It’s that time of year – when parents and students turn their attention to choosing their next school. As I travel the streets of Harlem, I’m bombarded with charter school advertisements. Each one portrays smiling children of color, along with the unwritten promise of an educational nirvana. With the proliferation of options available, choosing the right school can seem a bit overwhelming. Here are a few aspects to consider before accepting that lottery slot.


What happens when you arrive at the school unannounced, explain that you are considering the school for your child, and ask to visit a few classes? Are you told that you must make an appointment, or are you warmly directed to the classrooms that would interest you? Schools with nothing to hide have no problem with visitors–be they celebrities, dignitaries, board members, parents, and potential parents. This type of school will simply inform you of any ground rules they may have, such as where you should stand in a classroom, how you should enter, and the guidelines of their hallway etiquette. The staff will most likely provide you with a visitor’s badge and ask you to check back in with them in the main office before you leave. These schools welcome parents and encourage their participation because they understand you can play an important role in the child’s relationship with the school.

Teacher Turnover

It’s important to find out the total number of teachers, and then of that total, how many have been on staff for five years or more. This is a good indication of the school’s climate: how it treats teachers, the demands it places upon them, and the sense of satisfaction they are able to glean from their jobs. Teachers simply don’t stay where they aren’t happy. If the majority of a school’s teachers have only been there three years or less, I won’t say “run,” because choosing a school should involve a variety of factors, but it is definitely cause for concern.


How often do the students get out of the building? Students need to be given opportunities to learn not only through textbooks, but also out in the real world. In fact, experiences such as museums, science centers, farms, etc. considerably help a child’s reading comprehension by building what’s called “background knowledge.” For example, It’s much easier to understand an article about baseball once you’ve actually seen a game and its rules in action. I’ve taught ten and eleven year olds who didn’t understand the concept of “surf” because they’d never been to the beach. It’s this dearth of experiential knowledge that, in part, prevents urban youth from achieving the same scores on standardized tests as their suburban counterparts. Schools that recognize and address this deficit have a better grasp of the needs of urban students than those that don’t.


It can be difficult for a school to find that “sweet spot” of communication–enough that parents feel fully informed but not so much that they begin to hate hearing the school’s name. This is a point that will vary from parent to parent–only you know how much is too much. Here are some basic features to look for–

Weekly Newsletters.

This will keep you abreast of upcoming important events

Regularly Scheduled Report Card Nights. An open time, usually a 2 hour window, for you to speak to your child’s teachers about his or her grades, if you wish. It can also be a time to see and speak to other parents, take the “temperature” of the school, and see the Principal on an informal basis.

Teacher Phone Numbers. Will their phone numbers be made available to you? This is definitely a 21st century feature of public education–I would never have dreamed of being able to call my teacher at home! But when you or your child just can’t figure out that last math problem, being able to call the teacher is a godsend. And if you can’t reach ’em, be sure to leave a message as a record of your call!

In addition to the above, some schools also require parent signatures on nightly homework, others send home letters and progress reports. Some parents welcome these additional items as it helps them stay abreast of their child’s daily progress and responsibilities. Other parents become overwhelmed by the volume and soon begin signing everything out of rote habit. Keep in mind that this defeats the purpose; the point is for you to be aware of everything your child is doing, which isn’t happening if you aren’t actually reading what you’re signing. If you’re one of these parents, be sure to discover this before sending your child to the school! Trust me; you’ll save yourself a great deal of aggravation.

Student Discipline

Any school official that tells you they “don’t have the numbers” on how many students have been suspended is lying to you. Run! This usually means the numbers are alarmingly high. In this age of data-driven results, schools track everything; in some schools they track how many times students go to the bathroom in a day! The principal or teacher you’re speaking with may not have the numbers memorized, but they should be able to get them for you in a matter of minutes. And if they can’t, they are not totally “plugged in.” In which case the aforementioned advice is still applicable–run!

Other questions to ask include whether there are school-wide policies and a student code of conduct at all. Many schools leave it up to each classroom teacher, which can result in widely varying behaviors across classrooms as teachers have different levels of classroom management skills. (Needless to say this can result in confusion for the students) Other schools have school-wide reward systems, such as “paychecks” or “points” earned for certain positive, community-building behaviors. Still other schools rely upon demerit-based systems, where students earn demerits for breaking rules. Parents must decide which type of system they are most comfortable with and in which system their child will flourish.

These are just a few aspects to think about when selecting a school for your child. Members of the baby boomer generation marched, picketed, and for our right to obtain a quality education. Parents can honor their sacrifice by valuing and taking education seriously. This means not only selecting a good school for your child, but also supporting the chosen school, and working with your child to ensure that he or she takes it seriously, as well.