Ten qualities help identify excellent schools
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted July 30, 2010
Families are drawn to the Almaden Valley for many reasons, but chief among them is the excellent reputation of schools here. Indeed, each year we see parents relocating and opting to pay a premium for homes in the attendance zones of Almaden’s high-performing public and charter schools or within commuting distance to well-regarded private and parochial schools.
How do parents identify an “excellent” school? Residents of Almaden neighborhoods can choose from among the area’s many public, charter, parochial, and religious schools, all of which feature various appealing signature programs like music, technology, or athletics, and all stake a claim to excellence. Most of these schools are accredited by one of several professional licensing agencies, an important stamp of approval that ensures at least some level of external accountability, but is not in itself a certificate of excellence.
Indexes exist to compare public school standardized test scores, though test results are only one measure of a school’s quality. “Rating” sites exist on the Internet, such as www.GreatSchools.org, providing parent reviews of their personal experiences at different schools, which are both insightful and subjective.
So, how can parents determine what constitutes a great school for their children? Substantial research has identified key attributes of successful schools, pointing to some of the qualities parents should investigate in finding the right “fit” for our families. Among the top considerations:
- Well-trained, experienced, strong school leaders and teachers – the quality of a child’s teacher is the single most important variable that a school can control. Parents should consider such factors as a school’s annual rate of teacher turnover; the level of experience and education of its faculty; the amount and nature of training that teachers receive during the school year; and a clear, sensible, and published program of instruction (i.e. curriculum).
- Partnership with parents – a high quality education depends on educators working closely with a child’s parents, particularly when a problem or need arises. Parents are their children’s main teachers, and possess insights into their children’s motivation and behavior that can be both elusive and invaluable to educators; educators, meanwhile, are trained professionals who understand the complex dynamics of schooling in ways that parents cannot glean from their own experiences at school. Consequently, schools with a culture of opposition or defensiveness toward parents, or those that simply defer to parental pressure, are unlikely to offer a high quality learning experience.
- A safe and positive learning environment – this might go without saying, but “safety” extends beyond earthquake preparedness and lockdown drills to include emotional safety and campus morale. Do children enjoy being on campus? Are parents and visitors made to feel welcome when they come to school? Are interactions between adults and children healthy and positive? Do teachers tend to enjoy long tenures, or is there high attrition due to poor morale?
- Open, consistent, timely, and ongoing communication with parents – including two-way exchanges (meetings, telephone conversations) in addition to newsletters, emails, progress reports and grades. Healthy communication is an essential component of the parent/school partnership, above.
- A philosophy and/or mission espousing the belief that every child can learn – as evidenced by high expectations communicated on the school website, on bulletin boards, in hallways and classrooms, and in teacher newsletters home. A school’s mission and philosophy should permeate and define the campus, faculty, and overall learning environment, reflecting a sense of unity of purpose and shared commitment.
- An emphasis on developing the whole child – this is conveyed through a school’s commitment to character education, community service, enrichment and elective programs, experiential learning and field trips. A commitment to these important dimensions of a whole-child growth guards against an overemphasis on academic achievement, test score results, athletics, or any other single dimension of a young person’s school experience that can impair development and lead to problems later in life.
- A strong curriculum that aligns with state and national standards – the curriculum is a school’s program of instruction, covering every subject and coordinated so learning becomes a continuum from kindergarten to commencement. A strong curriculum requires that teachers and administrators actively communicate internally and with parents about how each class, subject, and grade level integrates and supports the others, while meeting the expectations of published state and national instructional standards. Good schools use test results to assess and improve their delivery of instruction.
- Enrichment opportunities that engage children and motivate them to learn – these include visual and performing arts; P.E. and athletics; modern languages; field trips; and elective classes in middle and high school. In many communities, schools faced with budget constraints are increasingly forced to limit or eliminate these sorts of enrichments.
- Resources for children who need help – guidance and college counselors, depending on the school’s grade level; tutoring; and extra help from teachers before or after school. Excellent schools mobilize “student support teams” of teachers who meet regularly to identify and share tips and strategies that work for their students of concern, and maintain regular communication with parents.
- Community involvement – excellent schools exist as part of their broader community, inviting community participation at school events, involving community members and leaders in school activities, and participating through various service and volunteer initiatives that engage children in the life of the community.
Clearly, there is no “formula” for a great school. I’ve served excellent schools located in low-income, high-risk urban communities, and visited mediocre schools with abundant resources in affluent surroundings. But schools exhibiting the ten attributes listed above, or even a high majority of the ten, are likely to provide a healthy, robust, and positive learning experience for children – and such schools exist close to your home in Almaden Valley.
Ole Jorgenson is Head of School at Almaden Country School.
Published in Almaden Times Weekly July 30, 2010