Sunday, April 19, 2015

5 Questions to Ask About Your School

Most people become politicized via an issue that inspires personal passion. Right now, that issue is testing and Opting Out. I'd like to pose five questions that might keep newly engaged parents curious about the workings of their schools, the education of their kids, and the connection of education to politics. In no particular order:

1. What do other kids get that my kids don't?

If you haven't connnected yet to the issue of unfair funding, this is one good way to do so. Take your school district's population. Find a district downstate with a similar population. Go to that district's website and see what they have that you don't have. If nothing else, this will give you a clue that when people say, "NYS already spends way too much per pupil," they're not necessarily talking about spending that's systemwide. All of our local districts lie below the median. Some of those downstate schools skew statewide numbers. A lot.

A word of warning: The last time I wrote about this, I got comments from people who said, quite seriously, that rich people should have better schools. I don't know where to go with that; it represents a fundamental confusion about the objective of public schools.

Here are some examples for sample districts from our region:

A district the size of Dryden

A district the size of Groton

A district the size of Ithaca

A district the size of Trumansburg

Using this handy guide to compare amount spent per pupil, it's easy to see that in the examples I used, Ithaca is outspent by $4K per student, Trumansburg by $6K per, Dryden by $7K per, and Groton by $12K per. Even taking into account the high cost of living in Westchester or Suffolk County, those are big differences, and they show up in costly extras such as foreign languages, orchestras, iPad initiatives—you name it.

It's worth mentioning that a lot of schools have a lot less than your school, too. You can use a similar strategy to see that sad fact illustrated.

2. How does my school handle controversial topics?

Does your school do a decent job teaching about evolution, sustainability, climate change, American and world history, world religions, sex ed? How can you find out? Are there books that the library won't carry or that the summer reading list has purged due to parental complaints? Different schools react differently to those squeaky wheels, but you may be surprised by the answers.

3. How does my school keep me informed?

Do you hear more through the grapevine than you do from the school itself? How do you find out what's happening at board meetings, in hiring, on the athletic field, in the classroom? Can you access timely information via the website and social media, or do you still need to rely on the old empty-the-backpack system? If you're not getting what you need, tell the people in charge. If there's no change, go to a board meeting armed with information about a district that's doing a better job of reaching out to parents. Good communication is not rocket science, and nowadays, it should not cost much more than time.

4. How much does my district spend to educate students at other schools?

Students from your district may attend religious schools. They may attend charter schools. You know that school choice is an issue, but you may not know its price. I know that I was surprised to learn the cost of educating students from my district at New Roots, and I've always been astonished by the things taxpayers cover for students who attend religious schools. And I'm not even talking about support of vouchers.

5. How do our students do after they leave the district?

This is one that you may not be able to answer. Unless they have a strong alumni association, most districts don't track kids beyond graduation. But although it's one way schools are measured, some of us believe that graduation for graduation's sake should never be the goal. You've heard the term "college- and career-ready." Whether you think that preK-12 education is a trajectory toward lifelong learning, personal passions, job training, or higher ed, it's helpful to know how kids have done once they put away the gown and tassel. Are kids from your school graduating from college? dropping out after a year? stuck in remediation? Are they finding jobs in the area? moving from job to job? stuck in their high school jobs? How can you find out? Do your counselors know? Does the administration have any idea? Are there data available from local colleges? Don't parents have a right to know this stuff?

These are my questions. You may have five others. Just don't be afraid to ask, and let the answers dictate what you do next.

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