A QUALITY MIDDLE SCHOOL
by Stephen K. Smuin,
Founder of Odyssey School
days when ”thinking about school”
meant planning for college are long gone. Today
the search for the proper pre-kindergarten often
begins before pregnancy. As the founding Head
of two middle schools, I have seen numerous parents
and students who have gone through our programs
looking for the perfect school. There is no perfect
school, but there is a quality process which will
facilitate finding the appropriate school for
your child. This information has been modified
from Odyssey’s publications as well as
the material from a recent Newsweek magazine edition
on quality schools.
This process will help you find
the right middle school for your child:
Determine some basic parameters for your search
- geographical limitations, religious affiliation,
boarding school, grade configuration, specialty
school (gifted/talented, arts school, learning
disability focus), cost, or whatever may limit
your examining all the schools.
There are a number of books out on choosing schools,
the local parenting newspapers are stocked with
ads, the phone book will have lists, the County
Office of Education will have a pamphlet on schools
in the county, the California Association of Independent
Schools publishes a directory of schools, and
most religious schools are connected to a church
affiliated association of schools.
A. Make the Call -
Junk Mail to Follow
Call the school and request their packet of
information. Keep in mind it is like a new car
brochure...you'll never read a mission statement
you don't support. The real question is: Is the
school living it? You'll discover that later
in the process. For now, note how you were treated
during your call- did a person answer the phone
or was it a computer system (do they treat kids
the same way)? Was the person polite, friendly,
helpful or did you feel like you were interrupting
their work? Staff reflects a school's culture.
B. Open House Night-Tag Team Selling?
Open House is a time for the school to make
their best impression. What they choose to feature
they value. Did students speak? Did alums present?
Did parents address you? Are they selling their
facility or their academics? Are they selling
their soccer championship, their academic program
or both? Was there, open and candid communication
during the question period?
C. Entering the Process - Was College This Tough?
|Keep in mind you
are not choosing an admissions director.
Once your child is in the school you
will rarely interact with them again.
You are choosing teachers and programs
keep that in the forefront of your
Don't seek a private school unless your child,
and you, can accept rejection. About 66% of
applicants are not accepted to any given private
Fill out your application - be straightforward
- you want a school that appreciates who your
child really is, not whom you
would like her to be.
D. The Visit - Will my child pass muster?
One of the major reasons for rejection is the
quality of your child's school visit. So ask
yourself, "Is my child socially and emotionally
mature? Does he demonstrate appropriate manners?
What is the school's moral climate? What
is our family's?" An overly prepped student
can be suspect to an admissions director. Encourage
your child to be natural. Find out if the school
really wants who they are - nothing wrong, however,
with good manners.
Was the visit well organized?
Did you hear from the school about the exact day
and time? Was it clear the admissions office was
prepared for your child to visit? Did the host
call your child before the visit? How did your
child get along with whoever hosted her on the
visit? What was the nature of their conversations
(dig deeply)? What was the follow up? Did you
receive a note? Did the host call or write?
All things being equal, trust your child. How
your child feels about the visit to the school
is a solid indicator to consider. A child needs
to feel comfortable in a school in order to excel
IV. PARENT FOLLOW-UP
A. Going Back to School
Arrange to revisit any school which is a serious
contender. Plan to spend at least all morning.
Walk the halls -
Be there as classes change. What is the atmosphere?
Do you see kids interacting positively with
each other? Are teachers in evidence? What do
the halls look like after the bell rings - kids
still lingering to class, teachers arriving
after the bell?
Visit the school and classrooms
- What is on the walls; what is in the trophy
cases; what kinds of announcements are up for
students? Is it too clean or too dirty - both
tell you something about the school culture.
While visiting three classes for 15 minutes
is good, visiting an entire class period will
reveal much more. Does the class start on time;
is the teacher in charge; is there free and
open interaction among teachers and students,
students and students? Do kids pay attention
and even take notes when students talk or is
it only what the teacher says that is important?
Is there a clear ending point to the class,
is the day summarized, are the next class objectives
laid out and homework assigned? Is there a sense
of joy and freedom in the air?
Library visit - Is the library wired
for internet access and are computers available
for student use - is the technology up-to-date?
