Parenting

6 Essential Questions Parents Must Ask About Their Kids' Schools

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Regardless of whether you’re going the public, private or homeschooling route, you’re going to have to deal with another person educating your child at some point. Public school was no picnic for me and I know I’m not alone. While I have a few years before I have to think about enrolling my kid into school, my lousy experience taught me the warning signs to look for when it comes to gauging my own son’s eventual teacher-student relationships.

6. Is the teacher receptive to creativity, working to achieve status quo, or tenured and on the road to burn out?

Kindergarten was the last time I truly enjoyed school. No, not because of the naps. Because of an amazing teacher named Mrs. Amico who was warm, receptive and open to working with parents in order to achieve student success on an individual as well as a classroom level. Mrs. McCabe, my first grade teacher, on the other hand… let’s just say that’s the first time I learned what rejection felt like in a classroom environment. Outpacing most of the other students, I was the bane of McCabe’s existence. The following year I had a better teacher, Ms. Webb, who approached my mother on the first day of school and asked why I had never been tested for the gifted program. Apparently McCabe kept my name off the list.

Always question the personal agenda of the teacher leading the class. Are they in this profession because they love education, or because they needed a job?

5. Does the teacher suck up to the PTA moms?

I went to school with a kid we’ll call A.J. He was a nice kid and fairly bright, but it seemed like he got an awful lot of extra attention from elementary school through high school. As it turns out, A.J.’s mom was PTA mother of the year…every year. Therefore A.J. was the best thing since sliced bread according to the school administrators and teachers. Working mothers like mine, who didn’t have time or energy to attend weeknight PTA meetings and bake sales, were ignored, as were their kids.

Public education is political. I’m sure private education is as well. It’s never too early to teach your kid that getting anywhere in life depends on who you know.

4. Is the academic program geared towards academics or political messaging?

In fifth grade we were introduced to the concept of “multiculturalism.” My school district felt the best way to introduce us to other cultures was to partner with another elementary school in the district for special programming on cultures of third world nations. This boiled down to one primarily white school meeting up with another primarily white school, splitting into carefully crafted groups that included at least one student of color, and watching a bunch of white teachers shake rain sticks at us to demonstrate the culture of Africa. Sound highly hypocritical? It gets better.

We were told to work together to create group names. The “person of color” in our group was a goof off from my own class. When he suggested a name I felt was stupid, I as much told him so. Everyone else agreed. When the teachers came around to see how we were doing, the “person of color” accused me of bullying him. “That’s not nice, Susan. We have to respect other people’s cultures. I think that’s a great name for the group. That will be your name.” The name was “The Orange Juices.” Totally multicultural and reflective of his native culture, I’m sure.

Contrast that experience with the one I had in my gifted classes led by a very old school teacher, Mrs. Lenox. Our first class focused on learning Bloom’s Taxonomy, a method of study that would guide how we would approach every topic over the course of the year. Not only did she lay out topics of study, she explained the method she’d be using to teach. Everyone was on the same page from day one and it made sense.

If you want your child to grow up to be an independent thinker and a leader, take a look at the curriculum with this question in mind: Is your child being taught to learn in an objective fashion, or play political ball in a bureaucratic system?

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3. Are your child’s special needs being respected or ignored?

A family member of mine had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) during his time in public school. Designed to address his learning needs, most teachers took offense to the IEP or just plain ignored it. Dealing with Student Services, the department that administers IEPs, was a bureaucratic picnic at best. Unless your children are incredibly average B students, don’t expect them to get the attention they truly deserve from public school educators. They will, however, learn very quickly how to advocate for themselves in a classroom. The downside: Most students become so acculturated to the accommodations an IEP provides that they may have a tough time transitioning into the working world, where employers don’t know or care if you have a learning disability.

If your kid is gifted or in need of academic assistance, either look for an alternative educational environment or plan on doing a lot of supplementation at home.

2. How supportive is your student’s guidance counselor?

When I was five I spent a year having nightmares every night. My exhausted, stressed-out mother approached my guidance counselor, Mr. Ott, for some advice. He wound up sitting with me during lunch and talking about my nightmares. His kind thoughtfulness put me at ease and helped my parents address the situation effectively.

On the other hand, when I was in middle school and everyone picked on me incessantly for my intelligence, my appearance, and a slew of reasons only logical to an ignorant pubescent mind, the guidance department didn’t lift a finger. Excelling in my classes, I was bored senseless and anxious to move on. My parents approached the guidance department with a request that I skip a grade. They declined, stating that I would have social difficulties with older peers. “Well, no one talks to her now,” my mother shot back, “so, if anything she’s fully prepared to handle social difficulties.” They didn’t respond. They simply denied the request. Years later I wound up completing my bachelor’s in three years, making tons of friendships with “older” students in the process, proving those middle school idiots wrong on both counts.

You are responsible for your child’s social and emotional well being. When the personnel put in charge of such matters ignore you, they aren’t doing their job.

1. Is your child being viewed as a name, or a number?

Public school is designed to view your child as a number. You’ll often hear this is because of issues like overcrowding in classrooms, but the truth of the matter is that federal and state dollars (as well as teacher tenure, at least in New Jersey) depend on classroom statistics. No one cares that your son or daughter struggles with math. They care that a student is potentially holding them back from obtaining funding. Hence teachers are being jailed in some states for fudging test scores.

It takes a rare educator to look past the politics and focus on student growth. But, they do exist. Your job as a parent is to be vigilant. Find these teachers and educate yourself on the resources your district and school has available for your child. And remember, education doesn’t begin and end at the school door. The majority of my education was outside the classroom, away from what felt like an incredibly oppressive environment, conducted by parents who viewed every experience as an opportunity for learning and growth. Whether you have five minutes or an entire day to dedicate to your child, keep in mind that you will forever be their primary educational resource.