When my oldest son was in the fourth grade, he had a miserable school year. We had just moved to a new state and our new house had been chosen in part due to the excellent reputation of the schools there. I had every expectation that my son would have a happy school year, but he did not. It turned out that I had been looking for the wrong things. I assumed the best school could be found by looking for awards and high test scores. Eventually, I realized that the best school for us needed to have more to offer than high standardized test scores.
I knew my son was unhappy, but I didn’t have a true appreciation for how much the school had affected him until the summer after fourth grade. Early that summer, my son attended a football camp at a local private school. That first day, I remember watching him walk to the car. He was bright, happy, confident – he was his old self. I knew then that we had to make a change. I wanted my son to look bright, happy, and confident everyday.
That summer I began a new search for the best school for my son and his siblings. This time I took into account more than test scores. This time I looked for things like academic culture, social culture, and what I called availability of opportunities.
My husband and I wanted our kids to attend a school that would provide them with an excellent education. The kind of education that enlightens as well as opens doors to any college they might want to attend. High standardized test scores can be an indicator of a good standardized education, but they are not an indicator of an enlightening education. We wanted our kids to have a mind expanding education – the kind of education that provokes questions and thoughts you never thought before.
We looked for that type of an education by searching for schools that sent kids on to the best colleges of course, but we also looked for schools that had faculty members who were passionate about their subjects, who had degrees in their subject matter rather than simply a teaching degree. We noticed some schools had beautiful libraries that served as the center of the academic life of the school while other schools had virtually no library at all. We believe a library is crucial to academic growth and personal enlightenment.
The culture of a school can be tricky to identify. We wanted a school that valued excellence, kindness, and civility which are values that we try to instill in our children. Sometimes a vision or mission statement can indicate if a school’s culture is in alignment with your family’s personal values, but a visit to the school is the best way to determine a school’s culture. We looked for students who were relaxed and engaged in their classes, we looked for how they spoke to one another and to us. We also looked for how well maintained the campus was – a clean and tidy campus indicated to us a campus full of respectful students.
For me, the moment that had the most impact our decision, went all the way back to that summer football camp our oldest son attended. As I waited in the car, I overheard the coach talking with the young campers, and I was impressed. He was firm, but kind, while still being motivational and uplifting – plus he clearly knew his stuff. I remembered thinking that if the football program was that good, the rest of the school must be really impressive too.
Availability of Opportunity
One of the things that really bothered me about my son’s 4th grade school was that it was much too crowded. Not having experienced an overcrowded school before, I never gave the ramifications of overcrowding much thought, but I found overcrowding to be a significant hindrance to an excellent education. Not simply because the class sizes were too big, but because too many kids meant too many kids for everything. For every single extra-curricular activity, there were more kids who wanted to try it than there were spots available.
I wanted my kids to be able to experiment and figure out who they were and what they liked. So, at school visits, we asked questions about how many kids are typically cut from teams or music events and we asked if the philosophy of the school was to win or to teach and inspire kids to like a new sport or activity. We chose the school that valued instruction in the younger years and then winning as the kids got older.
We discovered that smaller schools paradoxically offered more opportunities. Smaller schools sometimes have to recruit students to a sport so they can fill out a complete roster while bigger schools have to make cuts to their rosters. Over the years our kids have been asked to play sports and do activities that we never would have predicted, and they have stretched and grown as a result.
We did finally find the best school for our kids. It was a long search, but it was worth the effort. I wouldn’t say our kids came home every day bright, happy, and confident, but they definitely graduated feeling that way which made every sacrifice worth it to my husband and me.
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Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, a teacher-librarian, and a mom of four almost grown kids. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student where her goal is helping parents to keep family life a priority and school success in perspective. Her work has been featured in On Parenting from the Washington Post, Grown and Flown, Perfection Pending, and Today Parents.