What Is a “Good” School and How Can I Find One?

#1 in “The Good Schools Project” 
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photo courtesty of seattle.gov

I’m not a person who enjoys homework. Parents (and particularly mothers) are expected to carry a huge mental load when it comes to protecting our kids from the so-called “dangers” of modern life. Five years in, I’ve largely given up. I avoid all “parenting”-related news stories as they tend to make me paranoid about everything from swimming pools to visiting the park. I’ve stopped probing to find out whether my kids’ food is *organic* organic. I don’t care about screen time and I don’t care about BPA.

But when it came time to start looking at elementary schools for my son, I felt completely clueless. It was time to roll up my sleeves and figure this out.

Clearly, school is important. I want my son’s early years to set him up for success. I want him not only to learn, but to enjoy learning. I want him to develop academic skills, alongside self-control and empathy. I want his schooling to compliment the things he learns at home.

Last December, when he was four-and-a-half, we began house hunting. A crabby neighbor with a fondness for banging on our floor with a broom had moved into the apartment below us, and it seemed as good a time as any to jump into Seattle’s chaotic housing market. In the United States, schools and housing are inextricably linked. Where you live determines where your kid goes to school, and whether that school is “good” or not will make a big difference in your home’s value. Everyone from realtors, to family members, to casual acquaintances, to complete strangers admonished me to find a home near a “good” school.

But what does that even mean? There never seemed to be much elaboration. One mom in my neighborhood posted on Facebook asking about her kid’s assigned school, Greenwood Elementary. Was it good? Yes, another mom answered. It was good. Her kid liked it.

I did not want more homework, but I found myself dissatisfied with what little word-of-mouth info I was getting. So in January I headed to a “Kindergarten Readiness Panel” hosted by the North Seattle Preschool Coop.

The panel was held in a church basement. I arrived early to a packed room. Parents drank coffee from paper cups and loaded up on checklists and fliers. Most of the attendees were white and affluent, but their social status did not inoculate them from nerves. The room seemed to hum with anxiety, which was elaborated on in the extensive q&a.

The parents were worried that:

  • their kid would not be challenged enough by the SPS curriculum
  • their kid would not receive adequate attention from their teacher
  • teachers’ disciplinary methods would shame their kid and hurt the child’s self-esteem

Many of the questions revolved around how soon children could test into the “Highly Capable Cohort” (HCC), Seattle’s gifted program. Most of the other questions revolved around how to get kids into option schools. (In Seattle children are assigned to “neighborhood” schools but can enroll in a lottery to enter various “option” schools, similar to charter schools.) The assumption in the room seemed to be that Seattle’s neighborhood schools were inadequate. At one point a frustrated mother whose children were enrolled in a neighborhood school felt the need to speak up to defend her choice.

The discussion turned toward school evaluation. Yes! This is what I wanted to know! How do we know whether our kid’s school was “good” or not? One of the panelists, a bilingual preschool teacher and admitted “tiger mom” detailed how she evaluated her child’s kindergarten choices by visiting several schools and sitting in on ten different kindergarten classes! While I respected her dedication to finding the best kindergarten teacher for her child, to me it seemed excessive.

Aside from learning the difference between neighborhood and choice schools, my main take-away from the panel was that probably every parent thinks their child is gifted. The homework I’d received so far about figuring out whether your kid’s school was “good” was to:

  • tour the school
  • ask other parents whether they liked the school
  • spend a few hours sitting in on various classes

It seemed like A LOT of work. Wasn’t there some way I could just sit in my bathrobe at home and figure this out?

Oh yeah, there’s this thing called INTERNET.

Next time on “The Good Schools Project”: Katharine learns how to use a Google machine, but will it answer all her questions, or simply create new ones?

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