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10 ways to identify the best school for your child

By SchoolJunction

One of the biggest challenges and responsibilities that almost all parents will face at least once in their lives is to choose an appropriate K-12 school for their child. Parents whose work requires them to move to different places every few years (e.g. example those in the civil or diplomatic service) will face this challenge multiple times and be presented with another difficult choice: should they send their ward to a boarding school in the interests of stability and bear the heartbreak and repercussions of being away from their child for the major part of the latter’s formative years- or vice-versa. If they decide to not send their child to a boarding school, they will have to deal with having to uproot the child from a school he/she may have learnt to love and become comfortable with and break their associated circle of friends every few years. Such uprooting could have a negative impact on the child’s personality development and foster insecurity and aggressive behavior.

In this article, we will attempt to understand the factors to watch out for while choosing a school and things to consider. Every child is different. The same holds true for the home environment and parents. The weight of these factors differ for different people, but the general advice is to gauge what would be in the child’s interests both in terms of sustained happiness of the child during their tender and formative years and long-term development.

Some factors- like budget and location are no-brainers. It is not possible to send a child to a school that is simply unaffordable or to one that is so far away that the commute time reduces the child’s at-home time to a psychologically and physiologically unhealthy level. Accordingly we shall not be dwelling on factors like these in this article. Rather we shall attempt to discuss factors that represent a real choice, often difficult to make. Here are the top ten factors that should be taken into account while choosing the “best” school for your child, arranged in no particular order:

1. The school’s mission statement/ value principle and its alignment with the parents’ value system

It is very important to understand the tenets that a school places emphasis on while imparting education and whether those tenets are orthogonal to your own behavior or the values that you will be reinforcing in your child at home. This factor is often overlooked but the result is devastating to the child as the mental confusion it leads to is overwhelming. For example, it maybe that a school you are evaluating places emphasis on the “simple-living-high thinking” principle and practices the same by not providing students with unnecessary creature comforts. Great, but unless you are prepared to reinforce that quality in the child at home by possibly not inundating him with every toy he/she craves in lieu of spending quality time and effort interacting with your child, it is probably not a great idea to choose such a school unless you are prepared to alter and reform your ways to align them better with the school’s principles.

2. The demographic dispersion represented by the school’s students

The economic strata, values and mindset that the school’s median student population represents are actually a proxy for the social demographic segment of these students’ parents. The school’s student body becomes a microcosm of their parents’ world and society. Parents need to understands this demographic and judge for themselves its impact on their ward when the latter is dropped into this microcosm. Is he going to hit the ground hard, or have the parents provided him with a parachute to ensure a safe landing? If you are a government employee with a fixed salaried income and are planning to send your child to school largely populated by children of political personalities, rich industrialists and businesspeople – common sense will tell you that your child is going to be as comfortable there as a fish out of water- unless the value system indoctrinated/imbued into him at that point provides a solid shield of confidence and self-esteem when faced with such imbalances. Else you would be decidedly inviting trouble in the form of poor self-image and an inferiority complex. It may not be possible to retrofit the required value system a posteriori in such situations.

3. Emphasis on personality development

Parents need to understand what concrete steps a prospective school takes in order to boost its student’s confidence, ethical values and social skills as a part of day to day activities, not just the annual cultural program or fest. Some schools even make it mandatory for all its students to participate to the extent of their abilities in activities like elocution, debate and group discussions. However, many take the traditional route of making participation voluntary where the students that end up participating are anyway those that have type-A personalities or are otherwise bold or gregarious. Steer clear of such institutions.

4. Emphasis on physical development

The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. The reason that the phrase “a healthy mind in a healthy body” is clichéd is because it just happens to be one of those universal truths. Together with sports comes another invaluable bonus- the quality of sportsmanship. It is really important to see whether the school provides facilities for different kind of sports (and especially those that your ward may be interested in) and the emphasis they place on sports in their teaching practice. Academics often gets a natural advantage, especially in competition-intensive countries like India – so a school’s overt emphasis on sports is actually a good thing in India – it shows that the school recognizes the need to balance the academic with the physical and is making conscious efforts to achieve this balance in their curriculum.

5. Progressiveness demonstrated by teaching methods and style

Parents need to educate themselves about various new techniques and teaching methods that are gaining ground in today’s world. The class of today is far removed from the classroom that the parents went to when they were children. For instance, signs of progressiveness could be a de-emphasis on learning by rote as compared to actually understanding a concept, use of audio/visual or computer based learning aids, less homework or books to carry home, no formal exams in lower grades like K-6 and personalized teaching and attention to each child based on his/her learning style e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic etc. Schools that practice progressive methods like these should rank high in parents’ list of preferred schools.

