Picking a School? Start here.
It’s not easy deciding where your child should go to school. Here are some ways that local education experts recommend focusing your search.
Know the options.
Charlotte is home to a surprising array of private and public schools, including numerous magnet and charter schools—privately run, publicly funded schools that have flexibility in academic programming. Narrow your options by searching for information online, suggests Mary Jane Freeman, an educational consultant at the Davidson Center in Davidson. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ website (cms.k12.nc.us) provides the basics on your home school, such as school size and the number of teachers with advanced degrees, as well as descriptions of magnet programs at other schools that you can apply to. For charter school choices, check out the State Board of Education’s Office of Charter Schools (dpi.state.nc.us/charterschools). Explore the individual websites of private schools to find out what they offer. Keep in mind that most top-tier private schools have an admissions process and may require extensive evaluation of children before they are admitted.
Do some groundwork.
After you’ve identified possible prospects, attend open houses or arrange tours of the schools you’re interested in. “Take time to get the feel of a school community,” says John C. Huie, an educational consultant with offices in Charlotte and Asheville. “Look for principals, deans, headmasters, teachers, counselors, and coaches who love what they are doing and who genuinely love kids. You do this by talking with teachers, sitting in on classes, and eating in the school dining room with students.”
Ask “What is the best fit for my child?”
“The question I hate to hear is, ‘Is that a good school?’” says Huntersville-based educational consultant Kimberly Davis. “The better question is, ‘Is that a good school for my child and our family?’ It depends on each family and each child.” Some children function better in small classes, she says. For others it’s important to go to school with the kid next door. Some parents want a strong athletics program or a particular social fit. Most important is the academic fit. For instance, “If a school has an accelerated curriculum, you need to ask yourself if your child can handle that,” Freeman says. A Montessori approach, which emphasizes independence, may not be the best choice for a child who functions better with lots of structure.
Don’t assume that private school is better.
Yes, private schools generally have smaller classes and they send proportionately more kids to the Ivy League. But “there is always a trade-off,” Davis says. “When you attend a private school, you’re giving up going to school with neighborhood friends, for the most part. And for some kids it can mean a half hour or forty-five minutes to get to private school.” It can also mean a lack of racial and ethnic diversity. And if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or has behavioral issues, your private options narrow dramatically. “By law, public schools have to assist children with learning differences,” Freeman says. At the middle and high school levels, many large public schools are able to offer more athletic opportunities and a greater variety of courses.
Don’t overlook a private school because you think you can’t afford it.
“There is financial aid for most private schools,” Davis says. “It’s not huge or guaranteed, but it’s worth applying for. It can certainly help.”
Consider nonacademic criteria.
That includes extracurricular activities and clubs and even factors like time devoted to exercise. “I’m convinced that kids up to grade 12 should have an hour a day of PE,” Freeman says. “Believe it or not, there is a stronger positive correlation between time spent on physical activity and test performance than there is between homework time and test performance.”
Evaluate your child’s needs over time.
Parents should pay attention to signs that something is not working, such as, “if a child is not happy, is not able to keep up, or is bored and looking for more challenge,” Huie says. Talk to other parents, teachers, and outside consultants. Don’t act too quickly to make a change, he advises, but be ready and willing to leave a school when it becomes clear that your child simply is not thriving. “Some children need to buckle down where they are and persevere. Others may need a different kind of challenge or may need to make new friends,” he says. “The key is for parents to always be paying attention and ready to make changes when things are not working.”