Scoop on Schools

by pamela

Scoop On Schools logo sliced apple

ScoopOnSchools was the go-to resource for Portland parents entering the elementary school scene, from 2011 to 2019. It was the first-of-its-kind consolidation of guidance for parents facing the unknowns, the multitude of options, and a public school lottery system in an ever-changing school district. ScoopOnSchools led parents through the process and offered insights into the range of methodologies, philosophies, and characteristics of local schools.

Jacqueline Jannotta and Katy Mayo-Hudson created ScoopOnSchools to provide the missing resources they had wanted when making educational decisions for their own children. It had many contributors, including regulars Kristin Sponaugle, Tamara Miller, and Deborah Kass, MA, LCSW. Their collective expertise came from careers in teaching, journalism, law, and family therapy, as well as having kids in a wide variety of school types (public, private, project-based, art-focused, Montessori, language immersion and more). They shared their professional insights, sprinkled with personal life lessons and a dash of educational policy — all with the goal of helping parents be well-informed as they navigated the Portland school scene.

Because their kids have aged beyond elementary school, and social media allows much greater ease for parents to get the scoop on schools, the founders decided to discontinue the website. However, many of the suggestions offered still hold relevance, and for any parent navigating the complexities of elementary and middle school selection.

Below are key takeaways from ScoopOnSchools, providing overall guidance for exploring K-8 educational options. Please click on any of these 10 items to learn more:

1) Before you dive into your local education scene, examine your assumptions on what makes a school good.

Challenge yourself to define "good education" in a new way. Society is changing. Economies are changing. The world in which our kids are growing up is dramatically different from the one in which you grew up. And a different world warrants a different type of schooling.

Most of us went to schools designed to prepare students for lifelong work in a single industry. We were spoon fed material and expected to spit it back for an approving grade, all for the ultimate goal of getting a good job that would last years, if not a lifetime.

While there is nothing wrong in theory with the goal of a single steady job, we are wise to question how realistic it is. After all, how many times do people change jobs (even careers) in a lifetime? And it's even becoming more common to hold some of those jobs in parallel. The 21st-century career is rapidly changing. If we look at the big picture in terms of schooling we should ask ourselves:

  • What is the point of an education?
  • What skills — practical and academic — will best serve our children today?
  • How can we educate our kids to help solve the pressing problems they will face on this planet?

The more complex set of problems our kids will confront requires a markedly different set of solutions than ones tried in the past. It’s time we break away from the idea that a good school is one where all the kids know how to game a standardized test.

Unfortunately, when you start looking at elementary schools, the one objective measure you're likely to encounter is standardized test scores. It'll be on you to discern the other, arguably more important factors, that can’t be summed up in a number. But as you’re exploring options pay close attention to whether you trust a school will support your child’s creativity, higher order thinking skills, and love of learning.

Sir Ken Robinson gave one of our favorite TED talks on the subject:

So, spend some time contemplating what forward-thinking, visionary schools might look like. It’s the first step to knowing your highest values when considering schools.

2) Know your priorities.

You will have a much easier time moving forward in the school decision if you have a strong sense of your family’s priorities regarding education. It’s natural to want it all and for everything to be a top priority, but that only leads to frustration. Taken from an exercise developed by ScoopOnSchools, it might serve you to zero in on what matters to you when it comes to schools. Contemplate descriptive traits, such as those falling under these categories and sub-categories:

  • Environment - urban vs rural feel; quality of playground and outdoor space; level of security on building and grounds; age span of students; attractiveness of building; the display of student work
  • Academics - class sizes; emphasis placed on homework; emphasis placed on achievement (scores and grades); a specialized curricular focus in a particular area; resources for special needs kids, including gifted kids; quality of after-school programs; traditional setting; level of focus on the "whole child”
  • Community - relationship between parents and staff; quality of parent organization; fundraising expectations; a culturally and/or economically diverse population; quality of intra-student community; social “glue” around sports or culture/language, etc.; quality of leadership; a “vibe” that resonates
  • Practical realities - distance from home; cost; network for help (e.g. scholarship dollars, carpool system, etc.); volunteer requirement; before- or after-care availability; proximity of potential classmate-friends

Then pick about a dozen traits across all four categories that matter to you. Winnow further by putting them in columns of “Must haves”, “Should haves” and “Nice to haves.” This should give you a solid sense of your educational priorities.

