Monday, November 28, 2011

School Questions

I had a post half-written in my head, talking about how hard my December is going to be. But then I listened to the words bouncing around in my head, and realized that they sounded whiny and obnoxious even to me, and decided not to write the post. Suffice to say that we'll be very busy this December. We actually had to write "put up Christmas tree" on our calendar, to make sure that we left enough time to do that.

I'm going to spare you my whining. In fact, I'm going to try to spare myself my whining, and change how I think about December to just be grateful that we have so many friends, filling our weekends with parties and jobs, filling our weekends with software releases and other "fun" things.

Tonight, I am going to write about our upcoming decision about where to send Pumpkin for Kindergarten. She will start next fall. We have decided to start her in a public school- or at least we will start our decision making process by assuming that she will go to public school. I suppose that if we are seriously unhappy with what we see when we look at our public school options, we would consider private school for her.

We are considering three public schools: our neighborhood school, a Spanish immersion magnet (all instruction is in Spanish for the first few years), and a Spanish enrichment magnet (they study Spanish every day, but the main instruction is in English). The emphasis on language is for two reasons: (1) she likes learning languages and seems to be good at it and (2) we think kids should get the chance to learn a language young, when it is easier and they are more likely to be able to master the new sounds. The Spanish immersion magnet is our closest school.We have to make a decision by February 15, 2012.

I looked up the test scores for all three schools. Our local school has the highest test scores, but also the richest students- so that didn't tell me much. I didn't really expect it to, and I don't have the patience to go spelunking through the data like Bad Mom Good Mom did. Test scores, particularly as we currently use them, are actually a rather poor indicator of whether or not I want my child to go to a particular school. And yet I felt compelled to look at them- compelled enough to spend several hours one night finding the scores and printing them out for comparison. My husband says it was so that we could be sure that nothing truly terrible was lurking in them. I suspect it was so that I can tell the parents who are shocked that we are considering such "rough" schools for our children that the test scores aren't bad.

So, if the test scores are no help, how will we make our decision? First of all, the decision isn't entirely ours to make. We are deciding what schools to put as our first and second choices on a lottery form. The fates will decide whether or not we get our choice. But obviously, we only want to try for one of the magnets if we like them.  And if we are really unhappy with what our local school can offer, we will need to think about what we want to do about that. Go to a private school? Enrich with a tutor? Enrich with specialized after school programs? Decide we just need to get over ourselves and accept what is on offer at the local school? I think I have listed those options in descending order of both expense and ease of implementation.

Anyway, we will be going to visit the schools, to hear about their programs and ask some questions. Here is our current list:

Questions to ask all schools:

  • What is discipline policy?
  • What is homework policy?
  • What happens to kids who excel (GATE)? What about in early grades, before GATE kicks in? How are kids who are performing above grade level handled?
  • What will happen with a kid who is already reading before Kindergarten? (Umm, and who knows how to add and is figuring out multiplication on her own?)
  • What happens with kids who are struggling in a subject? (Let's not assume that our child will be universally brilliant, right?)
  • What extracurriculars are offered? Music?
  • What are the after school care options? (All three have some sort of program, but I want the details.)
Questions for the Spanish immersion magnet:

  • How are kids helped into the immersion program? What will happen with a kid who doesn’t really speak any Spanish before kindergarten?
  • Do children learn to read in English in kindergarten/first grade? Or in Spanish? Or both?

Questions for our local school:

  • Are there any foreign language programs available to kids at all? (I fear the answer is no, there are not- even though a lot of schools in the area have after school language programs that you pay for. So I guess the follow up would be: what would it take to get an after school language program in place?)
So, parents who have already passed this phase... what questions are we missing?


  1. Anonymous1:42 AM

    For us, These:
    What happens to kids who excel (GATE)? What about in early grades, before GATE kicks in? What will happen with a kid who is already reading before Kindergarten?
    were the important questions.

    We also had follow up questions: Do you allow single subject acceleration? Do you do ability clustering/cluster grouping? Do you do whole-grade acceleration? Do you do compacting? Do you do pull-outs?

    It told us a lot when they didn't know what the words we were using meant.

    Really the most important thing is to observe the classroom. Are the kids bored out of their skulls? Are they actively engaged? Do the teachers have control of the classroom? Are the kids having fun?

    If it's near the end of the year, are they learning things for the first time that your kid has known since ze was 2? Are their science classes interactive or worksheet based? (Do they look at plants or pictures of plants?)

