In photos: How you know you picked a good elementary school

Alternate title: From principal to rock star in 30 minutes.

I just want to share some photos, but I’ll say some things you disagree with first. Let’s brush over the three ways parents shouldn’t select elementary schools.

1. Not test scores! Parents decry the mess made by No Child Left Behind… then turn around and meticulously pour over standardized test scores. Hey, unless a school’s scores are absurdly low, don’t sweat it.

2. Not what other parents tell you. Parents love to believe ridiculous rumors and isolated incidents taken out of context.  Case in point, one trusted parent told me something about my daughter’s teacher that isn’t just wrong, it’s demonstrably not true. People love to believe word-of-mouth over evidence they see with their own eyes (assuming they bother to look).

3. Not poor families! This is often done by looking at the percentage of school lunches that are provided with government assistance. Having great personal income doesn’t make you a great parent. If you’ll believe the poor people stereotype, I’ll believe the stereotype of rich parents who send their kids to the “best” schools and absolve themselves of any further responsibility for their child’s education.

What matters

1. You matter. The most important component for your child’s academic success is your involvement. Know your teacher. Assist with homework as a home educator. Read with your child. View your free time as teaching time. Education doesn’t end when the bell rings.

2. Other parents matter. How active is your Parent-Teacher Association/Organization? A thriving group of parents in indicative of a healthy school, helping provide enrichment activities whether by volunteerism or fundraising. Ask the PTA/PTO parents about the size of their annual budget. The entire region I live in is economically depressed, but you wouldn’t know it from our PTO budget.

Involved parents keep the school on track. When parents don’t care, it’s that much more difficult for teachers to care in the face of the challenges they tackle every day in their classrooms.

3. Check out the school library. Administrators often cut libraries first. Choose a school that prioritizes books. How many hours is the library open? Is it open during lunch (a safe haven for awkward kids)? Is there a librarian on staff? Can parents check out books too? How varied and large is the selection of books?

4. How do teachers and staff view their own school? This is an after-the-fact thing you learn if you volunteer. The word I’ve heard again and again at my school is family, that the teachers are bowled over by the support from parents and between the teachers themselves. The school feels like a family to them.

When you’re browsing elementary schools, also consider schools that don’t fit into your neat little definition of the best institutions. Some parents treat the phrase “charter school” as magic. Umm, no. Also look at traditional public schools. Also look at the schools nearest to you.

Attend enrollment information events. Request the school newsletter. When you get serious about a school, attend a PTA/PTO meeting to gauge parent involvement (understanding that you’ll be talking to the choir). If a school holds a community event, even just a carnival, attend it.

Enough already. Get to the photos!

So, our school has two big fundraisers. For one, the principal agrees to do something crazy if the financial goal is met. One year he donned a chicken costume and clucked around the cafeteria at lunchtime. Another year he wore a pink gorilla costume and got drenched in a dunk tank.

This year he agreed to dress as Tarzan and get a Mohawk… not some Mohawk scalp cap, but a real shaved head.  What do Tarzan and a Mohawk have to do with each other? Well, nothing really. So what?

Photo of the principal approaching the front of the gym, eyeing the chair where he will receive his haircut.

Eyeing the chair where the haircut will take place: "Whoo, what did I get myself into?"

Photo of the principal being restrained by two men leading him back into the gym. Two children follow behind him smiling, one wielding the Tarzan club.

Once in the chair, the principal made an escape attempt, running through a side door, followed by school staff and a few students. He was forcibly led back into the room to near total auditory pandemonium.

Photo of the principal grimacing as his head begins to get shaved.

Grimace. Smile. Smirk. Grit your teeth. It's really happening. Oh, and given that this is a language immersion school, the kids are shouting, "Cortello! Cortello!" (Cut! Cut!) as a bevy of news media stick cameras in your face.

Photo of the principal mid-haircut and his barber.

The principal's personal barber came to school to do the deed. The military fatigues were a nice touch. The kids never let up. The room was in an uproar.

Photo of the principal parading through the gym with his new haircut, his arms held up in triumph.

