by Andrew Campanella
Millions of Americans this week are celebrating education reform across the country as part of National School Choice Week 2013, which shines a spotlight on the need for effective educational options for families.
With 3,500 independently planned events taking place during The Week, many families are celebrating the great school choices that they've made for their children. Other families are using The Week as an opportunity to demand greater access to better schools in places where educational options are limited. Still other families take advantage of the great school showcases during The Week to shop for new schools for their children.
This last benefit of National School Choice Week is especially critical for families in my home state of Florida, which offers a robust menu of options.
If you're one of the millions of parents looking to make a change in their child's education, here are five tips to consider in your search for your child's next school:
1) Start looking right now. It might seem like a good idea to wait to decide what school your child should attend in the 2013-14 school year. In reality, seats in great schools start filling up right now. If you're unhappy with the school your child attends – regardless of what type of school it is – you need to start looking at your options immediately. Use National School Choice Week as your starting point (www.schoolchoiceweek.com)
2) Research your options and make a list. No one is going to spoon feed you options – you need to exhaustively research the ones that you have. But here's the good news: you do have these options, even if they seem limited. You also have your own unique criteria of what you're looking for in a school – academics, safety, class sizes, values, teacher qualifications. Start reconciling your options with your needs by making a list of target schools. Identify your state's open enrollment policy, which allows students to attend public schools outside of geographic boundaries. Then, identify nearby public charter schools, magnet schools (schools that focus on specific subject areas), and private schools. Don't leave private schools off your list, even if you think you wont be able to afford tuition, you still might be eligible for a scholarship through a state scholarship program. And don't forget online learning options and homeschooling – many families find that these options are incredibly beneficial.
3) Get the facts on student achievement. After you make a list of potential schools, go to websites like GreatSchools.com, or to your state department of education's website, to find out how your child's target schools are performing. GreatSchools provides specific information on how schools fare on aggregate test scores in key areas like math and reading. No school is perfect, and some schools may be more effective than their test scores indicate. Above all else, look for a school with high academic performance.
4) Visit schools and ask questions. You wouldn't buy a car without test driving it first, or a house without going inside, so make sure you visit each of the schools that are on your target list. While you're there, ask questions – Is the culture of the school one of high expectations? Do the adults in the building seem to enjoy being there? Are students in the classrooms engaged and well-behaved? Are they excited? Do you sense the expectation that every student in that school will be prepared for college or a career? Choose the school that answers these questions the way you want them to be answered.
5) Talk to other parents. Ask parents of other students who attend your target schools about their children's experiences there. You'll want to ask specifically how the school handles parent involvement – the more of it the better. If parents are treated like a nuisance, consider staying away. Parental involvement is key to student success.
The more research you do, the better choices you can make and the more likely it is that you'll be able to provide your child with a great educational environment. Don't worry too much about what the school looks like on the outside – some of the most gleaming, state of the art schools have been known to post dismally low performance numbers. Worry instead about what's on the inside of the school. You know your child best, and you are truly in the best position – better than anyone else – to decide what type of school your child should attend.
Andrew Campanella is the president of National School Choice Week, a grassroots coalition of parents, students, educators and community leaders that aims to shine a spotlight on the great school choice options benefiting our children.