First Person

Thoughts on choosing a good school

I’ve written before about the odds of getting into schools that have consistently high test scores. These are generally schools where parents are lining up to get their kids in—some even hiring consultants to help them navigate the enrollment process.

The reason is obvious: few parents want to send their kids to a school where the majority of kids are not reading or doing math at grade level (assuming that they know this!).  Parents, regardless of income or ethnicity want the best for their kids and want them to be successful adults.

But parents also know that not all schools are equal academically or philosophically: attitudes, techniques, teachers, students, leadership, character development, etc. vary widely across schools.

In the past, middle and upper income parents have looked to teacher-student ratios as an indication of quality. But a growing number now recognize that class size matters little after third grade.  It turns out that a school’s culture, expectations, and practice can make nearly as much difference in a student’s life as their parents’ education and income. With hundreds of factors to look at, prioritizing and evaluating schools can be overwhelming.

Why are there so many choices?  Two main reasons: open enrollment and more more new schools with different instructional approaches.

First, parents are no longer restricted to the schools in their geographic boundary. In the past, only middle or upper income families had options – which they exercised when they bought their home.

Second, schools now have flexibility available to them in how they are organized, bringing about variation among schools. Some schools might value project-based or student-centered learning while others insist on a more traditional teacher-centric approach. Both can be done well or poorly, and the burden to investigate is on the parent. Here are a few ideas for sorting through the myriad of options.

Narrowing your search online

First, look at the data, which takes about an hour. The best websites are Colorado School Grades, the Colorado Department of Education’s SchoolView and, in Denver, the Denver Public Schools district School Performance Framework. Look for schools where:

  1. Students are reading, writing and understanding math and science on grade level (look at the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced);
  2. Students are learning at the same or faster rate as peers at other schools (the growth percentile should be over 50 –the state average);
  3. Kids that come from a similar demographic background as your child are doing well. The state collects test scores by sex, race, income and ethnicity. One place to find this information by school is here; and
  4. Programming fits your child’s interests. Some schools have great theater programs while others focus on science or guitar. This may be very important or not at all important to you. It’s important to find a school that does a few things well that meet your families needs rather than find the school that claims to do everything well.

The hard part

Next, set aside time to visit schools – maybe one to two days. Call every school on your short list and schedule a visit for at least an hour. Some schools are used to having visitors and have a routine, set hours and days. Other schools that are not used to giving tours and scheduling a visit might take more work. You may have to call a couple of times, but eventually you will get an appointment or access to an open house. Be sure to say that you want to talk to the principal and visit classrooms.

It can be really useful to visit a number of excellent schools even if you don’t want or can’t afford to send your child there. Understanding the scope of options is helpful in knowing what you do and don’t want from a school. Good schools can be public, charter, private, student centered/project-based, or more traditional. Here are a few examples of schools with fairly different instructional strategies and philosophical orientations,

High schools

Denver School of Science and Technology (public charter) Great all round academics with a mix of traditional and project based instruction tied to strong character development program. (Economically and ethnically diverse student population).

East High School (public non charter) Traditional comprehensive high school, The college-prep track is very good but students taking lower level programing has similar performance profile to many other Denver high schools. (Economically and ethnically diverse student population) 

Arrupe Jesuit High School (private) Jesuit high school with strong academic and character development focus that successfully sends all of its graduates to college. Arrupe has one of the among the highest Daniels and Boettcher scholarship percentages in the state. (Primarily low-income student population).

Middle schools

KIPP or STRIVE Prep (public charter) These are both college-preparatory schools with a fairly traditional approach to instruction. The day and year are both extended. (Primarily low-income student population). 

Slavens (public non-charter) Excellent traditional public K-8 district managed school. (Mostly white and middle/high income population).

Girls Athletic Leadership School (public charter) Public girls school that focuses on building confidence and self-advocacy. (Diverse student population of girls) .

Elementary schools

Steck (public non-charter) Traditional district elementary school with strong test scores. (Mostly white and middle/high income students)

Odyssey (public charter) Progressive project-based charter school with a focus on developing self-learners and character. (Somewhat diverse student body)

Denver Waldorf School (private) Based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, Waldorf tudents graduate with outstanding writing and thinking skills. (Mostly white and middle/high income student body)

Swigert (public non-charter) International Baccalaureate focus. (Mostly white and middle/high income student population)

University Prep (public charter) Strong academic program with a focus on skills in early years and traditional character development. (Mostly low-income and students of color).

How to visit

You may have a slew of your own questions, but feel free to borrow any of these.

  1. Do students write?  How much do they write?  How many drafts are students typically asked to do? And what does typical student writing look at particular grade levels?
  2.  Are students regularly asked to provide evidence for an argument in most of their courses? Can you see this in what students are asked to do for homework?  How are students supported to develop these habits in math, social studies, social studies, English and science? And how are they graded in these courses? 
  3. Does the school have a focus on character development?  If so, how?  Does the school evaluate a student’s character? Again if so, how?
  4. How will I know if my student is not on grade level? What do you do if they are below grade level? Above?
  5. Where do most students from this school go to high school? College?
  6. What is your art program? Music? Athletics? We don’t think they have to offer everything under the sun, but should have some options—even if they are a club, after school program, etc.
  7. What does the school ask of its parents? How much homework should a student expect? Do they use packets? Is there a parent contract? What will I be invited to?

Visual observations

  1. What is on the walls in the halls and classrooms? Is it student work? If so, what is the quality? Does the school have mostly generic posters or sayings? Or are there more meaningful indicators of the schools mission and what students should know and do?
  2. One other critical indicator of a good school is the quality of the students’ bathrooms. This may seem relatively minor, but the truth is that you can tell a great deal about the culture of a school by visiting the student bathrooms. Are students treated with respect by having mirrors, working stalls with privacy, hand towels, toilet paper etc? Do students treat their bathrooms with respect?    Do students perceive their bathrooms as safe and clean?
  3. How do students and adults treat each other? Do they greet one another by name? Do adults treat students respectfully and vice versa?

In the classroom

  1. Are students engaged? How do you know?
  2. Are wrong answers corrected? Does the teacher ensure that all of the students understand how to arrive at an answer?
  3. Is the teacher a good communicator?
  4. What do students say about their work?  Is it challenging? If so, how?
  5. Does the structure fit your child’s style?
  6. What do they tell you their plans are after high school?

What not to insist on

One of the biggest mistakes that many parents make is wanting their student’s school to be good at everything rather than great at a few things. Schools should also be aware of the areas they are working to improve. Excellent schools are honest and transparently self-conscious about their strengths and weaknesses. If a school claims to be great in all academic areas, athletics, character development, etc., it is probably not.

There are more and more options available to parents and students than in past years. Hopefully this post will prove helpful. Good luck.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.