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?