Is there a set of encyclopedias from the 1990's?
Is the library quiet, but active? Have students
chosen to go to the library, or is it only for
class use? Is the library so neat that it looks
like students are discouraged from checking
out books? Is there lots of freereading material
like magazines, newspapers, kids' stuff? Are
librarians actively helping students or just
checking out books. What is the quality of their
volumes, rather than the ntimber of their volumes?
Pit stop - Be sure
to visit the student restroom. Are there kids
hanging out there? Does it appear smokey? Is
it clean - are there graffiti and signs of vandalism?
How do kids react to an adult in their presence?
Time for lunch -
Have lunch on campus. Sit down
and listen to kids talk - what appear to be
the kids' values?
helpful publications, contact the
National Middle School Association:
Are they talking about events,
other kids, or ideas? Engage them in conversation
- as much as time allows. What is the cultural
diversity of the school? And is that diversity
interacting or are all the Lithuanian boys eating
in one cluster while all the Lapp girls are
in an other?
V. CONVERSATION WITH
Make sure you make an appointment to talk with
the Head. Only the Head can provide you with certain
kinds of information and vary from the "company
line." In fifteen minutes you can address
six major areas:
is the school's mission and how does
the Head articulate it?
teachers or administrators create
the curriculum plan? Are decisions
at the school made by the Head or
through a collaborative shared decision-making
the Head know how to get what the
school needs: grants, mentors, volunteers,
new computers, the hall painted?
kind of teaching styles exist at the
school? Lecture/discussion, cooperative
learning, hands- projects - there
is no right answer - what style would
help your child flourish?
what keeps the Head awake at night?
What is a priority objective not yet
in place? What do they see as their
is their proudest accomplishment?
If it is winning the volleyball championship
- probe. Would their accomplishments
be your desired accomplishments? What
makes the school unique?
Be concerned if a Head doesn't
want you to follow these steps - is there an issue?
VI. FINAL CONSIDERATIONS
Now you have done your research, attended the
open houses, flied your applications and your
child has gone on visits. You have revisited the
primary contenders, and talked to the school Heads.
Once you get your acceptances there are some primary
points to consider in making your final choice.
A. Statistically Speaking....
School size is an issue, but
big is not necessarily bad, and small is not
necessarily good. What is the teacher-student
ratio (don't be confused by staff-student ratio,
or adult-student ratio - what you want to know
is typical class size). Ask how many students
a single teacher teaches in a day. Do they team
teach, and how is it organized? Do they have
an advisory system and how many advisees is
Determine how money is allocated.
Does it reflect the written goals? What percent
of the budget, or dollars per student, does
the school spend on students directly?
What are the rules? For what
does someone get sent to the office, suspended,
expelled? Are there any "zero tolerance"
Technology must be plugged
in. On average there are 7.8 students per computer
in schools; one in three has Web access in the
classrooms; nine out of 10 schools have one
or more Internet connections. But more importantly,
is technology integrated into the learning plan
in all classes, or is it pretty much a word
processing lab (fancy typewriters)?
What is the teacher-turnover
rate? How many students leave the school per
year? What are the average scores on the standardized
testing that they do? How diverse is the faculty
in terms of ethnicity, gender, and other styles
of diversity such as economic, learning/teaching
What is the high school placement
record - specifically, not generally. Which
high schools are their graduates attending -
how many of their graduates are at each of these
schools? If they don't have this information
- why not? If they don't know, do they value
Besides your visit and your
child's visit, attend a special event at the
school - a play, a concert, an athletic event,
a fundraiser, an art show. It is important to
observe the school during non-recruiting activities.
This will tell you the most about the school
and its culture.
Primarily keep in mind that there
is no "best school" - anywhere. There
is only a great match for your child. A school
cannot be all things to all students. What does
your child need? What does each school do best?
Is it a match? A good match will help your child
be passionate about learning, a risk taker who
anticipates consequences, as well as socially
and emotionally adept.
Components of a Quality Middle
Qualified and well-Trained Teachers
High Academic Standards and Expectations
Mentors for New Teachers
and Teachers Who Know Each Child
Sources: Newsweek Magazine and
the National Middle School Association.
Odyssey School is a member of: