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Insider tricks for assessing high schools

Our resident school-choice expert offers deal-breakers and red flags on assessing high 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 are the most important questions to ask when looking at a high school?

Jodi Goldberg: Where do their students go to college? And not just college, but where else do students go after graduation? The military?

What are the special focuses at that school? What are the subcultures at the school? What is the graduation rate, and how is it calculated? A school might say, "All 20 of our kids graduated," but they started with 112.

Some schools calculate the graduation rate based on the number of kids who started at the beginning of the senior year and graduated at the end of it. Some schools calculate it based on if a student came in as a freshman and actually graduated. That's a really different number.

GreatSchools: How would you chose which schools to visit?

Goldberg: I would have the kid do some research first. Have them go online, look at the schools they've heard about and are interested in, and make a case to you for why they'd want to go to one or the other.

They are totally independent at this age. Your control over their success is much more limited. This is where you've got to really listen. Talk less, listen more. You can bully your first-grader. You can trump their desires. At the high-school level, if you don't take those into consideration, you're going to only spend your time in defensive mode.

I would have a conversation about family priorities and student priorities before you even send them off to look. You have to explain to your child: "These are the things I just can't give on." For instance, if it's me and my child, the school has to offer calculus, and he has to take it. That's just a given.

A non-negotiable in our family is that it has to be a school he can get to on his own, because I can't guarantee that I have the flexibility to take him and pick him up every day. That meant that one of the schools that was on his list, one of his top-two schools, wasn't in the mix for us.

GreatSchools: When you and your teen visit the school, what is especially important to look for?

Goldberg: You want evidence of whatever the school's focus is.

Today I visited an arts school, and the kids did the announcements. The tradition is that they read them in funny voices, because it's a performing school. For the school that's vocational here [in Milwaukee], everything on the walls is related to welding or plumbing. There is evidence that [students] have an identity they're proud of. If what you see doesn't match what they say, that's a red flag.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/9/2011:
"This is a good short article. However one thing is blatently missing. Safety. Is there a large drug culture presence in the the highschool. We know that it exists at some level in all highschool."
10/5/2010:
"My student and I both found this article very helpful. It gives us a place to start, which makes starting much less stressful. Thank you."
11/17/2009:
"Which colleges with academic, not just financial admissions criteria do the high school graduates attend? Are they all attending buy-your-way-in private schools? "
11/9/2009:
"This is a good advice, but I would like to know if some body knows how I can transfer my child from one School District to other (I personally tried to do so, I got a authorization from my child's current district to go somewhere else, but the other School district denied the application to enroll my child there even though my child has good grades)"
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