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How to Choose A School

March, 2012
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Choosing a school – or more precisely, choosing the right school – is one of the many important decisions parents must make. At the risk of using hyperbole to prove a point, choosing a school is arguably as important as choosing a doctor or choosing a spouse. Why? Because at school more so than at home, children are presented with many more opportunities to practice good (or bad) decision-making skills, and these same children will use these same decision-making skills to choose their doctors or their spouses. By the way, the right school is the one you won’t leave next year. Or the year after. The right school is the one to which you firmly commit for a minimum of, say, 4 or 5 years. “So how can I choose the right school,” you ask?

1First, realize that you are not alone in making this choice. Other parents –parents in your building, in your neighborhood – are making this choice, too. Talk to them. Also realize that the schools themselves are choosing students. That’s why many of the most reputable schools require student assessments prior to registration. Indeed, you are not so much choosing a school as you are trying to determine which learning environment represents “the best fit” for your child.

Second, because jumping from school to school can have profoundly deleterious effects on your child, focus one angle of your research on not choosing the wrong school. For example, if the top 3 criteria that govern your choice of school are:

1) The cost of tuition at that school,

2) Whether or not the children of your family’s friends attend that school, and

3) Your geographic proximity to that school, then…

You are virtually destined to choose the wrong school. But not to worry!


Here are 5 simple steps to guide you on your journey to choosing the right school.


2Before The School Visit

Step 1: Know Thyself. Who are you? And who do you want your child to become?

Articulate your value/ethical system on paper. Write down the values and ethics (independence, trustworthiness, etc.) embedded in your résumé, or write down some of the major precepts taught by your religious affiliation or another organization (like the Boy Scouts of America, for instance) that clearly outlines what it means to you to be “a good person.”

Reverse engineer the most likely and/or the most desirable future for your child. Start with: Where will he work? Then: In which language(s) will he need to be proficient? Where will he attend university? High School? Middle School? Primary School? For example, it is exceedingly difficult for mainland Chinese students to simply “up and go” to an American university. Sometimes, they lack not only the necessary English language skills, but also the social skills, independence skills, critical thinking skills, and emotional skills to truly succeed. In this case, plan to attend 4 years at an American high school first.

Step 2: Know What You Want, Why You Want It, and How To Get It.

Lamentably, most people do indeed put, contrary to the warning of the proverb, “the cart before the horse.” We must put our questions in the proper order. The first question is not “How do I get it?” The first question is “What do I want?” The second question is “Why do I want it?” The third question is “How do I get it?” It is absolutely critical to answer these questions in order. If you don’t know what you want, you will never get it. And if you cannot justify why you want it, you probably don’t deserve to get it. And by contrast, through answering the “What” question and answering the “Why” question, answering the “How” question is relatively easy and straightforward.

If you know What You Want and Why You Want It, what follows is one possible way among many that can show you How To Get It. Read on!


3During The School Visit

Step 3: Visit A School, and Leave No Stone Unturned.

Look at the school’s facilities, but do not focus on gadgetry. After all, Laozi, Mozart, Michelangelo, Abraham Lincoln, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps you, too – and literally millions of other great people throughout history – did not have access to state-of-the-art resources, and somehow they managed to become great people. The resources are simply tools. If the people using those tools don’t use them or – worse – if they don’t know how to use them properly, then it doesn’t really matter if, for example, the school has a brand new computer lab.

Look at the people on campus. Remember that interviews are bidirectional. You are looking at them as much as they are looking at you. Ask interview questions. What is the teacher/student ratio? What is the teacher turnover rate? And don’t forget to look at the people behind the curtain. Who participates in the administration? Is “the boss” a good role model? Is he liked, respected, both, or…neither? Try to interview current students. Also, look at the people who are not on campus? Knowing about the students who are not there (and why) will tell you almost as much as knowing about the students who are there.

Look at evidence of student achievement in every grade level. This does not mean looking at a photo of one student, a photo with a caption that reads, “She was our student, and she went to Harvard.” This does mean looking at achievements in academic and physical competitions in that school and between that school and other schools. This does mean looking at achievements in art and music. This does mean looking at achievements in extracurricular activities and clubs in every imaginable field and discipline.


After The School Visit

Step 4: Document What You Learned. Reflect. Share With Others. Then Reflect Again.

Step 5: Repeat Steps 1-4 Until You Are Ready to Choose The Right School.


Good Luck!


By Michael Ford

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