    We actually didn't care one way or another about the homework policy. DC can handle homework, so we aren't worried about actually (horrors) getting homework like a lot of parents, but it's also kindergarten so we don't really care if there's homework so long as they're learning things in school.

    Good luck with your decision!

  2. so jealous you have choices, but then again looking at the list of ?, I'm thinking maybe not so jealous :)

    Coincidentally our only child in the classroom reading issue is coming up next week during PT conferences because she is BORED during reading instruction on the rug. I'm not sure what to ask for though, because she doesn't like to read alone and there is only one teacher in the room, so WTF is she going to do (it is a prek-k cluster school so she can't go up a grade for reading instruction sadly ).

    Good luck and I hope you get the clear answers that make the decision easy (at least on the form, since the lottery gods get to do the big deciding)

  3. Anonymous4:19 AM

    I would consider asking questions about how each school deals with misbehaving and bullying. Knowing that my school growing up had a no tolerance policy for bullying (and saw it was enforced) was a relief to my parents.

  4. Anonymous5:33 AM

    what is supervision on the playground like? at our school, the teachers socialize & at kindergarten it was made clear that kids were to "sort things out for themselves" i.e. not "bother" the teachers unless they were physically hurt. my kid has been in a couple of playground situations that rocked his world in a bad way & teachers had no idea it had happened

    our neighborhood school had ok test scores, but didn't have a principal for the whole of last year, and apparently the principal had been coasting to retirement before. it's a Title 1 school in a neighborhood that is on it's way to gentrification. we had heard mixed things about it but decided to trust. we ended up with a burnt out, emotionally & physically intimidating teacher, and our sensitive perfectionist son was very traumatized by it.

    We're currently looking at going to private school, as moving doesn't work right now. Even though he has a much better teacher this year in 1st, there is a culture of reward with candy, tracking behavior with colors & punishments to go with color changes (silent lunch for going from green to yellow, loss of recess time which is illegal) and shaming (name up on the board.)

    I guess my point is, know your kid & know how the discipline stuff will affect. My son behaved as perfectly as he could but was traumatized by how kids who misbehaved were treated. And trust yourself if it doesn't feel right, and trust that there are options.

    Lisa F.

  5. Anonymous6:13 AM

    I think the color sticks are "in" right now. We don't mind them. DC thinks they're kind of hilarious and is a bit in awe of the girls in his class who go on yellow on a somewhat regular basis. But he's also very proud of the green dot he gets each day.

    DC has started rating DH on a "silly stick" on weekends. 10 instances of DH being silly and he goes down to yellow. DH spends most of the weekend on yellow.

    It also seems to be teaching DC negative numbers, since -10 = yellow, -20 = orange and so on. (Daddy is at -7, if he is silly THREE more times, he'll be on yellow!)

    The best answer to the discipline question is that there's no need because the students are so actively entertained that they very rarely act up... but that's generally only possible in small classroom settings like our local K-3 Montessori.

  6. Ugh, I don't envy you having to go through this, so I'll just say be strong :)

    Personally, I LOVE the idea of Spanish immersion - I've got an acquaintance whose son has been in Japanese immersion public school since K and LOVES it. (He's 10 now.)

    Sadly, the Spanish immersion school right near us is not in our district. Thankfully I don't have to think about this for a while since BabyT has a late Sept birthday and just turned 2.

  7. And @Lisa F, that sounds so awful for your son :(

    My high school trig/calculus teacher used to do the 'name on the board' thing when someone would inadvertently do something on homework or an exam, or an in-class problem that resulted in division by zero. I thought that was funny, but we were 16 and 17 :)

    As a former sensitive kid (still sensitive, just not a kid) I can totally see how those public discipline tactics would feel awful.)

  8. We based a whole, whole lot of our decision on what we saw in the classrooms we visited, plus what we learned about parent involvement.

    Class size was also a big concern of ours (27 per classroom in kindergarten--yikes!) and unfortunately that was pretty uniform across all our feasible school options. Some schools have more teachers/aides available per classroom (often depending on funding they receive based on # of low income students). And those with a high percentage of students who go to separate classrooms for language instruction will then end up with a better teacher/student ratio in the main classroom for that time. I'm sure each of these things is a bit different in your area, but may be worth considering in some form.

  9. I'm obviously not there yet, but I would like to know their policy on bullying. I also second (third? fourth?) observing the classroom.

  10. omg the color charts are hilarious. i think of them as a terrorism indicator for children but my kids can allocute exactly who was where everyday for each kid

  11. A lot of people overlook this question, but especially if you have an early reader, ask about the library. When and how often do the kids go? Is there a librarian on staff, or an aide? Full or part time?

