What Makes a Great School

Article excerpt

Picking the right elementary school for your child, or making sure your district optionçts the bill, is crucial-and confusing. Our experts help you determine.which schools really make the grade. BY ALEXANDRA MOSES

It delights Julian's mom, Megan Hollberg, to know that her youngest daughter is challenged at school. More than that, Julian comes home excited. "When they picked a book about quilts, Jiliian went on and on all weekend telling my mother-in-law about types of quilts," recalls Megan, a vice president of HR for Atlantic Detroit Diesel-Allison.

The special reading program is one of many reasons Megan believes Hillview is a great elementary school. But she didn't always think so. Five years ago, her family moved back to the Pequannock Township school district to send their two daughters to the public schools she and her husband attended and loved. "Wejust assumed the schools were still good," Megan, 41, says. Soon after the girls started, she realized things had changed: "I felt the district schools were now mediocre - and they weren't striving for much more." So she got active, ran successfully for the school board and helped pick a new superintendent, who boosted literacy and math goals and school programs.

Many parents like Megan rely on assumptions about their neighborhood school or its yearly test scores to steer their decisions. But truly great schools share qualities well beyond a few benchmarking numbers, and even the busiest mom can ferret those out by knowing what matters, asking a lot of questions and trusting her instincts. To start, there are five things you want to know about a school: Do the principal and district have a plan to improve academics and challenge students to do better? Do teachers let kids work together on projects, and are they flexible in their teaching method? How are special needs like ADHD or dyslexia met? How diverse is the school, and do teachers infuse multiculturalism into their lessons? Is there an active parent organization to fundraise and watch the school's progress?

"These are critical points that parents should explore," says Cindy Gnadinger, EdD, dean of the School of Education at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. Beyond these factors, you want to see classrooms buzzing with activity and opportunities for art, music and play. "Is the school warm and inviting?" asks Dr. Gnadinger. "If you'd like to spend your day there, you'll probably want to send your kids there."

Knowing how to discern a good school from a great one - and if a school is right for your child - is paramount now that families increasingly have school choice, depending on where they live. The number of public charter schools in the United States has grown to more than 4,500 since the first opened in the early 19905, and magnet schools- public schools with themed curriculums - have more than tripled since the early 19805, And since Presi- dent Obama supports charter-school expansion, it's expected that public school choice will grow. Voucher pro- grams that allow low-income families to attend private schools also exist in some states, like Florida, and in large urban areas, like New Orleans and Washing- ton, DC. But let's clear up something about private versus public: One isn't necessarily better than the other. "Both public and private schools have the potential to be great- or not so great," says longtime education researcher Edward W. Pauly, PhD, director of research and evaluation for the Wallace Foundation and author of The Class- room Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn't, and Why. "Just ask parents of kids who go to different Catholic schools: Some have huge class sizes, some have intimate learning opportunities."

Even if your zone school is your only feasible option, you should still make sure it has the right stuff, or at least the potential for improvement. So find out how parents can visit schools in your area (group or individual tours) and when (usually in the late fall or early spring - start checking a year ahead of enrollment). …