Public? Private? Who Cares?

Starting just about a week ago, millions of parents across the nation began finding out whether months of applying, IQ tests, posturing, maneuvering and hand-wringing in the attempt to get their young ones into their schools of choice were successful or not.

And with few exceptions, at some point during that period, many of those parents engaged in a heated debate over the age-old question of public school versus private education. The last argument I had – with a die hard public school devotee - was intense enough to maybe even damage a friendship. That’s because it was a ridiculous conversation.

Let’s get to the bottom line here. Arguing the merits of one educational system over another – public vs. private, suburban vs. urban, parochial v. home schooling, is a road to disaster and the setup for a decision based on absolutely the wrong set of questions. The fact is, your child will not attend a school system, he or she will attend an individual school, with individual teachers and individual administrators, and the effectiveness of that combination can vary wildly from school to school.

In every city there are pockets of excellence in public schools and hotbeds of hype in the private world. The act of paying tuition is no more a guarantee of quality than free is a promise of mediocrity. It’s far more complicated than that.

A careful parent should be looking at any number of factors before making such an important decision. To be sure, some factors fall to the favor of one system or the other, but it is the sum total you must evaluate and determine what makes the most sense for who your child is, and who you want your child to be.

Whether public or private, no one school fits all. Even in the same family, siblings may have different personalities and varied ways of learning. Location, convenience, prestige may have some bearing on your decision, but ultimately you may find the best school for your unique child’s learning style has none of those things.

Think of the child first, not your bragging rights, and then follow this list to get you started on a good decision.

PhilosophyMuch more important that public, private, grades or reputation is a school’s philosophy of education, and whether that philosophy matches yours. In a nutshell, you should ask and expect a clear answer to the question: “How do you think children learn best?”

Most of us are trained to expect a mastery of fundamentals early on and judge a school’s effectiveness by that standards. But increasingly there are highly effective schools who believe a mastery of concepts and meaning should come before the standards. In other words, knowing what “2” and “4” really are is more important than just remembering 2 + 2 = 4. Other schools think play is a critical learning tool. Others get down to the basic right away. Know which camp you’re in.

Teacher Ratio.

A lower number of students per teacher (for example, less than 20-1) is not an absolute determination of a school’s strength, but it does mean your child is likely to get a bit more personal attention if they require it. Better schools will enforce a limit on this ratio.

Parent Involvement Does a school welcome parents into the classroom as active partners in education, or do they just want you to sign the homework and give a gift to the auction? Sure, you may not have the time make costumes, build volcanoes and babysit a hermit crab. But if you’re not being asked frequently, there may be trouble afoot.

Likewise, how aggressively do parents involve themselves? Are parents working to make the school better or battling over distractions like parking spaces and drop-off rules? Can you attend a parents’ meeting before deciding?

Handling Extremes
How does a school assess whether some children are either ahead of the curve or behind it? What is their action plan once those children are identified? Does a school adjust or supplement curriculum based on achievement levels, or will it stick to the standards, leaving advanced children unchallenged and children who need assistance out of the loop?

Boys/Boys of Color If you want to make a school really nervous, ask them what their record is regarding boys. Then specifically ask about Black boys. Boys of all stripes have off the chart energy levels that if not addressed actively can result in class disruption at best and at worst, kids being pegged as troublemakers or troubled learners unfairly. This a particular issue when the boys are black.

Look for male role models in the school, particularly outside of PE teachers and the head janitor. Ask teachers if they are parents who have boys. Ask for a list of past parents or check Mommy listens to see what experience people have had on the issue.

If you’re at a majority white school, you may not want to seem like the potentially angry Black parent, but asking the question up front puts administrators on notice that it’s a concern and your child will not be considered a disciplinary case for being a normal boy.

Engagement If you’re looking at a school that goes K-8 or K-12, don’t limit your visit to the lower school. Pay special attention to grades 6-8, the hormonal years. Are the kids in the classrooms still engaged, or do you see the dull eyes of pimple angst? If children at this age appear to still be excited about learning, you’re in a good place.

Knowledge of StudentsInsist on a school tour, preferably with the principal or admissions director, and while school is in session. Watch closely. Does your guide know students’ names? Are the kids speaking to the principal unprovoked, or is there fear in their faces? Schools are reflections of their leader. When walking the halls, does the school’s leader seem like the head of a family or a herder of cats?

Don’t be shy about asking a school to explain how they correct disruption and conflict, whether initiated by your child or others. Ask also about bullying. A school should be an oasis from a crazy world, not a reflection of one.

How do teachers communicate with parents, and vice versa. What’s the system they have in place to facilitate that communication? E-mail? Newsletters? A note that will get lost in a backpack?

You also want to know what information is being communicated. Preferably teachers are using most of the communication to give you guides to reinforce what’s being taught in class.

Culture and Community How does a school’s culture facilitate the building of a concerned and active parent community. At one school I know, it is standard for parents to walk children to their lockers each morning and not leave until they are safely greeted by the teacher. Cellphones are also banned. It forces parents to stop, slow down and make a final, sometimes critical connection with children before they start the day. It also provides time to bond with other parents, see how children interact with classmates, stay informed and address any concerns with teachers face to face.

On the student level, do kids seem safe, happy and well adjusted? Are children in the lower schools exposed to older children and difficult concepts too early or are kids encouraged to remain kids as long as possible?

The Path
A school is not a destination but part of a journey. Where does the school you pick lead your child toward a desired goal? What middle schools or high schools does it feed into? Where have its graduates been accepted? Beyond the fundamentals, what kind of broad experiences and values will your child be exposed to on their journey.

Those questions are a good start, but ultimately a child’s education is your responsibility. If you plan to drop your child at the door and get back a genius at the end of day, you will be disappointed in any choice you make. The best education begins – and continues – at home.

When Picking a School for Your Child
By Eric Easter