Though you may not be "shopping around", it can also help to look at a variety of schools in your area. Just like house or apartment hunting, it will inform you as to what is possible, and what you can live without. Exploring a wide range of schools can inspire the ways you might supplement, or even what changes you might advocate for wherever your child ends up attending.

3) Be organized.

Do your homework and start early. Whether you plan to enroll your child in the school up the street — or go on an extensive hunt for something else, it will serve you well to keep careful track of dates, tasks, names, etc.

If your search is minimal and you know you have a guaranteed spot in a school, enrolling early might help you get assigned to a preferred teacher. The last-minute registrants are usually relegated to the class with the most spots, which often means the teacher with the least-good buzz. (So ask around and get the scoop on teachers.) And as soon as you know who your child’s classmates will be, you can facilitate introductions and set up playdates — all to lay the groundwork for a smooth transition once school starts.

For those going through a more extensive school selection process, stay on top of Open House or Info Night dates, locations, and requirements. Learn how the lottery system works if need be. And if you’re applying to private schools, you’ll need to keep track of application due dates, recommendation letters, or other To Dos.

When you enter the realm of school comparing, selecting, ranking, and finger-crossing-to-be-chosen, you’ll need to access a different type of stamina. Being organized in these types of scenarios means digging up data so you can compare apples to apples (and sometimes apples to oranges). It also means getting a solid handle on your family’s priorities so you know how to rank your choices, or when to adjust your parameters. Your determination to attend (or not attend) a particular school may require the sacrifice of something, whether that something is convenience, money, or the notion of whatever you thought was an idyllic school.

Being organized also means knowing what questions to ask and having them at the ready (and keeping track of those answers). This is true no matter whether you are “shopping around” or going to the guaranteed neighborhood/district school. The more you know, the better position you’ll be in to steer the ship.

4) Talk to insiders whenever possible, to get the scoop.

No matter what your school entry scenario is, knowledge equals power. And loading up on the insider scoop is helpful in any instance.

If you’re deciding between options, nothing will be more illuminating than hearing what parents in those school communities have to say. This includes those in the homeschooling community, if that's under consideration. Be sure to ask about the good, the bad and the ugly. Most folks will be more than happy to share their positive experience with a school. And since you’re less likely to get the negative scoop from parents who are playing “ambassador” to potential new families, ask around for families who have left those school communities. They may be more candid about the bad stuff. Your goal is to get a balanced view, and this might require you to sniff the nuggets of truth out of the inherent bias.

Finding potential families to talk with might be as easy as asking your neighbors. Though expect to give your networking muscles a little bit of a workout. At the very least, social media should be able to deliver the goods since most schools these days have Facebook pages. Otherwise, a simple post or email shout out should yield the right people. Everyone knows someone who knows someone…

5) Go the extra mile.

Your kid deserves it. “The extra mile” could mean a variety of things:

  • Your neighborhood school is just fine, but say it lacks foreign language classes (or art, etc.). Going the extra mile might mean you supplement to get a second language in. Maybe that’s organizing a Spanish class with other families, or signing up for an after-school program. Or perhaps you’ll be signing your kid up for online lessons. But if you think having a particular second language would benefit your child, then you don’t just shrug your shoulders and figure you’ll wait till high school. It means you go the extra mile.
  • You literally go the extra mile if there is a better fit school farther away. In this scenario, you break out of your comfort or convenience zone to explore what that might entail. Do you enter the lottery? Do you apply to a private school? Do you apply for private school even if it's not in your budget? (You might be eligible for aid or scholarship money. You don’t know if you don’t go the extra mile and try.) It doesn’t mean you remain in an indecision zone until it’s too late to explore options. It means you make the effort to at least determine what might be best for your child. And even if you don’t end up in what you consider the “best” option, you have a better idea for how to support your child.
  • You go to the extra effort to understand your child’s learning style and temperament — and then make the time to help them get comfortable owning their gifts. Perhaps that means you take the time to delve into research or pay for some kind of assessment. Gaining this knowledge will make you a better advocate no matter what type of school your child ends up at. It will also help guide you in ways to supplement outside of school.

