Choosing a School for Your Kids: Questions to Consider
To find the school that best fits you and your child, and make sure you get the highest return on one of the biggest investments of your life, there are some questions to ask. You need to consider how each of the factors or school characteristics influences your child’s education and success.
Here are some tips of what to consider when trying determining your formula for finding the best school. These will improve the chances of your investment being a success. They are in no particular order.
The size of the school needs to match your kid’s personality. Big schools have more programs, more enrichment, and more options in teaching. But there is always a risk that your child will get lost in the hustle and bustle. Check out the school, go meet the principal, talk to parents. Often, parents choose little schools because they want their child to get personal attention. The principal knows the children by name and the school has a personal touch. My children went to a primary school with over 1600 kids in it. The principal knew all the kids' names, their parents' names, their parents' professions and what their hobbies were. It is possible to get a big school with a personal touch. This was good for my kids. Other parents who went to the exact same schools felt that their child was just a number in such a big school. It was not for them.
The principal is the person who sets the tone for the school. Make sure to meet him/her personally. Principals are leaders and they set the direction. When Gal and I were looking for a school for our son, we met one principal who talking about his key strength - discipline. He was well known for having given detention to a kid who did the "shave for a cure" to raise money for cancer. It was a school rule that boys’ hair had to be a certain length and he was not willing to bend the rule for anyone. It was very controversial. The media wrote about it, the Department of Education interfered, but none of it made any difference. The kid had to stay home until his hair grew back. This was obviously a principal who's values were not a match to ours. We think doing the “shave for a cure” is much more important than discipline. Others might value discipline more highly than us. Meanwhile, as a school life coach, I have been working with a fantastic principal who is an amazing visionary. He raised the profile of his school - big time. This is a school that previous students come back to, to say thank you for the good start they got there.
Every school has a reputation. Do not confuse what the school writes on their website with their reputation. Schools write what they want to be perceived as. It is rare for it to match their true philosophy. Reputation is something you can only get from people within the school. If you talk to people who are not sending their kids to the school, what they tell you is gossip, not reputation. Ask the school to give you names of parents who had/have children at the school. They will usually give you the good parents, those who are involved in the school. Involved parents always get more out of the school than anyone else so they might be a little biased. Still, ask them what the school is famous for, what their weaknesses are, how they handle bullying. If you ask enough questions, you will find your answers. Do not ask about the good things, the situations when everything is smooth and perfect. Ask about the rough times, the hard kids, the problems. Ask them which teachers you should avoid, who the best teacher is, and why. If you talk to 3 different parents, they could not possibly coordinate all their answers and you will get good inside information about the school.
Does the school have a uniform? Are you happy with it? Is the uniform strict? Is it easy to buy? How much does it cost? How many sets do you have to buy? Is it easy to wash? Will your kids be comfortable? Think about whether the uniform will give your child a sense of comfort or if they will spend their energy rebelling against it.
The location of the school is very important. Each parent should calculate the distance from home, from friends and from public transportation. Kids who live within walking distance from school have a completely different schooling experience to those who take the bust or depend on their parents to drop them off. Driving your kid to school, 30 minutes each way, means that you are spending 2 hours every a day in the car. 2 hours out of 16 hours of being awake is a looooooooooooooooooot! Do not underestimate it. Kids who live close have better relationships with other kids who live close to school. They sometimes go to each others’ houses after school. When you live far away, you become a taxi service, driving your kid to a performance at school at 6pm, after you picked them up at 3:00! If you do not live close to any of their friends, you cannot ask another parent for help when you are stuck. When the kids are a bit older, transportation is essential. Some schools have a bus service, but some do not. It is important for kids to spend as little time as possible in transit to school. We have friends who sent their kids to the only reasonable school around. Unfortunately, it was an hour and a half ride on the school bus each way. Their kids left home at 7am and got back at 5pm. They were constantly exhausted and did not do well at school. When they moved to another city and the kids could walk to school, suddenly all of them loved school and were very happy.
You cannot always choose your child's teacher but if you can, I suggest you do. The best school in the world can be thoroughly ruined by one teacher that does not gel with your kid or who your kid does not gel with. The teachers are the school’s representatives. They are the ones who make your child’s school life good or bad. In some schools, they ask you to give information about your child so they can be placed with a suitable teacher. Every year, I write down the style of teaching I want for my kids. If your kid likes art, ask for a teacher that likes art. If your child prefers structure, ask for a teacher that is very structured.
Feel of the school/philosophy (traditional, progressive, relationship with parents) - The feel of the school and their philosophy is essential for your ability to predict the return on your investment. It is important to match it to your own style and philosophy. Some people like traditional schools that do things “the way they have always been done”. Others would rather schools that are innovative and do modern and new things. I told you before about the innovative and visionary principal I have been working with. He has no detention rooms and dedicates less than 1% of his energy to behavioral problems. If this is the school you want for your child, go for it. If this scares you to death, stay away from such a school. Some parents want to be involved, others do not. If a school is threatened by involved parent and you want to be involved, you will waste your investment. If the school prefers let it deal with everything without your input, and you are happy to trust the school, this is the school for you. Pick the school that suites your style.
