Ask an educator: What is the best school for your child? - Birmingham Bloomfield Hills Moms

In a changing education landscape, parents must evaluate school options as smart consumers.

by Rajeshri Gandhi Bhatia

From the moment our children are born, we’re faced with difficult choices to prepare them for important milestones: their first words, those first steps, the first day of school, and one day, graduation. For the majority of parents, school, and education are top priorities — we spend an overwhelming amount of time and energy thinking about how best to support our kids academically to prepare them for a successful future.

The landscape of education continues to shift and morph. While many classrooms still look the same as they did 30 years ago, the business of education has become far more complicated. The process to determine a path for a child’s PK-12 education can now resemble the college search and application process! Parents must think of themselves as consumers and use that mindset to navigate the seemingly endless choices available.

As a career educator who has worked in school administration and college admissions and who now owns and operates my own school, I’m often asked, “What is the best school?” I finish the question by adding, “for your family.” There’s no one correct path-in fact, there can be several good options. Schools come in many varieties, and there are many choices (Public, Private, Charter, Parochial, etc) to select from when deciding where to send your child. Generally speaking, public schools are local to neighborhoods and cities and everyone generally lives in the same area. They are governed by elected State and Local boards, in conjunction with the State Legislature. There is typically no cost to attend since they are funded by state and local taxes. They must follow all state-determined curricular, testing and teacher certification guidelines. Most are structured similarly as districts run by a superintendent and individual buildings run by principals.  Private schools, which can be religious or non-sectarian (non-religious,) are privately operated and governed independently. Students can come from large geographical area. While there are general content areas that the state requires them to teach, they are largely free to choose their own curricula and they have the flexibility to hire teachers, independent of certification. Parents must pay tuition to attend a private school and parents are expected to have a good deal of involvement and engagement with the school, often serving on the boards or committees that govern the school. 

When evaluating schools, it’s crucial for parents and students to have a clear goal in mind. That may seem silly — one might say the only relevant goal is to get an education, but it’s important to think deeper than that. Every parent has a set of expectations that guide how they make choices for their children and it is important to tap into those values as parents choose a school. To begin this process, parents should consider how far they are willing to drive/transport their children, the experiences they’d like their children to have in school, how large a role they plan to play in their child’s education, who they trust to make curricular decisions, what kind of culture they want their child exposed to and how much (if anything) they’re willing to pay for their child’s education.

A few things to keep in mind when evaluating schools:

  1. Do your homework and start early. Read up on schools using their website and marketing materials. How do schools describe themselves? What do they list as their points of pride and how do they showcase their strengths? The way a school presents itself tells you a great deal about what it values and what it prioritizes. Look at the photos that are used and try to picture your child and your family in that community
  2. Read ratings with an understanding of what is being measured and how the information is weighted. Ratings can be helpful, but different rating systems use different types of data and prioritize many different factors. Some are very reliant on feedback from others whose values and priorities may not align with yours. Even those that use testing data can be challenging to interpret as both, growth and absolute performance are commonly measured. A high rating may be based on a school or district showing a great deal of improvement or based on groups of students achieving at a certain level.  Most private schools do not use ratings as they do not participate in the same standardized testing. 
  3. Visit the schools to get a sense of the culture and day-to-day experience. Try to talk to teachers, students and to the school principal or head administrator.  This administrator will be the person with the most influence over the school and your experience. Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable with this leader and whether you feel like they would support you if you had any concerns.
  4. Talk to other parents, but keep in mind, again, that their opinions are based on their priorities. Fellow parents can be great resources, but every family has different dynamics.  A good rule of thumb is to “listen but verify” for yourself. You can also ask if they had particularly positive or negative experiences and decide how you feel about what happened.
  5. Explore the various experiences that the school offers, especially as it relates to your child and their interests. Also, evaluate access to these experiences-who is able to play an instrument or be on the soccer team? Are there limits to the number of kids who can participate and if so, how does the school determine who gets to join? When does foreign language study begin? When can students enroll in an AP classes? For high schools, it’s also important to know how many classes students take per year to know what academic options a student could have during their 4-year high school experience.
  6. Assess how much a school or program can be tailored to meet a child’s needs. If your 5th grader were to show an aptitude for algebra, is that a possibility? Is there a system to provide extra support to students who need it? What are the options for summer study, and can students use the summer to advance their studies, especially for high school students? When do honors classes begin and how are children placed?
  7. Ask about safety and security. In this day and age, safety and security efforts are as important as curriculum and instruction. Areas to focus on include how the school is kept safe, how is access to the campus controlled and what is in place on a day-to-day basis to keep kids safe. Another aspect to get a read on is the impact of safety on the culture and feel of the school and whether students feel supported. Do safety measures restrict parents in their interactions with the school? There are many ways that schools keep students safe-it is important that the school’s efforts match your values and give you a level of comfort. 
  8. Breathe! Don’t be too stressed. Remember that you will always have choices and that you don’t need to make a decision about high school when your child is just 3 years old. The beauty of options is that they allow you to continually make choices based on your child’s and family’s changing needs. As you go through experiences, you will learn more about what is out there and what your family needs. Do not be afraid to make a new choice at any point if you feel you need to do so.

As parents explore educational choices, knowing and understanding the different types of schools is essential, as is an awareness of how curriculum decisions are made, how performance is measured and how funding is provided. Considering these factors, along with school culture, community and opportunities for involvement, parents can find an option that aligns with their own values and expectations — the best school for their child.

About Rajeshri Gandhi Bhatia

Rajeshri Gandhi Bhatia is an experienced educator and educational leader with over 25 years of experience teaching, leading and building schools across the country. She is the founder of Blooming Brains Academy, a Montessori-based school for children from infants to 5th grade serving the Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham area. Rajeshri is nationally and internationally well-known as an educational leader, connector and thought leader. She specializes in engaging parents in the educational process and finding creative solutions to meet the needs of each child. She lives in West Bloomfield with her husband and two daughters. You can learn more about Rajeshri here.

Join The Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills Moms Community

Stay up-to-date with what is happening in-and-around Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, MI with local events, community highlights, and exclusive deals.