Choosing the Best School for Your Child

Published September 1, 2005

Thanks to the expansion of Ohio’s voucher program and a host of legislative victories for school choice reforms nationwide in 2005, more parents than ever before have additional options in helping meet their children’s educational needs this year.

But for some, making the most of those new options is a daunting task. To help parents navigate the process of selecting a school for their child, School Reform News asked experts in Washington, DC and Milwaukee–which both have operational voucher programs–what parents need to do to find the best non-public school for their child.

Knowing What You Want

1. Decide what you want in a school. “What is a good school to you? The answer is different for every family,” explained Linda Armstrong, a family/school/community advocate at the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

“Do you just want a school that is close to home?” Armstrong suggests parents ask themselves. “What are your child’s interests? Project yourself into the future. What do you see your children doing in 15 years? What do they see themselves doing? Then ask what needs to be done today to achieve that. A doctor or a lawyer needs to be a good reader, so a strong reading program should be on your list.”

2. Name the specifics. “We encourage parents to consider what actually makes something good,” Armstrong said. “If good teachers make a school good, what makes a good teacher? Is it one who listens to students? If so, what might prevent a teacher from listening well? Too many students in one classroom might prevent good listening.”

Parents who complete exercises such as the one described above, Armstrong said, are prepared to choose a school based on specific criteria, rather than abstract ideas.

3. Consider the amenities. Parents also should consider what potential schools offer outside the classroom. Jennifer Brown, chief program officer for the Washington Scholarship Fund, says parents should consider location, transportation, extracurricular tutoring, and enrichment programs such as sports teams, a yearbook program, or the arts.

Families also should factor in the cost of those activities, if they are not included in the tuition.

Doing the Legwork

4. Consult resources. Brown often recommends families visit the Central Assessment Referral and Evaluation (CARE) center–an organization in Washington, DC that offers testing for students with disabilities or unique challenges. Local parent organizations such as D.C. Parents for Choice hold meetings for current and prospective choice program parents to discuss the process of finding a school and ensuring success for their children.

In Wisconsin, Armstrong recommends parents sign up for one-on-one help sessions; read materials such as “Choosing a School For Your Child,” a pamphlet distributed by the U.S. Department of Education; and talk to parents whose children are enrolled in the program.

5. Interview schools that meet your criteria. Armstrong suggests parents visit prospective schools during a regular school day. “If you have to take a day off without pay, do it,” she said. “Nothing will give you a better idea of the environment your children will be in than experiencing it yourself.”

On the visit, parents should note the interaction between teachers and students, the style of instruction–structured versus Montessori-style learning, for example–and the religious or spiritual instruction, if any. “You are the expert on your child, and only you know what the best setting is for him,” Armstrong explained. “Parents are empowered when dollars follow their children, and they should examine schools like a potential purchase.”

Developing a Relationship

6. Maintain a strong partnership with your chosen school. Brown cautions parents against expecting private school policies and procedures to match those found in public schools. “Most have an application process. That could include an assessment test, shadowing, screening, and meeting with parents,” she said. Parents should know the school’s policies and procedures and comply with them.

Finally, Armstrong said, “Once you have found that good school, don’t be a hands-off parent. Continue to ask questions and stay involved.”

Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

For more information …

For more information on the CARE Center, contact Gayle Hall, D.C. Public Schools Liaison, Private-Religious Programs, c/o Shaw Junior High School, 925 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington DC 20001; phone 202/671-0800.

“Choosing a School For Your Child,” the U.S. Department of Education pamphlet, is available online at