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Insider tricks for assessing middle schools

Our resident school-choice expert offers deal-breakers and red flags on assessing middle 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 a middle school?

Jodi Goldberg: Middle school is when it's getting hard to get your kids up in the morning. They're often less enthusiastic about academics and way into socializing.

But middle school is when they're getting ready to go to high school. It's actually the seventh-grade year that they really need to buckle down and focus. If you're looking for a selective high school, [school officials are] going to look at seventh-grade attendance, because they make their decisions early in the eighth-grade year.

So you want to ask the school what their attendance level is. You want to ask where their graduates go to high school. It's more important at this level than any other level.

And ask what their student-return rate is — the kids who were eligible to return in seventh and eighth grade that do. If you have a lot of people fleeing the school, that's a red flag.

Sixth grade is when [kids] pick up a lot of sports and arts for the first time. Ask which programs the school has. You want your children to be able to be busy, but not overscheduled. They need more sleep, so you want to know about the school's' start time.

GreatSchools: What about academics?

Goldberg: This is where content becomes more crucial. I'd ask about math even more than reading. Which kids learn algebra? When? Make sure they're getting algebra hopefully by the seventh grade, and definitely by the eighth grade, or that they can at least.

And where do their kids go to high school? If this is a school where kids are going to a high school that everybody knows is a good one, then that tells you something.

GreatSchools: What should you look for on the school visit?

Goldberg: You want your child to visit with you. I think that's true of every level, but particularly in middle school. Keep in mind that they're very nervous. They're probably going for the first time to an environment where they're going to be changing classes. There is a lot of anxiety around it.

Find out how the school acclimates the child to this new environment. What is their process? Do they just throw them in, or do they actually have a mechanism for making new kids feel welcome? Does the school have a buddy system where your new child is paired up with someone who has been there for a while?

On the visit, look for evidence that students are given responsibilities. They should be. Are the hallways kept clean? If students don't participate in that, they won't be. Did you get a tour by a student, or is it only the adults who will talk to you? It's not mandatory, but if they trust the kids to show you the school, then it's probably a safe place, and it's probably a place where kids are happy.

School culture is going to be really important at this level, because [kids'] brains are totally wired at that point for social interaction with peers. You want to see evidence that the kids are trusted, that it's not a police state, that kids have internal control.

GreatSchools: What should you ask about the teachers?

Goldberg: Find out why a teacher is qualified to teach particular content. Content is more important in middle school than in elementary school. Ask the science teacher, "How did you learn to teach science?"

If they say, "I was thrown in last week because a science teacher quit," that tells you something. Ask about staff turnover. The most difficult teachers to hire are the math and science teachers. So you want to know where those teachers came from.

GreatSchools: Other questions to ask about a middle school?

Goldberg: Find out what the technology situation is. Ask "What technology do you use regularly?" Just because they have a computer lab doesn't mean that they use it.

GreatSchools: What about discipline?

Goldberg: Ask what their suspension policy is. If students get kicked out for everything, that's not a good sign. There should be more creative ways of dealing with conflict. There is always conflict at the middle school level. [Students are] too emotional for there not to be. How is conflict handled at that school, conflict between students and conflict between students and staff?

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/26/2012:
"BRAVO, It is incredibly comprehensive and insightful. Personally, it simply reinforces my stance in what has become a 6 month debate in which I am viewed as the overly emotional mommy; constantly criticized for my eclectic ,outside the box views on learning styles and labeled too judgemental regarding the teachers/schools we have considered transfering my son(soon to be13) from a cloistered christian school setting to our overcrowded ,behavioral problem ridden local public middleschool. The christian school lacked specialized staff, lacked innovation, and exercised absurd punishments for normal adolescent behavior. On the other hand when i spoke with a few parents and read an article stating that the students were bullying the teachers(some leaving in tears over the brutal treatment) I insisted in homeschooling for a year. Now the time has come to make a decision. I have 2 prospective schools in mind, both appear excellent for different reasons. I believe your article will helpimmensely; not to mention it validates my beliefs(strengthening my position vs. a house of conventional,conservative , wanna be alpha males). "
03/6/2012:
"I think some critical areas not discussed are class size and the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch which is a red flag. I'd also inquire into suspension and expulsion rates as principals are required to keep them artificially low. When looking at those highly touted test scores, look at the break down to see what group is scoring what or if there's one group producing top scores thus presenting a skewed picture . Also, visit the nearby coffee houses and places near the school where parents hang with their kids so you can freely ask questions regarding their child's experience at the school. Ask a variety of kids what they think of the homework load and if it's reasonable. "
02/21/2012:
"Hi Jody, I always enjoy reading your articles. I am also in the process of trying to find the right middle school for my soon to be 6th grader daughter . We live in Illinois, and I couldn't find a "GreatSchoolsChicago" per say, so I was wondering if there was someone who could help me find the right elementary school for my 6th grader, who has a (diagnosed) but mild form of ADD? We will be moving out to the western suburbs shortly of Chicago, about 45 away from all friends and family due a commute for my husbands new job. I don't have connections there to get an accurate feel for the real scoop on these elementary/junior high schools, and unfortunately many of the reviews are pretty old online here, so I"m not sure if things have changed at various schools? My daughter is currently in a Catholic K-8 school, and I'd love to keep it that way, even in the western suburbs as it provides structure and moral values; however her grades are suffering in that they don't have the teachers, res! ources, time, or patience to help her. Our thought is to go public, but worry about her getting lost in the shuffle of too many children per class, as she needs structure. Is there any one who knows the western suburban school system well schools that could give me an honest opinion on elementary schools that address children's' ADD needs? Or is there an specific organization that works specifically with schools in the western suburbs that I could call? ( We have the opportunity to move as far west as Naperville and as far East as Hinsdale. Also her ADD has affected her self esteem, and I was hoping to find a school that has a bully program in place, as her inattentiveness at our current school often gets misread as being aloof, and no one ever includes her or even calls which is hurtful, especially now as she is getting older (as she is in 6th grade) In fact, she is very friendly when she gets to know someone. Although I know are based in Milwaukee, you always have such g! reat suggestions, I thought I'd ask your advice and opinion on! how I should proceed. The few principals I've met with seem to say they all have a great school, all have great teachers, all have students that need extra help...but I can't seem to get the real deal from them...your thoughts please? "
07/25/2011:
"I see nothing in this article about student test scores. Surely that is indicative of what is taught and how it is taught. While I agree about being cautious about changing schools mid-term, sometimes it is necessary to do it if you are unhappy with the curriculum and/or the teachers. You must be pro-active and not timid about your child's education. "
06/22/2011:
"i love middle school"
05/31/2011:
"why parents choose private schools over public?How private schools are different othe than tutuion?"
05/23/2011:
"I really appreciate this article. It's very helpful and it makes alot of sense. Thank you."
04/12/2011:
"It was very informative!! I had to write down all possible questions I need to ask the school. Thank you. "
01/11/2010:
"This article really help to make a decision about great school to be choose."
11/6/2009:
"This was a good article. It gave some good questions to ask and what to look for."
11/3/2009:
"This is all very interesting, but it makes the assumption that everyone has a choice. This is most often not the case, so information about how to navigate the middle school that most of us are 'stuck with' is much more relevant and important."
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