Available Subjects and Learning Opportunities
This is an essential topic, especially in high school, when kids prepare themselves to choose a career or path in life. Are you looking for easy subjects to ensure they get reasonable grades, or do you want those that will benefit them with their future career? Do you want them to specialize when they are young? Or do you want to give them a range of options so they can gain experience? Eden wanted to dance in high school so we searched for a school that specialized in performing art. She was not one of the advanced dancers, but she loved it and still dances for fun today. It does not have to be a career choice; it can to be something that will make it worth going to school, something that makes school fun, and leaves great memories – whatever you and your child want.
Diversity of Students
Some people prefer schools where all the kids are the same, while others like schools where kids are different. This is where the choice of single sex or co-educational schools comes in. This is where you choose either a religious school or a non-religious school. Since our kids lived in many places around the world and do not see themselves as "one kind", we prefer to choose diverse schools.
Often times, the extra things schools offer are what makes the schooling experience the best thing in the world. When our son Tsoof was in high school, he spent up to 10 hours a day at school. He did about 6 hours of mandatory subjects like Math and English. The rest was extracurricular: Choir, percussion, big band, wind symphony, drama, art, music, composition, vocal harmony, private guitar lessons, private composition lessens, school captain responsibilities... Do you understand why he had the time of his life? I wanted my kids to do things in as many areas as possible. Things like music, art, singing, leadership, sport. I chose a school that has all of it.
Is it important to you for your child to learn a second language? Which language would you prefer? Do you want an immersion program? Maybe you would rather your child did not waste time on a second language? My kids were always good with languages and they are already bilingual. I, personally, gave the school extra points when they stopped teaching another language. I do not like it when the language changes every two years. Travelling to China did more for my kids than 4 years of studying it at school. Whatever you prefer, go with your philosophy.
For some kids sport is essential. If your child blossoms with sports activities and needs physical stimulation, pick a school that has sport. This way you do not have to stimulate them outside of school. If sport is available at school, it makes life so much easier, for you and your child. When you have more than one child, it can be hard to juggle their sporting activities if they go to different external clubs or groups. You probably feel like a stressed taxi driver, and just imagine how they feel having to be dependent on you to take them. If they have sport at school – problem solved. Sport is never a waste of time, and for some kids, it can assure a high return on your investment.
If your investment is about having an edge then creativity and innovation is a building block for high returns. If you see your kid in the future perusing a path that requires an edge, focusing on academic achievement is not necessarily going to get you there on its own. I graduated from my degree with excellence, but in over 25 years of my career, no one has ever asked to see my academic transcript (or my degree for that matter). I still think if you are going to study, you should make the best of it. Get the best grades and do the best assignment. But I do good work today not because of my grades, but because of my edge. I have a creative and innovative edge, an ability to think differently, to work outside the box. Find a school that has an aspect of it. It can be in the form of art, problem solving, social activities, leadership or even science. When kids learn art, the most creative ones will develop an edge. When kids study carpentry, the most creative ones will have an edge. I recommend having an edge in everything you do and 13 years of schooling would be a waste without it.
Your Child's Specific Needs
Every kid has special needs. It is just that some special needs are more problematic to the system than others. Unless your kid is an average kid in an average school, his/she is special. The system needs to make an effort to cater for non-average kids. It can be the smart kids, the moving too much kids, the talking too much kids, the needing more time to digest kids, the too sensitive kids. A confident school considers your child’s success and abilities as an asset to the school. Another school might find them as a threat to their reputation, to the budget. At one of the schools I worked in, there was a Grade 7 student who could not read one sentence. I suggested to the school to get her some help before she left for high school the following year. The principal, who was a great guy, told me he would never get approval because it would imply that nothing had been done for the 8 years that the girl was at the school. Over the past 4 years, I have seen tens of kids that were in grades 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and even 8 who were between 1 and 4 years behind their expected age level. Their parents did not even have a clue it was that serious. In each situation, the school blamed the child or expects the parents to fix it. This upsets me. With my help, they can catch up on an entire year in about a month. Which means they are obviously very intelligent. How could the school think they were stupid and what had they been doing for so long when the kid was repeatedly failing? Think about how the school deals with special needs.
Before and After School Care
For some parents, having after school care is the difference between being able to send the kid to school or not. Some parents work long hours and knowing that their kids are safe and happy can make a huge difference to their decision. When we lived in Singapore, we had a maid and Eden came home on the school bus which stopped at the front of our building. We did not need after school care. Eden and the other kids would walk through and wave at the security guy who knew them all, or the maid would wait for them if mum was at work. Match the school to your needs! One size does not fit all.
Remember, the formula needs your ratings and your values to make it work. You have the power to make it a good investment. It is one of the choices that is worth investing in.
This post is part of the series Choosing a School for Your Kids:
- Choosing a School for Your Kids: Return on Investment
- Choosing a School for Your Kids: The Formula
- Choosing a School for Your Kids: Questions to Consider