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Insider tricks for assessing elementary schools

Our resident school-choice expert offers deal-breakers and red flags on assessing elementary schools from a distance.

By GreatSchools Staff

Choosing a school for your child is a deeply individual matter. Who knows your child the best? You do. Who most understands your finances, daily schedules, and family culture? None other than you.

Yet as school districts expand their school-choice policies with lotteries and magnet and charter options, the process becomes increasingly complicated — overwhelming even the most conscientious of parents.

Where does one go for support? While schools distribute information, and fellow moms and dads can dish up gossip, what parents really need is a school-choice expert.

Enter Jodi Goldberg. A former English teacher, Goldberg has spent more than 15 years working on education reform and getting parents engaged with their children's schools. As director of GreatSchools Milwaukee, she currently works on behalf of low-income families to help them find the right educational environment for their kids.

Do your homework

Before choosing a school, Goldberg advises parents to prioritize what's most important to their child and family, taking into consideration academics, special education, sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities but also practicalities like tuition, transportation, and aftercare.

Whether you're choosing a preschool or high school, find out what happens to children who graduate from that institution. Where do they go next, and are they successful there? Seek out parents whose children went through the program, and talk to them about their experiences.

The best time to visit a school is in the late fall, after class has been in session a while but before the rush around enrollment deadlines for the following year. Goldberg advises families to visit more than one school, because it's through such comparison shopping that parents learn what they most value in an educational setting.

To switch or not to switch

Although Goldberg encourages parents to exercise their right to choose the best school for their child, she recommends caution when it comes to switching schools in the middle of the year. If at all possible, she says, avoid doing so even if you're extremely unhappy. She cites studies that suggest it's much worse for children's education to be moved during a school year than to stick it out in a mediocre institution. Only under horrible circumstances — if your child is truly miserable or in danger — should you change schools mid-year.

GreatSchools: What should you look for in elementary school academics?

Jodi Goldberg: You definitely want your child reading by third grade. Ask for the third- and fourth-grade reading scores. Ask how many kids are at average, or above, for reading. Then ask them to tell you why they think that's the case.

For direct instruction, if every kid is not reading by third grade, then the teachers are failing. The Montessori method is on a different pace. If in the Montessori method they're not all reading by third grade, then it's a little less scary, because of how they approach it. So you want to hear the reasons.

GreatSchools: What questions should you ask at a school visit?

Goldberg: What will the school do to ensure that my child doesn't fall behind? What happens if my child gets behind? What will the school do to get my child back on track? Or if my child is gifted, how do you develop those gifts, even if the rest of the class doesn't have them?

GreatSchools: What should you look for during your visit?

Goldberg: It has to feel like a place [where] you want to spend time. You have to feel a level of trust.

You want to look for evidence of student work on the walls, not just the alphabet bought from the teacher warehouse. You want to see things on the walls that are clearly in use. You don't want just décor. You want tools. Maybe they have a word wall that's up, which clearly displays the vocabulary for the week rather than a bunch of preprinted things about vocabulary.

There are a million educational posters teachers put up. That does no good whatsoever if they're not actively used in lessons. Don't get sidetracked by the fact that they have a lot of alphabet stuff up there. If it's not being used, it does you no good.

Also, look on the walls for evidence that they've been changed lately. If you see a chart they clearly put up at the beginning of the year and it's now November, and nothing has been tracked on that chart, clearly the system is breaking down. If they have systems and they're not using them, that's also no good.

If the work on the walls is from the first week of school, and there is never new student work up there, that's indicative it wasn't a priority — it was for show.

