We live in a world driven to perfection.
We work out to get the perfect body, to fit into the perfect outfit, to attract the perfect mate, with whom we will build a perfect life.
So it makes sense that when we have children, we try to make their lives perfect as well. When it comes to choosing the perfect school, things can get a little confusing. That's because schools come in many shapes and sizes and operate from a variety of philosophies.
"I started thinking about schools when Jason was just a little baby," said Julie, a mother of five school-aged children. "I listened to other families describe their choices and got more and more confused. They all liked their schools, but for very different reasons. Which one was right?"
Choosing the best school for your child is one of the most important decisions your family can make. Happily, today's parents have more choices than ever, with charter schools, private schools and public schools of choice. Yet all the variety, and competing sales pitches, can make the choice confusing.
"The best possible educational experience will focus on five fundamental goals," writes school psychologist Brandi Roth, Ph.D. in her book Choosing the Right School for Your Child. "These will be helpful to keep in mind as you evaluate the different schools available to you." The five goals:
All families want these things for their children. But the priority given to any one area varies from family to family. That's why before you begin a school search, you will need to sit down and decide what kind of learning experience you want for your child. To do that, you need to assess your child's personality and learning styles, your family's values, and your relationship to your community.
Start your school search by thinking about what you want a school to do for your child. After all, you know your son or daughter better than anyone else does.
First, think about your child's personality. Does he thrive on exploration and responsibility? An open school or alternative school might be best. Does she need close supervision and a highly structured environment? Then a more traditional school may be a better fit.
Another factor to consider is your child's learning experiences up until now. Do you find that she is easily bored at preschool or religious education because she learns more quickly than others? She may need a very rigorous and challenging academic program to keep her stimulated. Or does she struggle to keep up with her peers? You will want a school with a very strong commitment to helping all students learn, and which has the resources to offer extra help. The best schools will build on your child's strengths and be able to help with any difficulties.
Finally, how does your child respond to large and small groups? Some kids "fall through the cracks" in large schools, because they need more attention to succeed. Others thrive on the variety and stimulation a larger school offers.
When Karen moved to a new city, everyone she talked to recommended one particular school system as "the best."
"We checked it out, and instead picked a smaller school, whose values and lifestyles matched our own," Karen said. "The other system had high test scores and lots of programs, but the kids also had too much money, too much time, and too much pressure to compete. That's not what our family is about."
List in a notebook the values and character traits you most want to see developed in your child. Your list may include things like "kindness," "honesty," "ambition," "discipline" or "faith." Then keep those values in mind as you look at schools and talk to teachers there. You will want to watch for a school that will work with you to develop those values and characteristics in your child.
Children learn better when their school is supported by a strong community--a group of adults who know each other and work together to help all children succeed. If you have many friends who live near your home, a neighborhood school can be especially good. For other families, though, their religious group may be their most important community. In that case, it makes sense to look at a parochial or church-based school.
Still others find their social and community ties in other ways.
"My son found school very easy, and tended to relax a little too much about learning," said Bill, father of children in both the fourth and seventh grades. "We found that when we enrolled him in a school where the principal was a real stickler for discipline and hard work, he found the motivation he needed."
Bill reports that his son now has a group of friends who like to compete with one another academically. They all challenge each other to work hard. He plans to make a different choice, though, for his daughter.
"Kaylee wouldn't be happy there," Bill said. "She is much more laid back and creative. She needs space to explore, and she thrives on lots of attention and feedback from her teachers."
In short, finding the “perfect” school means finding a school that might look different from the one your neighbors or relatives choose. It also means regularly re-examining what you want and need in a school. And it requires you to check in with your children on a regular basis to see how things are going.
”The key word in making a match of school and child is ‘best,’” writes Roth. “But the meaning of ‘best’ can change dramatically. What is best for your child at elementary level might not be useful at the secondary or college level. You will need to constantly re-evaluate your child’s program from kindergarten on.”
Be careful, though. Experts warn that too many school changes can be unhealthy for children, who benefit from stability and solid relationships. Sometimes, it’s wiser to give the school a chance to improve, while you work closely with teachers and principals to find solutions.
In the end, finding the best school match may mean giving up the idea of perfection and learning to make the best of even imperfect opportunities. Don’t fret about what you can’t afford; work hard to turn what is available into a bright beginning for your child.
Alexander Graham Bell’s reported willingness to search out the path less taken resulted in some of the world’s most important inventions, like telephones and phonographs. His ability to believe in the impossible has served the world well.
Bell once said: “When one door closes, another door opens. But we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which opened for us.”
Parents believe the impossible every day when they take on the task of raising their kids. So as you search down many paths for the “perfect” school, take along your hopes, your dreams and your checklists of ideal qualities. Just be sure you watch for Bell’s “open doors.” That way you won’t miss the marvelous opportunities that may surprise you.
Linda Wacyk is the mother of four children who have attended a variety of private and public schools over the past 18 years.
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