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

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.