- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

There once was a time when Robin Fetsch bypassed her neighborhood school in favor of sending her children to private school. That was more than a decade ago. Since then, Mrs. Fetsch has looked closer at what is going on at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, and she says she likes what she sees. Her sons graduated from St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria in the 1990s, but daughter Katy, 17, is thriving at Stuart.

“Like any parent, I want to find the best opportunity,” says Mrs. Fetsch, whose daughter is starting her senior year as one of the top students in her class. “Now I am a huge fan of the school.”

Mrs. Fetsch says she is comfortable with her daughter’s education because she took the time to look inside the school. Her advocacy is well-known; she will serve as president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association this school year.

Standardized test scores and neighborhood gossip tell only part of a school’s story. The recipe for making a school “good” is usually more complex than a number. The ingredients should include everything from whether teachers are well-versed in their subject matter to how much time parents spend at the school to whether the principal makes families feel welcome, says Robert Pianta, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

“Parents often grab one issue and shake it,” Mr. Pianta says. “It is easy to do, but you have to balance it and keep your eye on the bigger picture. Then you will be able to make a more reasoned evaluation of schools.”

It is also important to keep in mind that if parents are looking for a “perfect” school, they are in for a long search, says Erika V. Shearin Karres, a longtime educator and author of several books, including “A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child’s Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence.”

“There is no such thing as a perfect school or a perfect student,” Ms. Karres says. “There is such a thing as the perfect school community. It is a combination of working together that can be perfect.”

A quick perusal of the Web site of your state’s department of education or local school district can give you a few bits of basic information about your neighborhood school.

Parents can find the total enrollment of the school, the racial breakdown and the number of students who receive free or reduced lunches, which can be an indicator of poverty.

Standardized test scores usually are posted, along with a comparison to the state average and a record of the progress the school has made in the past few years.

GreatSchools Inc., a nonprofit group based in California (www.GreatSchools.net), is also a good place to start a school search.

The site has the above basic information about every public school in the country, says GreatSchools’ senior editor Lisa Rosenthal. It also invites parents to post reviews of their children’s schools, and it offers checklists for parents to take with them when visiting a potential school.

“This is a starting place,” she says. “You can find whatever you are looking for, but then they need to visit in person.”

The size of the school, along with student-teacher ratios, should be taken into account, Mr. Pianta says. However, how the school is organized and how it copes with large numbers of students also should be examined, he says.

“There is some evidence that suggests that the optimal size for a high school is from 1,000 to 1,500 students,” Mr. Pianta says. “Once a school is bigger than that, the challenge becomes: ‘How do you create a community within that school?’ However, a school can have 3,500 kids — it is how they deal with it that is important. Look for schools that organize themselves into smaller units or communities.”

In addition to the size of the school, statistics can include the racial and ethnic breakdown of the students who attend the school. That does not mean that a school with primarily minority students should be dismissed, says Zattura Sims-El, community liaison for the Education Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit education advocacy group.

“Saying a school is in a ‘bad neighborhood’ is an excuse that has been used for years to not educate children who are poor,” she says. “All those cliches are used to not educate children to higher levels. The energy should be spent to do what is required, which is teach.”

Mr. Pianta says the ethnic breakdown should be looked at only to determine if the school is a place where your child and your family feel they belong. More important than the ethnic breakdown is the idea that enough other families are concerned about the same things as you, such as getting a student into a good college, he says.

“One important thing is that parents have a sense of similar goals for their kids — socially, psychologically and academically,” he says. “You want to have a certain percentage of kids like your kids and parents like you.”

Mrs. Fetsch admits she was quick to dismiss her local high school a decade ago when she felt Fairfax County wasn’t doing enough to keep up with the growing needs of students for whom English was not their first language.

The school system has since instituted more programs to handle various learning needs, and Mrs. Fetsch says she has come to appreciate the diversity.

Stuart High is similar to many high schools in the diverse Washington area, with a student body that is 29 percent white, 37 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian and 11 percent black. Nearly half of the students at Stuart receive free or reduced lunch.

“Statistics like free and reduced lunch are meaningless, in my opinion,” Mrs. Fetsch says. “There are students at Stuart from 68 different countries, but my daughter is totally comfortable. One thing that has struck me as we have gone through the school system is that the teachers and administrators are so caring about all these kids from other countries.”

