Experts Help You Choose a School (Part 3)


Each week in August, the Work/Life Team has invited educational experts to address concerns parents have in the process of choosing a school. For our third blogpost in this series, we have invited our experts to respond to the following questions:

  • What factors should I consider when determining best fit for my child?
  • If I could talk to a few parents who have children attending the school, what questions would be good to ask?

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

What factors should be considered really depends on the needs of your child and family. Some families prefer a year-round schedule, while others want a traditional schedule. If your child has significant health needs, then consider the following: how often a nurse is at the school, whether the teacher is solely responsible for managing the student’s medical needs, does the school professionals understand your concerns and take them seriously, and is the presence of certain allergens (such as those related to food) minimized in the school. If the needs of your child are associated with learning, then investigate how these needs will be supported (such as whether your child qualifies for services at the school). If they do, what will those services look like (for example, is the school able to provide specially designed instruction from a research-based program and implement this program with fidelity)?. If the needs are behavioral, you should investigate what type of support is available for your child. Are the school professionals proactive and try to prevent problems from occurring or do they respond after the concerning behavior has occurred? Do they utilize interventions that are reward-focused or punishment-focused?

Questions I would ask other parents:

  • If your children could go to any other school, would you transfer them?  If yes, why?
  • What do you like the best about the school? Least?
  • If you could change something about the school, what would it be?
  • Are your child’s needs being met at the school?
  • Are the administration and staff approachable?
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:

The first step in choosing the right school or program is understanding your child's unique needs. What type of student is your child and what type of environment would be best for him/her? I suggest for families to make a list. Start with your child's needs and the needs of the family. Factors parents tend to consider include the child's interests and talents and what co-curricular activities are available to address these; the values—religious or otherwise—of the school and how they mesh with the family's values; and the educational tools (i.e., technology) that is used in the classroom.

Another form of research often includes speaking with fellow parents. I advise parents that what other parents say about a school should not necessarily be one of your deciding factors. Just because one child had a positive or negative experience does not mean your child – a totally different child – will have the same experience.

I also encourage parents to think beyond school rankings. Parents will often say to me, “But that school didn't have a good rating,” and what I ask them is, “What else do you know about the school?” In isolation, ratings are not particularly useful.

Next, the school visit is the chance to establish what the parent's and student's wishes and expectations are of the school. Carefully observe the students, teachers, and parents at the school during your visit. When you're inside the school, look into the classrooms to see if the kids look engaged. Are they talking with one another, or is the teacher sitting behind the desk while the kids work. Check out the culture of the parking lot. What are the other parents like? Do they seem open and welcoming? Is this a community you can imagine being part of? Other questions to ask during this time include: what type of parent-teacher communication exists at the school, what qualifications the teachers have (especially if your child has special needs), how financially stable is the school, and whether the administration has changed hands a number of times or if there has been consistent leadership at the school.

I encourage parents to talk with other parents at the school. Be careful as one experience doesn't necessarily mean you will have a repeat. Parents know the heart-beat of the school. Schools should be able to answer three key questions: Who are you? What do you do? What do you do well and differently? The answers to these three questions say it all. If they match your values then there may be a good match. One other question I like to ask other parents: “What makes your child most happy at school?” Answers should be filled with excitement, personalizing, creativity, and pure joy.

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:

Consider how your child learns best and see if these methods are used by the teachers in the school. If your child is accelerated or gifted, look for evidence that teachers differentiate instruction for students or that programs are available to challenge your child to further their learning. If your child has special learning needs, find out if specialists are available to meet this learning need and which supports can be put in place. Academics will be your first consideration, but also think about how your child will fit socially at school. While parents obsess over academics, students will obsess over whether they will make friends. If the school offers social events or clubs that appeal to your child, they will be much happier and find it easier to adapt to the new school environment.

Questions to ask parents of children who attend the school you are considering:

  • Ask how policies, decisions, and announcements communicated. It’s important to find a school that makes clear communication with parents a priority. Weekly newsletters, phone messages, or opportunities to partake in events or meetings at school are answers to listen for.
  • Also, what are your children currently learning? Hopefully, the parent will be able to describe recent topics, assessments, or skills that their child has learned recently. If the parents have no clue, that may be a sign that either the school isn’t communicating frequently with parents, or the students aren’t engaged enough in their learning to discuss it with their parents.
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. 

BTW, if you missed the first part in this series, you can find it here. If you missed the second part, you can find it here.


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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