How to pick the best traditional school alternatives

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How to pick the best traditional school alternatives

Public school options.

My daughter starts kindergarten in the fall. We live in Los Angeles and, like a lot of metropolitan areas, finding a school for your kid to go to is a big, stressful, time consuming thing that you have to do if you care about your child’s education and can’t afford the extra $100,000 to buy a house that comes with a great assigned school, or, if you can’t afford private school.

What constitutes a great school is a topic worth debating. There is a rating system through GreatSchools that rates schools on a scale from 1 to 10 based on test scores. This is the rating system that most realty sites, like Zillow and Trulia, reference when defining how child-friendly a neighborhood or specific house is.

It’s a necessary starting point for vetting schools when you don’t know where else to begin, but like most ratings, it doesn’t tell you about the personality of the school or its staff.

The ratings system can’t tell you if you’ll like your child’s teacher (which, really, is the difference in a great school experience and a not-so-great one), or if your child’s dear friends are waiting to be met there (which is the other difference in a great school experience and a negative one). And we all know that test scores aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of talent, smarts or kindness.

Probably the best place to start to find a good school is by asking for recommendations from other parents in your community. But, eventually, you’re going to have to narrow down a list of schools and start touring them.

Magnet schools and charter schools are often called schools of choice. Many of these schools offer lovely two-to-three-hour tours that culminate with administrators telling you that you have a teeny-tiny chance of actually getting into the school through a lottery system that also takes diversity into account.

My husband and I have a part-time job touring schools now. We’re not paid for the task, of course, but we’ve learned a lot. Here’s what we now know:

Magnet Schools

What are they? Public schools that specialize in a particular area i.e. performing arts, science, math, journalism, etc.

Who runs them? The local school district operates and pays for magnet programs.

Who can attend them? It depends on the school. Many have a lottery system and are open to all interested students. A few (usually talented and gifted programs) have to be tested into.

Are they better than traditional schools? In general, magnet schools tend to outperform traditional public schools, at least when it comes to testing. One theory for this better performance is that students, staff, and parents at magnet schools have clearly defined expectations and a common mission.

What’s confusing about them? Magnet schools are often schools within schools. So it’s a bit like a college in that students might be on different tracks within their specific major.

And some magnet schools are housed on campuses with general education schools. So your child could be assigned to Big City High School because of where you live, but that doesn’t mean your child is enrolled in the STEM magnet at Big City High School. That’s tricky because the magnet program may be excellent, but the general education program may be lesser performing.

Charter Schools

What are they? Public schools that are run independently of the larger school system in the area in which they operate.

Who runs them? Most cities have independent charters run by a board of directors. In L.A., there are also affiliated charters, which are semi-autonomous, but still answer to the school district.

Who can attend them? Charter schools are supposed to be open to any student eligible for admission within the district.

However, in L.A., many of the affiliated charter schools are also assigned schools in their area. Children who live in the neighborhood are given priority, and the rest of us end up on a never-ending wait list. Independent charters are more likely to conduct a lottery system for all students.

Are charter schools better than traditional schools? Some studies suggest that charter schools perform better than traditional schools. But much of the appeal of a charter school depends on whether the philosophy of the school aligns with your philosophy. For example, the school might follow a project-based curriculum, or focus on grooming students for leadership roles, or specialize in a particular subject (similar to a magnet school).

If the focus and curriculum are appealing to you, or you like the idea of a school that has more autonomy than a traditional school in the system, you might prefer a charter.

What’s confusing about them? Charter schools can be controversial. Whatever public school your child attends will receive money from the government to educate your child. Some people believe that charter schools take funding away from traditional schools – which could be particularly harmful to schools in lower socioeconomic areas that are already underfunded. There’s also concern that charter schools can pull good teachers away from traditional public schools. It’s also important to note that many charter school teachers are not unionized, and so they have fewer protections.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has seemingly embraced charter schools as another option for its students. It’s the only district I’ve come across in my research that has affiliated charters.

Weighing the options

If all parents got involved in their local, assigned school and contributed time and effort to make the school great, then all our local schools would be great. If we all flee to another option, our traditional schools, the students they serve, and the staff they employ will suffer.

But when we are discussing our children and their education, it’s nice to have options, because every kid is different.

Of all the schools my husband and I have toured, the two we think our daughter would like best both have lower ratings from GreatSchools. Despite the low marks, the principals are warm and approachable, the teachers are engaged, the students seem happy, and the atmospheres are relaxed and light.

We can get so caught up in giving our kids the best education that we forget that education is more than being able to answer a test question correctly.

The most important lessons I learned in school had to do with exposure to diversity, navigating other perspectives, and learning about the kind of person I wanted to be -- knowledge that no standardized test could measure.