by Erin Sweeten
Arizona has its issues with education, but one thing that is not lacking is choice. When your children reach school-age, the options can be dizzying: your zoned public school, a different public school, a charter school, a private school, homeschooling, and more. Start looking in the December before the year your children will start kindergarten. School open houses and lotteries typically take place in January and February. I’ll walk you through some of the factors to consider.
The first place to look is your neighborhood public school. The benefits are many: you will not need to drive your children to and from school (though you can if you want to); you and your children will make friends in the neighborhood; it will be easy to get to and from school events. Don’t undervalue your own time or your kids’ time. The more time your children spend in a car, the less safe they are and the less time they have to just be kids.
If your local school is not known as “good,” look at it anyway. Greatschools ratings and Department of Ed grades can’t tell you much about the quality of the teaching or environment. Visit the school and talk to everyone you can. Things to ask:
1. What is the teacher turnover rate? How many teachers are long-term subs or have emergency credentials? Most schools have turnover due to the low pay and tough working conditions. It’s a good sign if there is at least one veteran teacher in most grades and few open positions.
2. How does the school place multiples? Some schools have a policy that twins must be separated. Clarify what role you will play in deciding their placement.
3. How does the school implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)? The school should have a well-functioning plan in place to create a mutually respectful and caring environment. Detentions and suspensions should be rare.
4. What services does the school provide? Does it have all-day kindergarten? Before- and after-school care? How does it handle special education needs? Gifted kids? Does it have specials (art, music, P.E.)?
5. How ethnically and economically diverse is the student body? Diversity is key if you want your children to learn how to get along with people from different backgrounds at school.
6. How active is the PTO? Parent-teacher organizations make the fun stuff happen: the fall festivals, the teacher appreciation, the field days.
7. How does the school keep students safe? Our school is gated and the only way in during school hours is through a locked door after your presence is approved by a staff member.
8. What are typical class sizes? Our Title I school has class sizes in the low 20’s. A nearby school that has lots of open enrollment kids has around 30 per class.
9. What is the size of the school? I prefer smaller schools with only a few classes per grade. I love that every adult at my daughter’s school knows her by name.
If you have concerns about your neighborhood school, you can choose a different public school. Contact your desired school directly to find out the enrollment requirements.
Charter and Private Schools
I’ve grouped these together because they operate similarly, though charter schools are free and have a few more regulations than private schools. Ask these questions in addition to those above:
1. What are the criteria for hiring teachers? These schools do not have to hire certified teachers with a background in education. Find out how they choose their staff.
2. What is the attrition rate for students? How many students leave the school yearly? How many of the sixth graders were there in kindergarten? Some schools work hard to serve all their students well. Others shrug if kids are struggling and hint that they should look elsewhere.
3. How are the school’s finances? Charter schools receive an annual rating on how well they are managing their money, which you can look up at the Arizona Republic’s database (it contains the same data as the charter board’s database, but is easier to access). Charter schools do fail sometimes, so check out the financial health of the school that interests you.
4. What services cost extra? For example, some charter schools offer half-day kindergarten for free but charge a fee for full day. Some private schools require students to purchase their own textbooks.
5. What is the educational philosophy? Often, private and charter schools offer a non-mainstream education, such as Montessori or classical. Find out what and how they want to teach.
6. What level of parent commitment is required? Some schools expect parents to fundraise, volunteer, and/or donate large amounts of money. They may want parents to agree to a beliefs statement or certain conditions on home life, including screen time and nutrition.
7. How does my child get in? There may be a competitive application process or a lottery system. Ask how the school handles siblings—if one gets in, are the others automatically accepted too?
Homeschooling is when parents coordinate their children’s learning at home. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent teaches them directly. Parents may enroll their kids in an online school, hire tutors, or participate in a co-op. The best place to learn more about your options is the Arizona Families For Home Education website. This group also sponsors a convention in July where you can find out about local co-ops, support services, curricula, and more.
I know, it’s a lot. But chances are that whatever you choose will work out fine. Do your due diligence and just go with it. I promise that your children’s lives will not be ruined by an imperfect school year, and there is always another option to try.
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