6. Performance in a standardized test such as the ICSE or CBSE Board Exams (for India)

In countries like India, dropping out of school for average middle or higher class children is really not a practical option if their economic condition allows them to complete K-12 schooling at the very least. It is of importance to understand where they would likely measure up against the competition once they finish school. Performance in school finishing exams for K-10 high schools (like ICSE, CBSE) and secondary education K-12 schools (like ISC) as measured over several years is an excellent indicator of where you may expect your ward to score. The same holds for performance in post schooling competitive exams in India like the IIT-JEE, LSAT, CPMT, AIEEE etc. If you believe that your ward will be studying beyond K-6 in the school you are selecting for admission, this is a factor that should be given priority in the child’s long-term career interests.

7. Facilities for extracurricular talent development

Every person has at least one hidden talent, and it is in civic society’s best interest if talents are identified as early as possible in an individual’s development, nurtured and put to good use. Given that the school is going to be a place where children are going to spend a great deal of their time, it is essential that the school provides the facilities necessary for adequate talent discovery and development. This means explicitly setting aside a significant chunk of time every week for such activities, having a well-trained staff with a range of specialties to offer from archery to fine-arts to theatre to music to sculpture- and the list goes on. If a compromise needs to be made in this area, parents should ensure at the very least that the school can develop and nurture those talents that their child may have demonstrated up to that time or is highly interested to develop.

8. Hidden, recurrent charges and cost

This is a tricky one, best evaluated by listening to other people’s experiences with the school in question. Some schools do not charge a lot of money upfront or even as tuition/recurring fees. However some of such schools end up issuing a couple of notes to parents every week or second week once the child is admitted to bring or deposit funds for XYZ activity etc. What happens here is that (a) it becomes difficult for parents to plan a budget because of the constantly varying financial demands of the school and (b) parents end up spending much more than they would over a course of say, a year if they had chosen to send their ward to a school that appeared to be more expensive at face value but did not subscribe to the practice of asking for additional money at random intervals.

9. Average class size and Teacher-Student ratio

This is a parameter that schools have been traditionally very reticent about and reluctant to divulge. In countries like India, it is often that a child will find himself lost in a sea of other classmates, especially in the case of the more sought-after schools. Unless the child is already in the lead as far as his learning is concerned, it is very likely that he would not be able to make sense of what is being taught- leading to a sort of recursive lagging behind because he cannot understand the lesson being taught since he did not understand the previous lesson. Parents mostly end up resorting to extra tuition classes for the child in such cases- leading to a further reduction in the child’s time at home as well as increased cost of the child’s education. Such situations are avoided if the school has class sizes that the teachers allocated to that class can manage, while identifying and providing individual attention to a particular child whenever required. Paying a premium in increased school fees for a school that offers such an environment is often a good investment.

10. Responsiveness and attitude of the school’s administration towards parental concerns

Sought-after schools in India have gained somewhat of a notoriety for being impervious, insensitive and often plain apathetic when it comes to parental concerns. This is often attributed to the supply-demand imbalance for good schools as well as their propensity to simply react with the “ok, please take your child elsewhere” rejoinder to the mildest of parental criticism. It is very important for parents to understand this facet of the school before they make a commitment. They must look out for signs of discourtesy, inattention or unwillingness to listen/understand from school personnel during the admission process. Another good source is talking with the parents of other children that are going to the same school. Does the school provide a web page or an online parent or parent-teacher community where parents can post their concerns and follow them up? Are there counselors appointed explicitly to evaluate and resolve issues reported by parents whenever justified? If there is such a counselor available, it is essential to talk to them before admission to understand their attitude and general approach. Some take a rather rigid approach of “the school is never wrong” and refuse to acknowledge that even the slightest problem exists, while some recognize that there is a problem, are comfortable in admitting that the problem exists and provide a plan and timeframe in which to effect its resolution. These are the schools to prefer if you don’t like the idea of having to bang your head against a concrete wall every time there is something in the school’s control that needs to be corrected.

These then, are some factors to watch out for when selecting a school for children during their K-12 years. While a great deal of these may appear to be common-sense, it often precisely this common-sense that is often lacking when parents make a schooling decision for their child in the face of aggressive marketing practices of the school and societal/peer pressure. Add to that the desire to conform to the Joneses next-door and you have a rather heady mixture of a very different set of ingredients that actually influence their eventual decision. At the other end is the victim- the child who while being affected the most by the decision, has often no or little say in the process that goes into its arrival.
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Neelam Vohra
Wow, I wish I had read this before putting our child in school!
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