admissions · coronavirus · Finding the Right School · School Choice

How To Choose a School — When Schools Are Closed: Tips for Families On What To Ask (And How To Evaluate the Answers)

New York City notified 8th graders of their public high school placement for September 2020 on March 19th, and 5th graders of their middle school placement on April 6. Most charter schools held their lotteries on April 1 for all available grade levels.

Still to come is General Education Kindergarten placement in “late April,” according to the Department of Education, followed by Gifted & Talented scores, and then G&T school placement, traditionally in late May/early June (though this year everything appears to be on a delay due to Covid-19 disruptions). Pre-K offers will likely come after that.

Because an NYC student might get multiple high school offers, including a Specialized public, LaGuardia School of the Arts, another public school, more than one charter, and more than one private school, while Kindergarten parents might be choosing from among a General Ed school, a G&T school, multiple charters and privates, I have received numerous emails over the past few weeks from families wondering how they’re supposed to make this decision when the usual avenue — touring — isn’t available.

Now, many schools are offering virtual tours, but parents fret that’s not enough to get a feel of the place where they might be committing their child for the next three, four, six years.

First things first: As I always tell parents at my “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten” and “Getting Into NYC High School” workshops, “No school is a life sentence.” Just because you’ve enrolled your child in a school that goes up to 5th grade, to 8th grade, to 12th grade, doesn’t mean you’re required to stay there for the duration.

Children change constantly. All parents know this. What you think she needs at age 4 may not be at all what she ends up needing at 14. Or 11. Or even at 8. Although transferring between different NYC schools — and different NYC school systems — isn’t easy, it is possible. Focus only on what your child needs now. Worry about the future when it arrives.

But how do you know if the school you’re considering is capable of providing what your child needs now?

Sure, take the virtual tour. With the understanding that no school can provide everything. Which is why this is a good time to establish what your priorities are.

Personally, I don’t care about the physical plant. (Though my oldest son, when touring high schools, ranked all buildings from “least prison-like,” to “most prison-like.”)

Test scores can be a metric. However, it’s important to parse how much of the results are coming from what the school is offering, and how much is coming from what parents are supplementing outside of school. Test scores are something you do not need to tour to see.

I care primarily about two things: Teacher quality and where the academic bar is set.

The latter is a bit easier to assess remotely. See if the schools will provide you with samples of student work. This does not need to be a violation of privacy. When you tour physically, I urge parents to look at the work posted on the walls. Those samples will tell you what the school considers quality work. There’s no reason why a school can’t provide a digital bulletin board in the same manner, to give prospective parents a peek at what they are teaching, and how.

The main thing I tell families to look for on a physical tour is teachers. Are their students engaged? Are they all but leaping out of their seats with enthusiasm, eager to participate in the lesson? Is the teacher walking around the classroom, or lecturing from the front? Are they calling on students in order to pull them in? Are they interacting equally with everyone? How do they react to a wrong answer? How do they keep the child who already knows the material, and the one struggling from tuning out? How do they react to a child who challenges them? How do they respond to being observed?

This is, obviously, harder to do in the days of remote learning. But it doesn’t need to be impossible. Why not have some teachers open their remote classroom to (prescreened) prospective parents? In some ways, it’s even easier than trying to cram a dozen visitors into a classroom!

Finally, you should talk to other parents with children at the school. Veteran parents, not those still in the honeymoon phase. Parents who have been at the school for multiple years, preferably with multiple children, so their experiences vary. (Interview with a dad where Dual Language worked for one of his children, but not the other, here.)

And here is the most important piece of advice: Don’t just talk to happy parents. Talk to parents whose children have had problems.

Because the secret nobody tells you is this: All schools are great. Until your child doesn’t fit the mold, exactly.

Whether it’s a learning difference, a behavioral issue, bad classroom chemistry (teachers and students), bullying (the bully and the bullied), boredom, not enough challenging material, too much challenging material, lack of accommodation for special needs, broken promises, or something you can’t even imagine yet.

Ask who first identified the problem, the parent, the child, or the school? Ask how the school handled the issue. Were you satisfied? Was your child?

This is also something that can be done remotely. 

And how eager the school is to hook you up with a parent who had a problem (at the proper social distance, of course), can be a great indicator of how responsive they’ll be if/ when you’re the one with the problem. 

One parent told me that, at a meeting with the principal, their questions were shut down with a reminder that their school is a highly coveted one. If they didn’t like what they saw, they could just move along, plenty more where they came from. Other parents were told that they had no choice in the matter. School choice isn’t really a thing, so why were they even bothering to ask questions? In comparison, a parent reported that their questions and presence were welcomed so enthusiastically at one school, “It’s like they were greeters at Trader Joe’s!”

In the end, choosing a school for your child, at any age, is a delicate decision. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all school. The more information you have going in, the better.

Listen, below, as two veteran preschool teachers offer advice on what to look for when touring:

And here, a teacher and parent discuss the pros and cons of private versus public gifted schools:

While these two mothers talk progressive versus traditional education:

And another mother explains General Ed versus G&T:

As you can see, there are as many opinions as there are choices.

Only you know what’s best for your child.

Even if, this year, that information might be a bit more difficult to find.

What do you think?

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