Moving to a new city under any conditions can be daunting. Moving to
a new city with children makes it all the more challenging. Not only do
you need to find an attractive, safe community that suits your
lifestyle and affords you a convenient commute to your new job, you
also have to focus on finding the best schools for your children.
Whether you are intent on finding a great public school system or prefer a private school for your kids, Atlanta and the surrounding area offer an abundance of educational opportunities. With over 240 private schools, plus county and city school districts in the 13-county Atlanta area, the choices are so great, parents may find it difficult to determine which schools will best help their child excel and help them achieve the highest academic success. Fortunately, there are a few criteria parents can consider when making one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make for their children. Additionally, there are steps parents can take to find valuable information that will assist them in their decisions.
First, Atlanta parents can access terrific information about area schools for free using the Atlanta School Guide, which is available to pick up at more than 1,050 Atlanta locations. ASG provides a directory of Metro Atlanta’s independent and public schools, early education, summer camps and a variety of additional educational resources. Parents can also go online to www.atlantaschoolguide.com and view the entire digital version of the publication, with direct links to the schools’ web sites.
Dr. Craig Mertler, Director of the Doctoral Program in School Improvement at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton urges parents to conduct their own research.
“Test scores or achieving AYP [adequate yearly progress] do not necessarily mean a school is a good school. They are not the only indicators of success,” Mertler points out. “A school can be a really great school and achieve ‘Exceeds Expectations’ on two out of three categories, but miss that third category by one point and then be perceived as unsuccessful according to those standards.”
Mertler acknowledges that all parents want their child’s school to be academically successful, but realizes that beyond that we all have our own priorities for the kinds of schools we want our kids to attend; therefore, defining a “successful” school is nearly impossible. “It’s not like when you or I were in school,” he says. “There were no choices then. You either went to the neighborhood school or, if your parents wanted to send you to private school, boarding schools were really the only option.”
Today, there are all kinds of choices with different curricula,
different philosophies or teaching methods and it can be difficult to
determine which is best.
He suggests, however, that there are some characteristics shared by schools that are commonly thought of as successful. First, they must adhere to some level of academic rigor and treat students fairly in the classroom. Also consider the number of extracurricular opportunities available to students, ensuring there is at least one option that might appeal to your child. And when considering a high school or particular public school district, Mertler says you should also look not just at graduation rates, but also at how many kids are getting scholarships.
“Many of these decisions are very personal,” says Mertler. “But I think we’d all agree that we want to develop well-rounded human beings. Schools should be academically strong, but not so focused on test scores that other things are overlooked. Students should also learn the appropriate social and life skills to become successful citizens throughout their lives.”
Mertler advises talking to lots of other parents who have children attending the schools you are considering. He also recommends arranging a meeting with the principals or headmasters of any schools you are considering and touring the schools. This will give you a basis for comparison and give you an opportunity to discuss any specific concerns you have about your child with the principal. He suggests that you also ask if the school has a transition plan in place for new students. This, he says, can make a tremendous difference in a child’s ability to adjust and achieve success at his new school.
Dr. Caitlin McMunn Dooley, Assistant Professor of Early
Childhood Education at Georgia State agrees with Mertler as to the
value of meeting with the principals or headmasters of the schools
Like Mertler, Dooley recommends looking beyond test scores. “You wouldn’t choose a school with failing test scores, but alternately you don’t want a school with 100% test scores across the board.”
She recommends asking the right questions to determine if a particular school will be successful for your child. Look at how long most of the teachers have been teaching. While you don’t want lots of new inexperienced teachers, you also don’t want most of the teachers at a school to be near retirement age either. She says to look for schools where most of the teachers have been teaching between seven and 12 years. This means they have the experience to keep a classroom in order, but are still fresh enough to keep students engaged. And with regard to teachers, Dooley also points toward the school’s No Child Left Behind Report Card. There you can determine what percentage of a school’s teachers are considered “high quality” teachers, meaning they teach only the subjects or grade levels they are certified to teach. NCLB Report Cards are available on the Georgia Department of Education web site, www.doe.k12.ga.us.
While you’re on the web, Dooley recommends visiting each school’s web site to read their mission statements, goals and, in the case of public schools, to read their “School Improvement Plan.” Ask yourself if these goals and plans mesh with your values and concerns. Are goals focused on improving the school’s curriculum, growing better educated, more well-rounded students, or simply on raising test scores?