Once resigned to your fate, you might as well embrace the moment. Oh, and one secret kept from the principal (not pictured here) was when the kids began shouting, "Dye it pink! Dye it pink!" All the principal knew was that his barber then whipped out a tube clearly labeled "red." It was red hair gel.

Photo of the principal after the assembly as he leans his head down so students can touch his Mohawk.

After the assembly, everyone wanted to touch the Mohawk. Gotta love those sunglasses.

Photo of the principal with the same group of kids, but now he's turned toward a wall signing a piece of paper.

Moments later the autograph requests began.

This fundraiser will be paying for field trips, computer lab upgrades and for an out-of-state science museum to bring a portable planetarium to the school during a week of science activities. Well, the planetarium is my vote. I don’t know which science program the parents will choose, but it’s nice to be able to sit down and debate what flavor of coolness you want to provide your kids.


8 Responses to “In photos: How you know you picked a good elementary school”

  1. Noreen says:

    last year the principal shaved his head if we had more PTA members than kids. This year the kids are voting on what the principal has to do since we did it again!

    October 28th, 2009 at 12:12 am

  2. Kendra aka The Meanest Momma says:

    considering your principal’s good looks and good will, I’m not surprised your PTA involvement is high! :)

    sounds like you have found a great program.

    October 28th, 2009 at 5:24 am

  3. AJ says:

    Noreen, I’m pushing for a full-face henna tattoo next year. The one glitch is that it wouldn’t fit into a 30 minute assembly. But hey, how about an ear piercing? Have an earring made of the school’s initials.

    Oh Kendra, this is the 21st century. We have dads who participate too. Okay, very few dads, but still…

    October 28th, 2009 at 7:25 am

  4. RobMonroe says:

    This post is perfect on both accounts – thanks for the reminder about why and how to pick schools, and how and why not to.

    The pictures and story are just plain fun!

    October 28th, 2009 at 10:23 am

  5. Jeanne says:

    Thanks for this AJ, I’ll need to look it up again when looking for schools around here. I love that your principal is so cool. I remember my elementary school principal really embodied everything I disliked about school (and I was a great student).

    I hope we get to see more of what makes your school so fantastic!

    October 28th, 2009 at 2:39 pm

  6. gertie says:

    I’m an elementary school teacher, and in my experience the difference between a great school and all the others are that most schools are in survival mode, trying to meet their test score minimums so they are not taken over by the government (“program improvement”).

    All public schools will try to teach to the tests, because the tests are based on the state standards, but mediocre and bad schools stop there. Good and great schools will also teach what is not tested. For instance, in California science is not tested until grade 5. A survival-mode school will largely ignore science in the lower grades, while a great school will have a well-developed science curriculum from K on. I’d ask teachers about the projects they teach to try to get a sense of whether they collaborate and share ideas, or hide in their rooms doing their own thing.

    I’d agree that parent involvement is the most important factor in any child’s success. I’d also agree that it’s important to find a school where involvement is high, because your child will not only be learning from you and the teachers, they will be learning from their peers.

    I’ve worked at and attended wealthy and poor schools. I’ve never seen the phenomenon of rich parents checking out of their kid’s education because they have a ‘good school’. Maybe my schools weren’t ‘good’ enough for that phenomenon? We did have a 98% four-year college attendance rate in my high school, and a 95% rate for the district where I first worked. Kids in those schools had a ton of parental involvement. My current school is economically diverse, and we do have many poor families who are very involved and devoted to education. I work in an expensive area, and we have many poor families who simply do not have the time (many have three jobs and barely see their kids). In the area where I work, lower income level correlates with a higher level of school violence, but this is not true in the area where I live.

    October 31st, 2009 at 11:15 am

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Another subtle gague of a good school is whether or not they have a school social worker on staff. Schools in survival mode will often cut that position or share a social worker with several other schools so that they are only there occasionally. School social workers can go a long way to curb bullying, help special needs or socially awkward kids find ways to make school a better experience, and other things that don’t necessarily show up on test scores.

    November 22nd, 2009 at 12:07 pm

  8. observer says:

    at my elementary school they had the principal kiss a pig if they did something, though i can’t remember what it was. i think it may have been reading or something.

    January 27th, 2010 at 8:23 pm

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