10 truth-revealing questions to help you decide what makes a good school

By Voula Plagakis on August 11, 2014

Test scores and annual rankings do not paint a complete picture. Instead, visit an open house to get a feel for the place, then book a sit-down with the principal.

 

1. Good question: Do the students have regular access to computers?

Better question: How do teachers use technology in the classroom? Do the students use the technology or only the teachers? Are the teachers receiving training on how to explore technology?

A classroom may be decked out with all the tech bells and whistles but with a teacher at the helm whose tech savvy is limited to email. Yes, this happens. Interactive whiteboards and tablets are some of the most recent devices to find their way into schools, but they’re not always used to their full potential. While the research is divided as to how much technology in the classroom gives kids an edge, you do want your kid in a school that is actively exploring the benefits that technology and digital devices can have in the classroom.

2. Good question: How many times do the kids have physed each week?

Better question: What opportunities are there for students to be physically active outside of phys-ed class?

Gym time can vary from school to school. With obesity rates among children rising, being active from a young age puts children on the right track. Physical activity also prepares students to learn better, so recess and gym pave the way to better learning. Gym class shouldn’t be the only time kids have to stretch their legs and get their hearts pumping. Homeroom teachers can also incorporate “energizers” such as some hopping, jumping jacks or a few forward bends, as students switch from studying math to science or because they have been sitting for too long. After-school programs can also be a time when kids have a chance to play out-of-seat games, such as miming, charades or going outdoors to play soccer or build a snowman.

3. Good question: Is there a place dedicated to honouring student achievement?

Better question: How do you encourage sharing students’ efforts? What activities are planned during the year to build school spirit?

What a pleasure for parents to see their junior Picasso’s art on display near the school entrance. It’s equally rewarding for students to point out their poem outside their classroom. But look for signs that a school fosters a sense of pride throughout the year and not only by decking out the school on parent-teacher night. Are there photos or videos of the annual corn roast and music concert on the school website that keep the buzz going long after the last holiday song has been sung? Even in this age of Pinterest and Instagram, teachers can simply print out pictures to showcase their students’ accomplishments. Ask if the school offers opportunities to assume leadership roles where students can take on tasks, such as office monitor, morning announcement reader or tutoring younger students.

4. Good question: What is the student-teacher ratio?

Better question: Are the teachers are qualified and open to innovative ideas and trying out new things? Be sure to ask for a few examples of innovation within the school. Class size ranges according to grade level and provincial standards, so teacher training and fl exibility is often more important.

Class size is an ongoing concern for teachers and policymakers. Although smaller classes allow for some advantages, research shows the most significant benefits happen in the early grades (K – Grade 3) with class sizes between 15 and 18. The benefits increase when the small size is maintained over the three years. Does this mean that size trumps the quality of teaching? Not at all. Skilled teachers find creative ways to make sure quality of teaching is more important than class size in helping students achieve.

Ask how classrooms are structured or restructured to support the students’ needs. Team-teaching is one example where two teachers take on a group for part of the day or to teach certain subjects or concepts that require more hands-on learning.

5. Good question: How does the school help students who are having difficulty?

Better question: How do you engage parents of students who are falling behind? What specific support is available and to which grade levels? (Some schools limit certain types of support to the earlier grades).

Does the school have a strategy to help students who are struggling? Do they try different things before suggesting you hire a tutor or outside resource? You want a school with a proactive plan that catches students before the challenges become overwhelming.

At St. John Fisher School in Pointe-Claire, Que., a resource team made up of specialists supports the students and provides specific interventions such as speech therapy, reading help and literacy support. The support doesn’t always involve a specialist or expert, sometimes a student with behavioural difficulties can be assigned chore privileges in the cafeteria or to assist the custodian with the great sense of humour. Be on the lookout for creative ideas and strategies as the solution is rarely one-size-fits-all.

6. Good question: Are extra-curricular activities offered to the students?

Better question: How many different types of activities are offered? If there aren’t any, ask if something can be offered in the near future or if parents are welcome to contribute.

The opportunity to join a chess club or yoga class at school is a definite bonus. It’s a time for kids to learn something new and adds appeal to their school day. Aline Reizian, yoga instructor for kids at several elementary schools in Montreal, teaches kids how yoga can help them relax and focus better in class. Aline also notes, “Kids are more at ease in my class because the learning is not tied to grades.” Fees are usually minimal or sometimes subsidized by the parents’ committee. It’s a plus for parents who don’t have time to shuttle their kids to evening activities.

But in many schools, extra-curriculars are left to the teachers to manage. Choirs, school teams and clubs are organized in their spare time but add such value to the student’s experience. Extra activities supplement the curriculum as schools make different choices when it comes to the non-core subjects. While some schools have a specialized focus on the arts or sciences, many schools have barely an hour of art or music per week. Find out what’s usually offered and if help is welcome.

7. Good question: Does the school have a library?

Better question: Is there a varied collection of books? Is there a qualified librarian on staff? Who is responsible for keeping the library up to date? How often do the children go to the library with their teacher?

Although the majority of schools have a library (some in rural areas rely on the local community library), not all libraries tell the same story. Visit the library on your tour. Is it an inviting place to read? Is the set-up traditional seating at long tables with chairs or has the library graduated to the newer trend of smaller spaces with round tables, a lounge area with armchairs or a floor space with a rug where students can curl up with a book.

Ask specific questions about how many books the library stocks. Lyne Rajotte, librarian and consultant to many Quebec schools on how to improve their libraries, says a school should have an average of 30 to 35 titles per student with a variety of genres that cater to different tastes and topics. Lyne also notes that some loan policies are restrictive and include unreasonable penalties, which discourage students from borrowing books. Allowing students to borrow three to four books at a time is a good starting point.

8. Good question: How can parents become involved in their child’s school life?

Better question: Can I visit the school or a classroom in the daytime? What committees can I join? How does the school communicate with parents?

Most parents want to be involved in their child’s schooling. For some, it means attending school plays or volunteering on field trips or in the classroom; for others, it’s making sure the homework gets done. In the early elementary years, kids get excited about seeing their parents at school or knowing their mom or dad actually sat at their desk. Principals know that supporting a parent-school connection is beneficial, so on top of meet-the-teacher nights, they might offer parents workshops and activities designed to engage families. These can include activities like a “book-in-a-bag” to take home and read as the bedtime story or a workshop on how to help (or not help) kids
with homework.

9. Good question: How many new teachers do you have this year?

Better question: Do teachers have time in their schedules to work together? How often does the principal visit the classrooms during the day?

Teachers are the heartbeat of every school. Although the norm is one teacher per classroom, teachers who collaborate inside and outside the classroom can make for a richer learning environment. When there are several new-to-the-school teachers, this may be a clue that teachers are unsatisfied for some reason. Ask the principal what can explain the high turnover. While teachers are vital to a school’s success, the principal is the leader that guides and supports them in their duties. A leader with a solid vision and positive track record draws quality teachers. Ask why they became a principal and what accomplishment makes them most proud.

10. How can you help us with our own personal concern?

There is no better question than your own. If your child has special needs, you will want to ask about what support services are available. Maybe your question ties into your family’s values, such as how holidays are celebrated or if there’s a litterless lunch policy or recycling program. While your questions and concerns will evolve as your child grows, asking meaningful questions and finding ways to support your child’s school is a great way to be involved in your child’s school life.

 

Quebec freelance writer Voula Plagakis and mother of one writes on a variety of parenting and education topics. Read more at her website, voulawriter.com.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.


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