Finding the perfect school for your child: What to look for when making your decision

Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will make in his lifetime. School is where he will spend most of his days, meet most of his friends, and find inspiration to learn and pursue his dreams.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to ask the right questions and to know what you are looking for before you make your final choice. Here are some things you should look at while visiting the schools of your choice:
The curriculum
Look for a program that is well balanced. A good program will challenge your child academically, artistically, physically and socially. All four strands must be visibly present and reflected accordingly throughout the school. Ask the principal to tell you about the projects that children have been involved in, the involvement of the school in the community, the sports that children can participate in, and the music and dramatic arts programs. The children’s work on display will tell you a lot about the curriculum.
The principal
Look at the relationship between the principal and the students. Are the children at ease around her or do they “straighten up” and pass her by quietly? A good principal should know every child by first name, and be approachable and caring. Try to find out how often the school changes principals. Schools can change immensely when a new principal comes on board. The principal’s role is to inspire teachers and offer leadership. If your interview with her did not leave you inspired, you can almost guarantee that the teachers don’t feel inspired either, and thus, neither do the students.
The relationship between teachers and students
Look around you: do the students look enthusiastic? Do they seem at ease around their teachers? Are the teachers merely supervising the students or can you see a connection between students and teachers? Look at the way teachers display their students’ work. It should be displayed with pride, truly highlighting the essence of the projects and of the students themselves.
The student to teacher ratio
A good school will offer a ratio of about 20 children per classroom, and additional help as needed for writing, reading, math and other activities. Some schools even provide two teachers during the first two or three years of school (one teacher and a teacher’s aide), bringing the ratio down to 10 students per teacher. This is not absolutely necessary, but very desirable, especially in grade one.
The support systems in place
What does the school do for children who experience learning differences? Is there a counselor on site or do they readily have access to one? How do they help students who are behind, to ensure that they can succeed? What do they have in place for children who are advancing faster than the rest in some areas? As well, inquire about other available staff on site, such as teachers’ aides, nurses, special needs instructors, curriculum development coordinator, etc. Ask what they would do if a child has a minor learning difference. Ideally, the school should have a clear plan in place (because every child will need help at some point), and should be eager to suggest some options for you. The best schools will suggest a strong partnership between the child, the family and the school.
The culture of the school
Visit a school during pick-up time and observe the families. Do you fit in with that social group? These will be your child’s friends for the next 12 years. Their values will affect your child immensely; choose wisely.
The school’s approach to bullying and discrimination
This is extremely important. Many parents don’t think of asking this question until their child or a child they know is suffering from discrimination or bullying. Ask them to explain exactly what the school’s guidelines are in this respect. Bullying happens every single year without fail, and its effects are long lasting and often horrific. Without the strong support of the school, a family cannot deal with the problem effectively. You want to know that the school has a clear and effective strategy to eliminate the problem at the root if and when it presents itself.
The extra-curricular activities
Many schools offer activities after school (for a fee), like chess, sports, band, etc. When a school goes out of its way to arrange for these extras, it demonstrates that it has its students’ best interest in mind.
The school itself
A school is a place where children should feel unique, independent, and inspired to learn and contribute. Look at the school: Is it dull and grey? Are the classrooms chaotic? Does it represent each student? Does it reflect cultural diversity? Your child’s dreams and aspirations will begin here. Are the hallways full of work from the children? Is the artwork unique and reflective of each child’s individuality, or is it a mass-production? Are the classrooms organized and easy to understand for a child? Do they have some dedicated space where your child can play and relax once the work is finished?
Once you are confident that you have chosen the right school, ask how you can participate. Remember always that the school is only one third of the equation. You and your child are the other two thirds. Your involvement with the school will help your child succeed, and will ensure that the school can meet its goals and aspirations as well.
Natacha V. Beim is a writer, speaker, teacher, and the founder or Core Education & Fine Arts Junior Kindergarten schools.