Meanwhile, test scores have a place — but not the only place — in a school’s profile.

In this era of No Child Left Behind — the 2001 federal legislation that is aimed at making schools more accountable — schools are under great pressure to show what the students know and how much progress the school has made, Ms. Sims-El says.

However, parents should keep the reason for testing in perspective, she says. Standardized testing is not meant to assess just the students, but also the teachers, the curriculum and how schools can improve.

“Parents are beginning to understand that test scores are part of a bigger picture,” Ms. Sims-El says. “Children cannot learn what teachers don’t know how to teach.”

Mr. Pianta says testing is a good way to figure out which students need extra help. Testing often looks at the lowest common denominator as it tries to get “a concentration of students over a fairly low bar,” he says.

“What it does not tell you is about the quality of experiences the kids might have in getting over the bar or the quality of their education,” Mr. Pianta says. “Schools that focus on tests too much might miss the depth of educational opportunities.”

He says what parents should be investigating is how schools prepare for the tests.

“You should find out how much of school life is shaped around test scores,” Mr. Pianta says.

For Dianne Torresen, mother of a second-grader and a fourth-grader at Janney Elementary in Northwest, test scores are at the bottom of her school concerns.

“It is not even a factor,” she says. “I think on all levels, there is way too much importance put on them.”

The intangibles

There is plenty to learn about a school that can’t be tallied by a computer or worked into state statistics. One of the most important: parental involvement.

“A successful school, whether urban or suburban, has strong parental involvement,” Ms. Sims-El says.

Parental involvement can take many forms — from organized parents groups to open communication with the teachers. The bottom line is that parents should feel welcome at the school, Mr. Pianta says.

“They should be approached and greeted when they come to school,” he says. “They should be allowed access to classrooms if they want it.”

When checking out a school, ask about different ways to get involved, Ms. Karres says. She advises a visit to a PTSA or other parents’ group meeting.

“Look at the membership,” she says. “If it is active, then it means parents care. If it is two ladies sitting and griping about the principal, then that is another story.”

Other ways to gauge a school:

• Who works there?

A good vibe starts with the principal, Ms. Karres says.

“If he or she is accessible and user-friendly, then the school is already 75 percent looking good,” she says. “The principal is your conduit, your line back and forth between what is going on in the school.”

When meeting with the principal, ask about the teachers. A high turnover rate is a red flag, Ms. Karres says. Ask why they left. Ask how many are nationally certified and how many are teaching out of their area of expertise.

• Who goes there?

“At an elementary school, you should have some sense that the children are happy,” Mr. Pianta says. “You want to hear a moderate amount of noise. This shows that kids are happy and engaged. At the high school level, you want to find out if a certain number of children like yours go there.”

That means that high-achieving families should look at the school’s SAT scores and advanced-level offerings, Mr. Pianta says. If something like vocational education is important to you, ask other families involved in the program and see what the school is offering.

“See if enough kids are heading in the direction you want them to or if the school is the kind of place where you are going to make your own opportunities,” he says. “You want the opportunities to be the norm, not the exception.”

High school parents should look at where students go after graduation, Ms. Karres says. They also should ask about how a school handles discipline problems and crime. Inquire about everything from cyber-stalking to drugs to bullying, she says. If you want to take it a step further, check with the local police to see how many incidents have taken place on campus.

However, seeing with your own eyes is probably the best indicator, Ms. Karres says.

“Take one day a month and spend lunchtime at the school,” she says. “Eat with the teachers, talk with the students. See, listen and learn. It is a lot better than Googling that school and seeing if anyone ever tried to kill anyone.”

• What are they saying?

In any school district, there are going to be families with outstanding experiences and families who were disappointed. When asking around, listen to what everyone has to say — and then make your own decision, Mrs. Torresen says.

“Talking to other parents is a good thing, but you have to take it with a grain of salt,” she says. “I feel that every school experience is a certain mix of abilities, personalities and luck. There are all sorts of variables. Choosing a school is so personal.”

School checklist

Here are some things to take into consideration when checking out your local school:

School grounds

• Are the grounds safe, well-maintained and well-lighted?

• Are announcements posted about upcoming events? Are there school spirit and pride posters?

• Are notices posted about visitors signing in, no guns or drugs allowed?

