What makes a “good” school?

I have a friend whose daughter goes to a competitive middle school on the UWS. Since her daughter and my son are in the same grade, we sometimes commiserate about our experiences with our children, school and homework. Yesterday she came to me especially frustrated by her daughter, who has ADHD, and their homework situation. She had no way of knowing what the homework was because her daughter doesn’t know, and my friend is not allowed to email the teachers to ask – in fact she doesn’t even have access to their email addresses.

She told me she had tried to get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for her daughter as I had done for my son. The elementary school that she had gone to told her that an IEP was not necessary for her daughter, and so now she is facing middle school without the support that my friend thinks she needs.

As she explained her challenges to me, my friend showed me an email she was writing to the school administration. The first paragraph described the situation, and then in the second paragraph, she wrote, “My friend Liz, whose son goes to a school not nearly as good as ours has an IEP…” Even as she read it to me I could tell she was a little embarrassed by her words, and, gave me an apologetic look. I knew what she meant: Her daughter does attend a more established school on the UWS, one that people compete to get into and has higher state test scores. However, I still got defensive because it was clear that her judgment was that because of the less competitive nature of the school my son attends, and the makeup of the student body, that it was “not nearly as good.” I said, “You mean, not nearly as prestigious of a school as yours.”

Four years ago when I withdrew my son from a renown gifted and talented program in Manhattan, which was a highly coveted spot in the school district, and placed him instead at a more progressive school further uptown, I had a moment of paranoia. Was I doing the right thing? I looked up the rankings of the school according to the NY State test. The G&T program ranked something like #5 in the state, while his new school came in around #1,543. When I saw that, my heart plummeted. I could only assuage my distress with the fact that I knew that one school “teaches to the test” while the other advocates “teaching to the child.”

I knew the point of our discussion was not to compare and contrast our schools, so I let it go. But this morning I have been ruminating on it. What exactly makes a school “good”? Since moving my son, and subsequently enrolling my daughter at the same progressive elementary school, I had all but forgotten the cold wall of silence that was often placed between the teachers and parents at the gifted and talented school until my friend reminded me. “Really? The teachers won’t give you their email address?” I thought, astonished. Sheesh, I email my children’s teachers two to 100 times weekly! Or at least sometimes it seems that way. Of course, it’s not just the fact they gave me their email, it’s that they are willing to work in partnership with me to support my children.

Good to me is: Quality teachers. Regular communication. An interesting, engaging, and challenging curriculum. Variety. Friendly peers. A caring and listening staff. Safety. Having an open door policy. Little to no homework (ok, still working on that one.)

As with many things in life, once we have something for a while, we take it for granted. The ease with which I can reach out to my children’s school and teachers is something I don’t think twice about now. Hearing my friend’s story, I realize how generous my children’s teachers are with their time and talent. I am filled with gratitude for them and the fact that they are teaching to my child, and not to the test. What scores my son receives on tests will likely influence where he goes to high school, and while that’s not to be minimized, the positive experience he has as a successful student will likely influence where he goes in life.


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