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.