• Are the halls and restrooms clean?

• Are student work and awards posted?

• Is the library well-stocked with books, computers and other materials? Have materials been added recently?

• Do you feel welcome when you enter the school?

Staff

• Is the principal friendly? Is it easy to get an appointment with him or her? Is he or she well-liked by the faculty?

• What is the teacher and principal turnover rate?

• Does the teacher provide a handout of goals at the start of the year?

• Does the teacher know the subject well? Is she or he certified in the subject? Can he or she engage students?

• How does the teacher deal with disruptions and discipline issues?

• Does the teacher praise the children in some way every day?

• Is the staff sensitive to families of different cultures and families undergoing stresses such as divorce?

• How much homework is given out?

• Does the teacher welcome input and communication with parents? Does she or he return phone calls or e-mail promptly?

Community

• Is there a PTSA or other parent organization? How active is it? What does it do?

• Is the community supportive? Does it rally around its schools and teachers? Do students and teachers want to spend extra time there, participating in extracurricular activities?

• Do the teachers’ and principal’s children attend schools in this system?

• What percentage of students go on to college? Which colleges? What is the dropout rate and attendance rate?

• In high school, are there chances to take Advanced Placement or other accelerated courses?

• What do other parents say about their experience at the school?

Sources: “A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child’s Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence,” by Erika V. Shearin Karres; GreatSchools.net, a nonprofit group based in California; National PTA.

MORE INFO

BOOKS —

• “A+ TEACHERS: HOW TO EMPOWER YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER, AND YOUR CHILD, TO EXCELLENCE,” BY ERIKA V. SHEARIN KARRES, ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING, 2003. THIS BOOK, BY A LONGTIME TEACHER, HAS CHECKLISTS OF WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SCHOOL AND IN A TEACHER.

• “DEBUNKING THE MIDDLE-CLASS MYTH: WHY DIVERSE SCHOOLS ARE GOOD FOR ALL KIDS,” BY EILEEN GALE KUGLER, SCARECROW EDUCATION, 2002. THIS BOOK, BY A LOCAL EDUCATOR, ADDRESSES THE MYTHS MANY PARENTS HAVE ABOUT WHAT MAKES A GOOD SCHOOL.

• “10 TRAITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCHOOLS: HOW YOU CAN KNOW IF YOUR SCHOOL IS A GOOD ONE,” BY ELAINE K. MCEWAN, SHAW BOOKS, 1999. THE AUTHOR TELLS PARENTS HOW TO GO BEYOND FUND RAISING AND REALLY GET INVOLVED IN THE WELL-BEING OF A SCHOOL.

ASSOCIATIONS —

NATIONAL PARENT TEACHER ASSOCIATION, 330 N. WABASH AVE., SUITE 2100, CHICAGO, IL 60611. PHONE: 800/307-4782. WEB SITE: WWW.PTA.ORG. THIS NATIONAL ORGANIZATION HAS ADVICE FOR PARENTS SEEKING TO BE MORE INVOLVED IN THEIR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION.

LOCAL RESOURCES —

THESE ORGANIZATIONS HAVE DETAILED INFORMATION ABOUT LOCAL SCHOOLS:

• D.C. PUBLIC SCHOOLS, 825 NORTH CAPITOL ST. NE, WASHINGTON, DC 20002. PHONE: 202/724-4222. WEB SITE: WWW.K12.DC.US/DCPS/HOME.HTML.

• VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, P.O. BOX 2120, RICHMOND, VA 23218. PHONE: 800/292-3820. WEB SITE: WWW.PEN.K12.VA.US.

• MARYLAND STATE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, 200 W. BALTIMORE ST., BALTIMORE, MD 21201. PHONE: 410/767-0600. WEB SITE: WWW.MARYLANDPUBLICSCHOOLS.ORG.

ONLINE

• FAMILYEDUCATION, (WWW.FAMILYEDUCATION.COM), A COMMERCIAL WEB SITE, HAS ARTICLES AND INFORMATION FOR PARENTS OF STUDENTS AT ALL LEVELS.

• GREATSCHOOLS (WWW.GREATSCHOOLS.NET), A NONPROFIT WEB SITE, SHOWS TEST DATA, PARENTS’ COMMENTS AND DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION FOR EVERY PUBLIC SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY.


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