When it comes to a school’s curriculum, choices among private
schools can be wide-ranging, while most public schools will adhere to a
standards-based curriculum approved by the state Department of
Education. Of all the curricula available, Dooley recommends those that
adhere to International Baccalaureate standards, especially for those
attending public school. The International Baccalaureate program is
recognized around the globe for producing high quality students who
gain a deeper understanding of their own countries and culture while
learning at least one foreign language as well as the necessary skills
to live and work in an increasingly globalized society.
All that considered, Dooley acknowledges that sometimes you simply have to think about the most practical aspects of choosing a school. As the working mother of two school-aged sons, Dooley is well aware of the need for a safe, reliable aftercare program. She says, “When choosing a school, also look at their aftercare program. You want a stable program that is conducted by the teachers who know the children and who can offer stability and consistency, as opposed to a program managed by teenagers who may not stick with the job.”
Dr. Marquita Jackson-Minot, Assistant Professor of Education at
Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, also thinks there are many
basic and practical principles to consider when choosing a school.
“Think about the ways in which you and your child are greeted,” she says. “How do staff members speak to one another? How do teachers speak to students? How do students talk to each other, to their teachers, or to other staff members like cafeteria workers? Is everyone treated with kindness and respect? Is the environment warm and welcoming?”
Jackson-Minot adds that you can tell a great deal about a school just by walking around. A clean school, she says, is an indicator that students respect the school. Smiling happy students indicate that children feel safe, cared for, and enjoy being at school. Principals, assistant principals and headmasters who are visible, walking the halls and interacting with students, faculty, and staff show a high level of care and commitment to the school and its students. Student artwork that is displayed in the hallways, along with visible recognition of student achievements show that student voices are valued.
Those outward indicators are just the beginning for Jackson-Minot.
She also thinks it’s important to consider what kind of learner your
child is and whether or not the methodologies implemented in the
classroom match your child’s learning style. For instance, a hands-on
learner may struggle in a school that adheres strictly to an especially
auditory teaching style.
Take into consideration how diverse a school is and how much the school values diversity. “Children,” she says, “learn not just from their teachers but from each other. A diverse student population that is respected and valued helps everyone learn more.”
Jackson-Minot also wants parents to look at issues like tracking and
retention rates at the schools they are considering. Are boys held back
at a significantly higher rate than girls? Are minorities?
While test scores “are important with regard to federal funding,
even schools that do not make AYP can be good schools,” says
Jackson-Minot. For her, the bottom line in choosing a successful school
comes down to having caring, competent, compassionate teachers and
administrators who know their curriculum, who respect each other and
their students, and who are valued and supported by their community.
Of course, no one knows your child better than you. A school that
might be successful for someone else’s child may not be the best fit
for your own. Do your own research, but know the best thing you can do
when making this decision is to trust your instincts. With the good
fortune to be choosing a school in a region with such an abundance of
opportunities, you will certainly find one that is a good fit for your
child. Just remember that the academic achievement of a child rests not
solely with the school he or she attends. Being involved in your
child’s activities both at home and as a volunteer at school is one of
the best things you can do to ensure success in school.
Tutors and Educational Consultants
Considering the multitude of educational
options in Atlanta, the task of finding the right academic program can
be downright daunting; however, the task of selecting the right
educational environment for your child may be easier with help from an
Educational consultants are skilled
professionals who assist families with the process of locating,
applying to and choosing a learning environment that best suits your
child—whether your child is entering kindergarten or college or a grade
in between. Consultants usually conduct thorough interviews with your
child as well as your family to gain a strong understanding of your
child’s strengths, needs and interests.
In the case of last-minute relocation, a consultant will know
which schools are possibilities and can help speed up the process.
Since consultants also get to know the students as well as the schools,
those students working with consultants generally have a high
acceptance rate, as they are well matched with the programs.
Consultants aren’t just for private school placement; they also can provide other services. For example, Francal Consulting Group provides College Admission Counseling services, including tools to make informed decisions about where to apply, effective completion of applications, SAT and ACT preparation, selecting the right school to attend, enrollment and obtaining financial aid and scholarships. Atlanta Educational Consultants offers IEP Advocacy, Alternative Educational Placement and Psychological and Therapeutic Referrals. They can even consult to help your child choose a Gap Year or Summer program.