But going the extra mile does NOT mean you put family stability at risk. It does not mean you sacrifice quality family time for a fancier school. It does not mean you forgo college savings so you can go to an elementary school with a nicer building. And it does not mean you infuse your household with stress you can’t manage. It's not worth the upheaval to rob Peter to pay Paul. Only you can discern the difference.

6) Pay attention to schools that emphasize collaborative or project-based learning.

The more kids are learning to work together, create together, or solve problems together, the more they are learning those crucial higher-order thinking skills. This is their future, far more than learning how to spit back facts for a test.

As you consider schools, the most likely ratings measure you’ll see are standardized test scores. Why? Because average test scores are an easy thing to target and measure. And it’s easy to get seduced or repelled by a number. However, these numbers are just averages — and a single high or low score can throw the average. Plenty of schools prioritize on that “telling” number at the expense of collaborative or project-based learning. And often the schools that do prioritize on collaborative or project-based learning pay little or no attention to testing, which can be disorienting when trying to determine the quality of a school.

Schools with a tried and true project-based method tend to fall under a philosophical umbrella, such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia (but not always). Such out-of-the-box approaches can be a great choice, but like any school, can fall prey to problems. Sometimes they become too rigid and can’t adapt to a modern era — other times they are too loose and rest their laurels on a label. As always, it’s your job to investigate and discern.

Even if you don’t pursue a school purely focused on collaborative-learning, stay attentive to these methods in any school you’re looking at. Ask how often they employ group problem solving and team-oriented assignments. If you end up in a more traditional school, you can still advocate for these things. Most teachers understand the value of project-based learning — and the more parents who speak up, the more effectively they’ll be able to advocate for change.

7) Consider the school community because it will be your community too.

Which school your child attends is mostly based on your child’s needs and the options available. But it’s easy to overlook how you the parent(s) are part of the picture. While the school community itself may not be a deciding factor, it will inform your family’s experience. Here are some things to consider:

  • When you attend your neighborhood school, you get the benefit of proximity and strengthening the bonds with your neighbors. Your kids will make friends with kids nearby, which will facilitate their being part of the surrounding community. In theory, it will be more convenient for you to become an active parent at your nearby school where your investment of time (and money) will pay dividends. It will benefit the school, your neighborhood, and ultimately, your family.
  • A school composed of a self-selected community, whether by lottery or an application process, can be just as strong or stronger than one formed by boundary lines. This is especially true if you end up attending a parochial (religious) school or another type of school that follows a prescribed philosophy or methodology. When all or most members of a community are aligned in a belief, it can be a powerful glue. And the cohesive, familiar vibe may offset the inconvenience that comes from a longer commute or friendships with kids who live farther away. On this note, think twice about enrolling in a school where deep down you don’t buy into its philosophy.
  • A diverse community benefits everyone. While conventional wisdom has held that an integrated school community raises the achievement levels of disadvantaged students, new studies show it benefits middle- and upper-class students as well. Exposure to those who are different from us brings novel ideas into the picture, which increases cognitive learning. It’s worth emphasizing that increased social awareness and ease of relating to a diverse array of people are crucial skills for all adults, especially at this moment in history.
  • Keep in mind the uncomfortable side of a community too, particularly if you end up in a school with a wide range of economic backgrounds. The differences can present in awkward or painful ways. Think birthday parties, summer vacation stories, or even simple conversations about family backgrounds and parents’ jobs. While all this can and should be embraced as a great learning tool about life, diversity, privilege, and ambition, be prepared to answer your child’s questions.

You will make known and unknown tradeoffs no matter where or how you decide to educate your child  — and community will be part of the mix. In a perfect world, you will enter a community you are excited to support and happy to be part of. And if it falls short of ideal, find a means to get on board anyway. Focus on aspects that bring gratitude, and find joyful ways to bring your gifts to the community.

