How to Choose a Better School for Your Child
If you can’t make your child’s school work for him or her, even with all your afterschooling, and you can’t homeschool, then you must look for another school.
Most places have a surprising number of school choices, even if you’re restricted to publicly-funded schools for budgetary reasons. In addition to all the other regular schools in your school board, there may be publicly-funded alternative schools, charter schools, distance programs, Francophone schools, Catholic schools, as well as schools in nearby school boards. Most often, the Yellow Pages are an excellent source of information about the educational options in your area.
And if you can afford a private school, then you have even more options. In listing your options, bear in mind that it will probably be your responsibility to get your child to and from the new school every day.
There are good schools and there are bad schools in every category. It’s definitely caveat emptor out there.
When trying to choose a dentist, you would normally begin by asking around, talking to your friends and neighbours, especially those who have some dental expertise. It’s exactly the same when looking for a good school – you begin by sounding out other parents, especially those who are educators. Parents who have already withdrawn their children from your child’s school might be extra helpful. Where are their kids now? Are their parents pleased with the new school?
Until recently, it was hard to get a handle on how much individual schools were teaching their students, but recently the information has become more accessible. In Canada, for example, a number of think tanks have begun to make this information available as a public service.
You should bear in mind that schools with mostly advantaged students should get very good results. After all, many of their students enjoy supplemental teaching in their enriched homes and from paid tutors. Many school rankings have a neat feature whereby school performance is adjusted to compensate for their students’ socio-economic characteristics. Pay attention to this.
A big red flag is a big disparity between students’ performance on math tests and on language tests, as enriched homes influence language scores much more than math scores. In other words, a school whose students have language scores that are much higher than their math scores may be coasting on its students’ socio-economic advantages.
If the private schools in your area don’t administer the provincial/state tests, likely because these tests are so expensive, the schools nevertheless should be administering some kind of standardized tests. Ask for the results. If you are told that there is no testing, or if the test results are withheld, look for another school.
Once you have talked to other parents and studied the schools’ test results, you are ready to start shopping. Just as you looked at several options when choosing your children’s preschools, so too you should comparison shop for their elementary schools. Set up appointments to visit the various candidates.
When approaching principals, be sure to ask to spend time in the classroom. Some schools may disqualify themselves right away by not treating your request as sensible and normal. You probably already have a good idea of what you should be looking for: a studious atmosphere, high-quality student work on display, motivated students, good discipline, and so forth.
To find out everything you ever wanted to know on this subject, read Learning About Schools: What parents need to know and how they can find out, by Peter Coleman, a former professor at the University of British Columbia. This book is available from our lending library.
If your search has led you to choose a private school, then enrolment is easy. Sort of. All you have to do is come up with the necessary funds.
However, if you have chosen a publicly-funded school for your child, things can get tricky.
If the school is a regular school within the same school board, you will have to be very careful. When you talk to the principal of the desired school, the last thing you should do is divulge your real motivation – namely to get better schooling for your child. You must never, never, never suggest that your child is being poorly served at his current school – as most educators hate comparisons and purport to believe that all schools are delivering an excellent service. Instead, you must find a non-educational reason for your wish to transfer your child. For example:
Whatever you do, be very charming to the desired principal, as he or she can turn you down flat. Good schools tend to be bursting at the seams, once word gets around, and there is really no upside for the new principal to accept additional students (no higher salary, no higher status, no bettered promotional prospects).
If you’re really desperate, you could think about buying a house in the school’s catchment area and moving there. Many people actually do this.
If the desired school is Catholic or Francophone or a magnet school, there may be additional hurdles – such as religious or language requirements, long waiting lists, and admission requirements. All you can do is your best – pull any strings you can and be persistent. Sometimes, it pays off.
If you succeed in gaining admission for your child and if the new school is a good one, you will soon be rewarded. Successful interventions start to work immediately, both in terms of learning and in terms of behaviour. It will be obvious.