Some recent news reports indicate “culture wars” going on in schools with parents divided over curriculum issues having mainly to do with race. There are other related social issues that schools must deal with and they are not going to please everyone and as professional educators they have to make choices about what to include and what not to include.
What makes a good school better, even bordering on great? What are some of the hallmarks of a school that puts the needs and interests of students at the forefront of the decisions about programs, staffing, space and the school’s reason for being? The answers are found in the school’s vision, mission and values and how those are seen and felt when you experience the school first hand and see how engaged students are in their learning activities and what the outcomes are.
First of all, are the vision, mission and values clear and are the teaching/learning practices accurate reflections of the vision, mission and values? In other words, it’s important that those be in sync and aligned with one another so there is no gap between what is said and what is done. Many schools’ statements and descriptions are aspirational and what they intend to happen and other schools’ statements and descriptions are inspirational and describe what they are doing. Look carefully and see if the description is oriented toward the future or embedded in the present. It’s possible to be both although one or the other is probably dominant.
Secondly, look at the talents and skills of the adults in the school community. In addition to their credentials, backgrounds and experience, are they good role models for learning and for developing good character? Are these the kinds of people you want your children to know and be with for a good part of their life? Almost everyone remembers a teacher who had a direct impact on their life at some stage in their educational journey.
Third, what kind of learning environments are readily apparent? Are there traditional classrooms with rows of seats or tables? Or, are there studios and laboratories for experimental and hands on learning? Or some combination of those? Does the academic program include the fine and performing arts? Is there a place for physical activities that may include sports as well as health and wellness programs? What is the role and place of technology? Outdoor education? Are there numerous interdisciplinary courses rather than only subject specific courses?
Fourth, what are the results in terms of graduates? Where are they now and how did their educational experience at this school propel them forward into who they have become and what they are doing? How do the graduates talk about their school experience and what do they value most and what, if anything, might they have wished had been different?
Fifth, and for now, the final questions. What are the school’s plans for the next 3-5 years? What changes have they made recently and what do they anticipate in the near future? The world is changing rapidly and schools must be on the leading edge of change or be left behind. What process has the school used to design their future?
POST SCRIPT – Some of the best schools have a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion without any hidden agendas. Nor are they fanatical or extremists in their practices. They are reasonable, thoughtful and sensitive to different points of view and are willing to engage in an open dialogue in spite of differing opinions.
See what the school’s involvement is in the local community and what kinds of relationships exist between the school and other organizations in their immediate area and beyond. A school cannot be everything for everyone and has to make choices and decisions about what they believe to be in a student’s best interests for the long term. Choosing the right, best school for your children can be complicated given the needs and variables in the education equation.