8) Supplement thoughtfully.

No school has it all. And no child exists with every skill developed and every curiosity fulfilled. This means you’ll be supplementing in some fashion. There are countless ways to consider this in terms of your child’s unique qualities:

  • If it seems academics are lacking because of class size, teacher quality, or your child’s tendencies, how will you compensate? You could organize an after class study session or find a tutor (which can run the gamut from inexpensive high-schooler to top-notch educator). Perhaps you’ll subscribe to an online program (Kahn Academy is an excellent free resource).
  • If academics lack in terms of subject offerings, how might you make up for it? If your child's school doesn’t have a foreign language, PE, or arts, for example, you can find ways to fill in the holes. Between after-school sports or enrichment classes, online resources or planned one-off activities, make the time to explore your options. Think out-of-the-box if classes or programs aren’t convenient or don’t exist.
  • Perhaps supplementing means making up for an abundance of resources. If you are lucky enough that your child wants for nothing, does this mean you don’t have to worry about supplementing? Not if you want a well-rounded empathetic kid. If your child has no clue what poverty or lack of privilege means, they can learn. Find a volunteer opportunity — or create them. At the bare minimum, supplementing means having conversations (in age-appropriate ways) and making your child aware of hardships in the world in order to foster gratitude and a propensity for giving back.
  • Does your child have a budding gift in a particular area? In this scenario, supplementing thoughtfully could mean putting “well-roundedness” aside for a while in favor of getting special training. Some kids have a strong grasp of their interest at an early age. If that’s your child, do what you can to fuel them. Whether it’s training in a particular sport or skill, or a hunger to learn a particular subject, research to find the right teachers and tools. And if affording classes is an issue, please don’t let pride get in the way of seeking a workaround. One day the world may welcome your child’s gifts, so do what you can to develop them.

At the center of thoughtful supplementing is balance. Sure, there’s balance in terms of academics vs art vs sports vs personal interest. But there’s also balance in over-scheduling vs not doing enough. Sometimes the best thing for your child’s schedule is to do nothing. Let them be a kid. Let them be bored. The irony is the best creativity can come out of boredom.

9) Be a part of your child's education, especially when they're young.

When our kids are young they are more impressionable, taking in everything we do. And when you demonstrate that investing time in education matters, they will absorb that belief for life.

Your "showing up" can look a number of ways:

  • You could help out in the classroom on a regular basis, depending on the teacher’s needs.
  • Or you could volunteer for field trips, chaperone camping trips or other once-in-a-while activities.
  • Perhaps you’re passionate or knowledgeable on a particular subject and can share that with your child’s school community.
  • If you work full time and can’t take hours out of your day, look for after-hours ways to contribute: procure items for the school auction; stuff envelopes or manage email communication for parents; build a database of useful info. If no off-hours formal job exists, you can probably come up with one that will be welcome. And be sure to let your child know how you’re contributing so your work isn’t completely invisible to them.
  • It’s also valid to want to protect yourself from over-committing. In that case, aim small. Commit to a one-off activity, a limited role, or limited time. If you can't volunteer at school, show up in another way. Maybe it’s during an after-school program or attending a public rally for better funding. After all, if you want to raise kids to be active participants in society, you are their best teacher. There’s no one better to show them how it’s done.

10) Remember this: There. Is. No. Perfect. School.

This is a mantra you may need to repeat regularly throughout your child’s school years. It does not mean you should stay put if your kid is miserable, or if some other serious issue is raised. But have no illusions that there's a perfect school out there. Anyone who tells you their school is perfect or free of problems doesn’t have the whole story. Humans are human after all.

No matter where you end up you will have moments of joy and moments of disappointment. Those moments may be due to teachers, administration, methodology, other students, or the community at large. “Perfection” in one area often means imperfections in another area. Learn to accept the bumps in the road. And if specific issues arise for your child, be strong enough to consider that they themselves are part of the equation too. It’s not all on the imperfect school.

All this said, sometimes the best thing you can do for your child is to switch schools. So let this be a reminder to stay attentive and get comfortable trusting your intuition.