Comments from readers

"I found this very helpful!! "
"You also want to know how much direct teaching time and/or time spent with the teacher there is each day. What is th rest of the class doing while the teacher is working with small groups? "
"Although I appreciate some of the advice you posted in this article, I do take issue with your comment, "if every kid is not reading by third grade, then the teachers are failing". This smacks of the No Child Left Behind ideology, and does not take into account the myriad factors that contribute to a less than 100% success rate in 3rd grade reading. I bring this point up, not to be tedious, but to suggest that when you make comments that are as patently untrue as this one, it can lead readers to question the validity of your other points. "
"I found this article as a great advise for parents. Everyone such read it. "
"Thank you I learned alot from this article! "
"I have a second grade child that is very bright. I put her in a charter school with hopes that they would meet her where she is at and progress her, seeing how that is what the school says. I am frustrated, my child is doing the same things she already knows. She has studied only one or two spelling words out of twenty she has every week. A lot of the reading assignments she has already done. I feel she is being stagnant and to top it all off she has twenty nine children in her class. I am at a dead end because the public schools are so bad and I cannot afford a private school or homeschool. Are there any other suggestions? I thought about school of choice, but in my area, I hear about a lot of problems surrounding districts are having as well. Please help!! "
"My daughter is in the 4th grade ar Brittin Elementary in Fort Stewart, GA. We recently was pc's for our 1st duty station. well we came Fro, New Hampshire where standards were really hugh and she was receiving all A's in evert subject even though she had beed in a special reading class. SWell when I enrolled her into BRITTIN i requested that she be put back into a special reading class. I had asked repeadly approx. 5 times and noone would do anything about it. now I month before school is out i hear fromy daughter (not the teacher, secretary, the reading teacher) that she has been enrolled. My daughter was failing 3 subjects, math, science, and reading. What i dont understand is that I have spoken to alot of the childrens parents in the class and they are also failing and when they receive there homework for thr night they sre not explained how to eo it. My child has severe ADHD and i have requested 4 meetings with the teacher, principsl, and counselor and they were all set up untill the day before i have received calls ststing that they cant make it and they will call me this last time and i habvent heard a thing, and I visit there everyday. wITH MY child having adhd and cant focus i believe she needs to be in a special program. Not only does she have adhd but she always has to sit there and wonder if im haaving a seizure. I was recentlty diagnosed with a major seizure disorder that if it reaches a certain level i could die. so she also has to thimk about that too.Does anyone have any advice on what steps to take to get her into special educatioon?"
"All children should be reading and retelling by the end of Kindergarten. As a matter of fact, they should be at a level C or 3-4 or higher. My suggestion is higher. I have taught Kindergarten for 10 years now from the East Coast to the West Coast in private and public schools. What I always recommend is looking at the class size and the individual teacher. Let's face it, teachers are human and can only do so much. The less the number of students, the more they can focus on individual students. I have worked with a variety of teachers in both the public and private school setting. Through that I have seen teachers that barely met the standards and some that go way beyond the state standards. Each state has standards that all public school teachers (and most private schools) are to abide by. For instance, in N.C. they are called the NCDPI and in WA they are referred to as EALR's. Parents can view these standards for each grade level. It is extremely important for t! eachers and parents to work closely together. Afterall, it is the child that benifits from it. The public school that I worked at was always at 99% and higher on test scores. I believe that is because of the strong Parent-Teacher teamwork. Good luck on your school search!"
"I think this is good information. Is there some way to find out if your kid is gifted?"
"My girls go to Montessori also and my third grader is reading at a ninth grade level (official standardized test -- not just my opinion). Montessori actually encourages kids to push themselves and love learning. That said, we are considering public school for next year. Thanks for the advice on choosing a school."
"The Montessori method is different. I can only speak for our school, but there is not one third grader who is not reading. The children start reading by four and five. By the end of first grade they are all reading. Second grade students are conducting research projects on other countries. The third grade students are doing 4th & 5th grade math by year end. Third graders are testing at 95% and above on standardized tests. Each Monday they are given an extensive work plan that includes Math,Reading,Science,Geography,Handwriting etc. Not all Montessori schools are the must do your research. However I think there are incorrect perceptions about Montessori, one of them being kids just take it at their own pace and will learn when they want to learn. "
"I have two children in public school. We knew that we could not afford private education so we moved into the best public school system we could find in our area. This was a sacrifice as it meant we bought a smaller, older home. I do not buy the argument that private is better than public or visa versa. It is the parents responsibility to know what the requirements are at each grade level, whether or not their child is meeting those requirements, and to ensure the child receives the appropriate help to meet or beat the standards. I work closely with my children and their teachers to identify areas in which they may need help. I was the one that contacted my daughter's teacher when I realized she was not meeting the math curriculum standards. I went to the teacher and demanded information to help my daughter improve her math skills. The teacher added extra work sheets and helped me with materials to help my daughter at home. The extra work has paid off. In public sch! ools, the curriculum and the standards are clearly spelled out and available for any parent that wants to see them. Check your county's website, look at the report cards, and talk to the teachers. If a teacher can not clearly define at the beginning of the year what will be expected of your child, then that person should not be teaching. You can address concerns like that to your school prinicipal and if necessary the school board. You have those rights at public school, not necessarily so at private school. In the end, whether a parent chooses public or private, that parent must remain engaged in their child's education."