I just returned home from visiting my parents, and from spending an afternoon with my nephew and my niece. My niece has two young boys, and she was asking me about school choices. Should she investigate charter schools, or should she enroll her sons in neighborhood schools? What is the best choice? So, while I was driving home in bumper to bumper Bay Area traffic, I compiled a short list of basic considerations.
Visit the school site. Are students happy and engaged? Are they acknowledged by adults on the playground? How do they behave in the hall ways? Do the kids talk and interact with one another? Is the school climate friendly and positive?
Ask how much time the students receive for P.E. Then also ask about how much time they receive for music. At my school, students receive 45 minutes, twice a week, for each. It is important that students are actively taught both topics.
Ask how much time students receive for Social Studies and for Science instruction. These are the first areas to get cut in today's "testing happy" system. At one time, I was forbidden to teach these subjects, because "kids just need reading, language, and math to excel at the test". Be wary if you are told that these subjects will be imbedded in the reading program. That is wonderful, but Science and Social Studies need to be explicitly taught, as well.
On your school visit, observe how students are treated by the office staff, and by the principal. Are the students known by name? Do teachers greet kids and say "hi" to them?
Is there interesting work on the walls in the hallways and classrooms? Do students create interesting art projects? Are the needs of kinesthetic learners being met? Or, do students complete worksheets, and seat work? In classrooms, are the desks in rows, groups, or do students sit at tables?
Will your student go on any field trips? If so, how many will there be, and how will they be chosen? One of the greatest tragedies of public school, is the lack of field trips. Money for buses is tight, and so some grades only get to go on one or two field trips per year. The learning that happens on field trips makes them extremely important. Not only is specific content covered, but also behavior, respect, and gratitude are learned.
How many students are in each classroom? Is the school overcrowded and unkempt? Will your child receive any attention, or too much attention?
If your child has special needs, will their needs be met? Is there adequate resource help? And, is there a school discipline plan, that factors in all manner of behaviors? I have worked at three schools, and only one of them actually has had a school-wide discipline plan. Trust me, your child may not need this plan at school, but it is guaranteed that his or her peers will. If this isn't in place, it disrupts learning and teaching for everyone.