    (Also be aware that, especially in California, librarians are being cut everywhere, so don't be too surprised if none of the schools in your area still have one for even a few hours/week.)

    It takes time and training to properly maintain a library collection in an elementary school, and it takes expertise to recommend appropriate books for early readers especially, stuff that will be challenging and interesting but still age-appropriate in content. And in later elementary grades, having someone to really work with kids on research skills, how to find trustworthy information on-line, how to use reference materials of all kinds, is really important. If they tell you that the classroom teachers will do those things, be aware that they rarely do. I have a ton of both teachers and librarians in my family, and they all remark on how they can tell which kids in high school had regular interactions with a trained librarian in elementary school. It's quite startling.

  12. Well, we didn't have a lot of choice in what school we got seeing we moved in August and the school year started September. Needless to say, we didn't get into the best school in the area.

    However, we purposely moved to an area of London where school scores were above average (and where crime was on the low end of the scale)so that at worst the kids were in a mediocre school, which is what happened.

    Still, the first thing I looked into was the bullying/violence factor that others have mentioned and how the schools deal with discipline issues. Seems the school nips bullying in the bud the moment it rears its ugly head. Needs to with the big gang culture here.

    Everything else can only be better than what is presently on offer in Italian schools (excluding class size). Noah has even got his own teaching assistant to get his reading up to par with the rest of the class, something you could only dream of in Italy.

  13. Anonymous12:31 PM

    we call the color thing the "rainbow of doom." he's proud of being on green constantly, and he's doing well academically although he's bored sometimes, but I wonder how well he would do if he wasn't worrying about it all the time.

    we've applied to a local charter which has a Peace program re: bullying & they work with the local Quaker private school that has conflict resolution as a core piece of it's curriculum. and also places that have project-based, integrated curricula.

    Lisa F.

  14. mary d12:48 PM

    Those are pretty much the questions we asked. I have two boys and we asked specific questions about how they handle active boys. Did NOT like the answer at the neighborhood school ("Oh, well, boys are ALWAYS in the principal's office and girls NEVER are." WRONG ANSWER.)

    We purposely didn't teach J to read before kindergarten so he wouldn't be bored out of his skull but the math he does on his own. We talked to them about what they do with the advanced kids (schools are so eager to show you the resources for speech therapy, remedial help, etc but rarely talked about kids who excel so you do have to ask). J's teacher has been good about rewarding him with time to play learning games on the computer, etc.

    All of your comments about the color stuff are cracking me UP. Rainbow of doom! You're right, they do know who's on what color and are proud to be on green.

    Good luck with your decision. Having been there a year ago, the pain is still fresh in my mind!!

  15. Thanks everyone. I'll add these to our list.

    @nicoleandmaggie- what the heck is compacting?

    @mary d- we didn't set out to teach our daughter to read, either, for the same reason. But she was interested and starting to figure it out, and I couldn't see keeping it from her. Both my sister and I could read before Kindergarten. My sister went up and did reading with grade 1. No one remembers what I did, but we all remember that I LOVED the letter workbooks, so we suspect I just stayed in my Kindergarten class and did them.

    And y'all know this, but... that the fact that the kids all know who is on which color and CARE is precisely why the teachers use that system. I can't blame them, and its not like they don't all know who's goofing off, anyway. I'm less cool with the idea of exposing performance metrics, though. That seems like a bully's bonanza, where the kids on either tail of the bell curve catch grief.

  16. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Compacting is a method of dealing with kids at different levels within the same classroom. Basically it involves pre-tests, and the kids who pass the pre-tests do something different but with the same theme, generally more advanced, deeper, or broader, etc. while the kids who didn't pass the pre-tests do the main lesson.

    It has been shown to work well for all kids, not just kids who have been tagged as academically advanced. ("Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom" has a lot of information about compacting among other things.)

  17. "Compacting" sounds similar to "differentiation"... another buzzword you may here.

    Having just finished three months of student teaching in high school science, I would like to emphasize the question about class size. Before teaching, I knew class size was relevant. But I didn't realize just how much it affects almost ALL aspects of teaching - in planning lessons, in getting to know students individually, in engaging students, in giving appropriate attention to struggling students, in giving appropriate challenges to advanced students, in classroom management (being able to track mis/undesired-behavior in head rather than writing it down), assessing student performance, and so on.
    So yeah... definitely as about class sizes (and not just the average for the school... ask about grade level.)


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