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Public schools: fact and fiction

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By Valle Dwight

Why pick a public school?

Even with all the myths debunked, the reality is that no school — public or private — can be all things to all people. The most important factor in deciding the best school always comes down to one thing: the best match for your family and your child.

Things to consider about public schools:

  • Proximity to home: If your child is at a neighborhood school, she will likely live close to her classmates, which makes social time outside of school a lot easier to arrange.
  • Parent involvement: If you want to be involved with the school, public may be the way to go. Private schools often aren’t as open to having parents in the classroom as public schools are. Parents are also encouraged to get involved with the local PTO and other organizations that support the schools.
  • Transportation: How will your child get to school? Public schools may provide free transportation for their students (or transportation for a fee). 
  • Learning disability services: If your child turns out to have a learning disability, public schools have a structure in place to test your child and offer interventions for the disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that public schools provide all students with an equal education, regardless of disabilities and learning disabilities. Private schools often will not accept children with disabilities or severe learning disabilities unless they have trained staff who can meet that child’s needs.
  • Free or reduced lunch: Public schools also provide lunch for free or at a reduced rate for low-income families.

How to choose the right public school for your child

If you live in a small town, you might not have a choice of schools; but even still, it’s important to do your homework. Visit each classroom in your child’s grade to get a sense of the different teachers and visit a couple of the upper-grade classes, too. Also, talk to other parents to get a sense of the school’s culture, its strengths, and which teachers to avoid.

If you live in a larger district that offers a choice of schools, you have a bigger job to find the best fit for your child.

  • Match your child to the school. Think about your child’s strengths, where she learns best, and what her challenges are. Use that information to help you choose a school. If the district offers a magnet school in a subject your child enjoys, check it out. If there is a language-immersion school, but your child struggles with language (children with dyslexia, for example, often have difficulty learning a new language), you can probably cross that one off the list.
  • Use the GreatSchools Ratings. Look up the school’s GreatSchools Rating to see how students are doing by subject, grade level, and ethnic group. There may be pictures of the school, a statement from the principal, and reviews from parents, students, and teachers that can tell you a lot about the academics and environment at the schools you’re considering.
  • Judge for yourself. If you're seriously considering a particular school, ask to sit in on a classroom for a good half hour. See how involved, active, and inspirational the teacher is. Does she engage with the students? Do they look bored or fidgety? Are they misbehaving?
  • Make multiple visits. Visit more than once, and try going at different times of day.
  • Look at multiple grades. Don’t choose a school based on the kindergarten class alone. It’s hard to picture your little one as a big kid, but it’ll happen soon enough, so have as discerning an eye for fifth grade as you do for kindergarten.
  • Consider location, location, location. It matters. You want to be sure that you can get there quickly for emergencies and school events. Also, children should be able to have play dates with other kids, which is more difficult if they live far from school. And if you want your child to be able to stay at school for after-school activities (That’s where a lot of the good stuff happens!), you will need to consider transportation.

Final words of advice

The best way to know if a school is right for your child is by visiting it yourself. Talk to people you know whose children attend, or have attended, the school in question. Weigh the pros and cons of a school you are considering and make sure you can answer the question: Is this school right for my child?

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.