7 Factors Great Schools Have in Common
Education experts rank the factors that matter when rating a school.
Whether anxiously preparing for kindergarten, new to the area or looking to change schools, deciding the best educational fit for your child can be overwhelming and time-consuming. My son started kindergarten this year. I spent many late nights scouring the Internet about curriculum standards, schools and how extracurricular activities create neural pathways in the brain that lead to more success in the classroom. To keep the bags from under your eyes and carpal tunnel at bay, I’ve teamed up with local and national education experts to give us the skinny on schools.
Identifying Factors of a Great School
Three leading education experts — Suzanne Cormier, Rachel Hunt and Dianna Terrell — have weighed in on school must-haves. Following are their collective, professional opinions, ranked from most to least important, on what identifying factors matter when rating a school.
No. 1: Parental involvement.
When schools are open and supportive, more parents tend to be involved. High parental involvement is a good indication that the school recognizes how engaging parents equates to more success in the classroom.
“Parental involvement at school signals parental involvement at home and shows peer value,” says Terrell, a former high school history teacher that teaches education policy at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire; and author of “Schooling Our Kids,” a blog that examines and teaches readers about curriculum standards and education reform.
Charlotte School Search co-founder Rachel Hunt agrees. “Parental involvement makes a huge difference in how children do in schools and how schools function,” she says “because the PTA helps raise money for the school to fund extras outside of the county budget.”
No. 2: School leaders’ records.
School leaders’ track records are highly valuable tools that show credentials and experience, however that information should be held in comparison to how teachers and other parents feel about his or her actions.
A really great school has a collaborative mentality, Terrell says. “It’s not just credentials but how the teachers regard their leader – do they work well with teachers – you need to find out the word on the street,” she says.
Hunt, who also is a family law attorney and supports teacher understanding of legislation through TruthforTeachers.org, says this is very important when considering a charter school. “People need to be careful with charter schools, it’s run by a board of directors and there’s not a lot of oversight to how state funding is used,” she says.
No. 3: Curriculum.
College is in the back of every parent’s mind and Hunt thinks parents should be aware of their child’s passions and potential, and allow that to transpire into what they are doing in and around school.
Science labs are must-haves on everyone’s list, and high school students should be on the right educational track for their long-term goals. Be aware, however, of placing unnecessary pressures on young students, says Suzanne Cormier, a educator for 25 years, former guidance counselor and a current adjunct professor of educational psychology at Winthrop University.
“If you are a parent of a younger child, be careful and know the right fit for your kid,” Cormier says. “I am so much more concerned about social and emotional development of the child.”
“You have to make learning authentic,” Terrell says. “Answer ‘why do we have to learn this?’ by quality teaching through real-world applications.” A well-rounded curriculum should already include different ways of learning, she says. “A school should value kids’ need to run around and move and learn in other ways.”
No 4: Type of school.
Charlotte has many school options — magnet, charter, Montessori, private and public — but families are often limited by income, neighborhood and transportation options. Know your budget, distance you’re willing to travel, and start researching while your child is in preschool, Cormier says. “The earlier, the better … it takes time to research schools and know the difference.”
No. 5: Extracurricular activities.
Quality over quantity, plus a variety — not just sports, also music, drama, art and foreign language, Hunt says.
Cormier believes this is extra special when parents volunteer to teach after-school classes based on their expertise, adding another layer of parental involvement. Extracurricular activities are a good bonus, but parents don’t have to only rely on schools to provide these experiences. Many programs are offered through churches, parks and recreation, YMCA and other nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
No. 6: Technology.
This could be summed up as a necessary evil, according to Cormier, Hunt and Terrell, but each is disillusioned with it as a constant classroom companion.
“It’s (technology) important and you can’t get away from it,” Cormier says, “but it’s all about teacher training and using it appropriately.” Terrell agrees, and believes that excess technology without proper teacher training takes away from its meaningful use.
No 7: Test scores.
“Test scores should be taken with a grain of salt – it’s a snapshot of one day and time,” Hunt says. All three experts agree that test scores should be reviewed and compared to previous years to look for patterns of growth and decline, but that testing has become a stress-laden and inaccurate analysis of a school’s overall performance.
“It’s one measure of students’ learning and not a complete profile,” Cormier says. “The efficiency of test scores undervalues the socio-economic level of the school.”
“Test scores can cause cuts to recess and music and arts program for more time for test preparations,” Terrell says, “which takes away from what scientist say matters with neurological and physiological development.”
Crystal O’Gorman is a freelance writer who lives in Indian Land, S.C. with her husband Ryan and her children, Mikey, 4, and Bella, 2.