Choosing and Navigating Public Schools (So You Can Save Money)

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In my article on the cost of private schools, I illustrated how sending a child to an averagely-priced private school could possibly cost just as much as a college education or retirement (if you have two or more children).

Educating children can be challenging no matter where they go to school or how they learn. School quality can vary. And my experiences may be much different than yours — both as a parent and as a student back in the '60s and '70s during the somewhat chaotic years of desegregation . Whatever your circumstances, hopefully these thoughts can give you insights into choosing and navigating your children's school situation:

 

  • Consider all options when choosing a school.Generally, there are many types of public schools available to children (and their parents): neighborhood schools (often the assigned school), charter schools, magnet schools, and specialty schools.I have a penchant for neighborhood schools, largely because I longed to go to the same school as my neighbors did when I was a kid but couldn't (my school district assigned kids in my neighborhood to three different elementary schools).

    From a kid's perspective, going to a neighborhood school may (happily) mean that classmates are also neighbors. Arranging an after-school playdate, working on a group project, getting homework from a classmate when you're sick, etc. can be made easier when attending a neighborhood school.

    You and your child may love the neighborhood school, and it may fit all your needs. But you might be attracted to the educational philosophy of a charter school, your child may want to take classes in a particular field of study at a magnet school, or your student may have honed talents that qualify for entrance into an elite public school.

    Sorting through choices can be difficult. To help you decide where to send your child to school (whether public, private, or home), I put together a simple School Comparison spreadsheet that allows you to consider key factors, such as cost, travel distance from your home, quality, etc. Feel free to download and adjust the list based on your family's preferences.

  • Look at school performance. Your state's Department of Public Instruction (DPI) or similar governing agency should provide scores earned by schools and possibly rank schools based on performance. Generally, they should measure proficiency in specific subjects as well as improvement over previous years.A child could be successful even if she (or he) doesn't attend a top ranked school. But you may want to know about the school's quality before enrolling your child.

    Don't assume that a private school or a charter school turns out the most prepared students compared to your neighborhood school, for example. Visit schools and look at their scorecards to make an informed decision.

  • Start and maintain conversations with teachers and administrators. I discovered that I could be involved in my child's education without being a burdensome and meddlesome helicopter parent. I found ways to meet and interact with teachers and administrators (and other parents). For example, I might attend open houses, curriculum nights, and conferences to gain a basic understanding of the curriculum content and pacing. I also volunteered at the school, which helped me learn about the school's priorities and special opportunities for students.Knowing the basics about the curriculum, expectations, and the culture of the school helped me to guide my children. It also allowed me to coach them on methods of talking with teachers (or run interference myself) when there were problems. We didn't plead for extra points but instead developed a sense of when to ask for help in understanding lessons and mastering material.
  • Learn your child's strengths and coach her on ways to use those strengths. Before I had children, I thought of the ideal kid as being the one who is well-rounded, great at sports, adept at winning popularity from peers and parents alike, and proficient at all subjects as long as she studies an appropriate length of time.But that's not how the real world (usually) works. You might have a child who breezes through reading and writing assignments with little effort. You may have a child who works diligently but can barely pass a math test or memorize historical facts.

    If you have a general idea of what is going on in the classroom and your child can develop self-awareness of her strengths, she may be able to identify projects and activities that are likely to be troublesome before they become huge problems. She may be able to work ahead on certain assignments, get extra help by attending tutoring sessions, or strategize a creative approach. These experiences may give her capabilities that will allow her to excel in the real world.

    To get a better handle on your child's unique capabilities, an educational psychologist may be able to test your child and identify both learning strengths and learning differences.

  • Teach children at home regardless of the formal schooling situation. Whether you send your children to a public school or not, you may want to participate in the educational process outside of the classroom. You can read books to your children, arrange for diverse experiences, and visit museums, parks, and other parts of the country together. You don't have to overload them with lessons or educationally enriching experiences.For example, I bought and used phonetic materials with my youngest when he seemed to struggle with reading. I found historical books on sports figures for my oldest who was enamored with sports when he was younger. I sent them to summer day camps and overnight camps, both nearby and in larger cities — to give them a glimpse into the ways that other people live.

Sure, there are many reasons to choose a private school. A child may have unique needs difficult for a public school district to meet. The schools in affordable neighborhoods may not be up to par. Certain private schools may provide distinct advantages for personal and academic development.

But you might consider that paying more for school may or may not mean a better education.

What's your experience with public schools? Do you have tips for getting the most out of a public school education?

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