Once you choose a school, tutors can provide the extra help to ensure success for your child. Most parents turn to a tutor when their child’s grades start slipping,” says Dennis Freeman, director of In-Home Tutors of Atlanta. “But another sign that a tutor might be useful would be if it seems to take your child longer than it should to complete homework. A good tutor will facilitate the homework process, keep your child on track and teach the study skills needed to complete homework efficiently and well.”
Mandy Hannah, director of Lifepoint Learning in Alpharetta,
adds that if your child is struggling in school, a tutor might help you
get a feel for exactly what is going on. In addition, she says, you
would want to consider a tutor “if they have a speech impediment,
especially in the lower grades, and if your kids have any kind of
testing coming up, especially if they’ve struggled in the past.”
“Definitely look for what kind of services they offer and how
they fit your needs,” says Hannah. Likewise, location will be
important. She also suggests paying attention to the types of people on
staff and seeing whether the tutors have training in education. “Look
for people who are flexible,” she adds.
Regardless, don’t hesitate to seek expert guidance without
delay. The longer you wait to ask for help, the longer it will take to
find a solution, and you’ll want to help your child get off on the
right foot in a new school.
Georgia's Universal Pre-K Program
into Marilyn Stradford’s pre-K classroom at DeKalb County’s Evansdale
Elementary, you’ll see a bustle of activity as 20 delighted children
engage in a variety of hands-on learning activities.
At the science center, one group of children explores the differences between solids and liquids. At the art center, another group is elbow deep in finger paints, creating masterpieces their moms will proudly hang on the fridge. At the language arts center, a third group giggle at the silly rhymes they’re coming up with by turn. While these children think they’re just having fun at “big kid” school, experts like Mary Mazarky know the truth. These children—and the other 83,980 children enrolled in Georgia’s universal pre-K program—are building the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Mazarky should know. As Assistant Commissioner of Pre-K for the state of Georgia, she oversees a $355 million lottery-funded program that will serve 84,000 students during the 2010-11 school year. She and a staff of researchers and experienced educators work to create and manage a comprehensive pre-K program that embraces 20 different curricula educators can choose to implement in their classrooms, ranging from the tried and true to cutting-edge methodologies. Georgia’s program, which was launched as a pilot program in 1992 by Governor Zell Miller, then expanded to a universal program in 1995, has become a benchmark for pre-K programs nationwide.
In 2010-11, 65% of all four-year olds in Georgia will attend a lottery-funded pre-K program, either at their local public school or at a private preschool. In fact, Georgia is one of only six states in the Union that provide universal pre-K classes and covers such a high percentage of its four-year-old population.
But what do Georgia children and their families gain from attending a qualified Georgia pre-K program? According to Mazarky, quite a lot. “If you look at any of the research on state funded pre-K programs, you’ll find that children who attend pre-K exhibit a much higher degree of school readiness when they go into kindergarten than their peers who did not. Our state funded program ensures that anyone who wants their child to have that opportunity can,” says Mazarky. She also points to a study published in the Archives of Adolescent Health that looked at behaviors among students in Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program. The study showed that whether or not a child attended a quality pre-K program was “a greater predictor of pre-writing and pre-reading test outcomes than any socio-economic indicator or the parents’ level of education.”
The bottom line for Lucy Foley, mother of five-year-old Lyle, who was in Marilyn Stradford’s pre-K class, was the excitement he showed at being able to go to school full-time. While Foley might have chosen to put her son into a private preschool as many parents in her neighborhood do, she saw attending pre-K at Evansdale Elementary as an opportunity for her son to grow and to become familiar with the school he would be attending starting in kindergarten. “I would recommend Georgia’s Bright from the Start pre-K program to any parent who believes their child is mature enough to attend full-day school,” says Foley. “I was very impressed with all of the classroom materials. Lyle brought home several very nice books throughout the year that were provided by the state. At the end of the school year the children received a backpack filled with materials to keep them engaged over the summer. I absolutely think it’s a terrific program to help kids and their families get the process of attending school off to a great start,” she adds.
While Foley chose her neighborhood school, parents wishing to send their children to a quality Georgia pre-K program can choose from a list of private preschools that house lottery-funded pre-K classes or they can participate in lotteries to attend schools outside their home districts as well. To learn more about Georgia’s pre-K program or to find a pre-K class near you, visit www.decal.ga.gov.