As the father of a kindergartner now attending a Philadelphia school, I’ve been following the recent flap over Philadelphia magazine’s photo for its October cover story, “A City Parent’s Guide to Schools.” Although I agree it was insensitive for the editors to put a group of White children on the cover of an issue focusing on the education of all of Philadelphia’s children, I wonder whether critics of the blunder did not go far enough.
As I read through the issue, I was troubled that the guide, though well- intended, seemed to be written with the idea that a parent is first and foremost an investor, someone who shops around for the right school as if picking a stock. I find this to be a little simplistic. After all, choosing a school for your child is not the same thing as buying shares in a company that may yield dividends – like a spot in the best high school or college – further down the road.
In the spirit of Philadelphia's article, I offer my own Guide to Finding the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child. It has a simple premise: Instead of looking at what a school can do for your child, consider what the school is or isn’t doing for everyone else who goes there, especially for those who might not look like you or share your experiences.
In addition to joining a home and school association or local “friends of” group to learn how to get involved in a school, consider what the school is doing to reach out to parents who don't have the time or know-how to join a parent group. The time of day that a HSA meets and the types of activities it plans might determine the type of parent who can get involved.
In addition to finding out whether a school has a program that will teach your child Spanish, Chinese, or another foreign language, find out what the school is doing for the families of students for whom Spanish or Chinese are first languages and the only language spoken at home. Does the school have a good "English as a second language" program? Does the school have translators who can communicate with the parents of those students? If the answer to these questions is no, then what is the school doing to get them?
In addition to finding out whether your school has a kick-ass principal, find out what the teachers, counselors, and other staff members are doing to improve the quality of the school. After all, they are the ones who will be working more directly with your child. What kinds of innovative activities are they conducting in their classrooms? What are they doing to build meaningful relationships not only with students but the families of those students? Do they feel that they are able to successfully advocate for them? Moreover, to what extent does the staff of a school feel valued for what they do, especially in light of the fact that many have been working more than a year without a contract?
In addition to finding out whether your school has high test scores, find out what impact standardized testing is having on the school. How much instructional time is being lost preparing for and taking the tests? How are the tests affecting the educational experiences and self-esteem of children who, due to language, family support, or whatever reason, have difficulty performing? What are principals, teachers and other staff doing to address these concerns?
While you are doing that, ask yourself: To what extent are test scores really a valid measurement of the success of the school? To what extent are test scores and other “quantifiable metrics” used to undermine the work that those within a school are doing to build things such as a sense of trust, safety, and respect for diversity -- in other words, the foundation of what makes a great school.
And while you are at it, instead of merely finding out whether the elementary school will increase your son or daughter’s chance of getting into Masterman or Central, find out what the school is doing to create an environment where all students are valued as intelligent learners, regardless of whether they end up there or not.
In short, instead of searching solely for whether a school is a good fit for your child, understand that a school and the neighborhood around it is already part of a larger, dynamic community, one made up of relationships that may have been forged long before your child, or even you, were born. As a result, looking at a school solely from the perspective of what it can do for your individual child may blind you to the extent that a school may be successfully or unsuccessfully supporting other students, especially those whom you may know nothing about.
It’s not just about finding the best education for your kid — it’s about building the best education for all kids.
Ken Hung is a teacher at a public high school in Philadelphia. He is also the parent of a kindergartner attending school in Philadelphia.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.