditation, serves as a consultant to School administrators and faculty at all levels, and coaches students and their families throughout the Triangle area. Michael’s passion is helping families with educational consulting, academic coaching and school navigation.

From Natasha Brooks, Assistant Principal at Crossroads Flex with Wake County Public School System:

Before looking at any schools, think about your child as a learner, and make a list of what your child needs to be successful, and what their future goals are. Every school is going to sound wonderful when you first research it, but if you have set goals written down for your child, you will be able to hone-in on key aspects that you are looking for. After making this list and starting to research schools, first consider the school mission: does it align with the goals you have for your child’s education? Then, look at how the school carries out this mission. For example, if a school prides themselves on Arts or STEM or Global Learning, what does that actually look like in the classroom? What events, support staff, or curriculum choices help that mission statement become a reality? Any school can craft an engaging mission statement or design a riveting website, but it takes an excellent school to carry its mission to fruition. While you’re online, check out the school’s Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook page. Before going on a tour, this will be one of the best ways to get a feel of the school and what a student encounters on an average day.

If a school passes the online eye test, find out if and when they offer tours. When touring a school, don’t be distracted by the art hanging in the hallways, but rather look at the interactions between the adults and the children. Do you notice a genuine care in the teacher’s voices, and passion in their actions? Before any learning can occur, you need to know that the staff cares. Course offerings and curriculum are also important. If you value Advanced Placement courses, are they offered, and how did students generally perform on these exams? Test scores aren’t everything, but they will give you a glimpse into the learning going on in a school. Finally, look at what life for your child will be like outside of the classroom. Are there clubs or social events for your child? We put a lot of our attention on academics, but so much of what your child will remember from school will occur at dances, athletic games, and club competitions. Make sure that the school supports these valuable moments as well.

Natascha Brooks holds her Masters degree in Teaching from University of Virginia and began her career teaching middle school Language Arts. She is passionate about increasing student learning through the use of blended learning and instructional technology, and has presented on these topics at the National Council of Teachers of English National Convention. Ms. Brooks is a co-author of the book Applying the Flipped Classroom Model to English Language Arts Education and developed digital content and assessments for the educational website Shmoop. 

About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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