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Choosing a School for Your Child

An effective school is able to demonstrate that it achieves its goals.

by David Ackerman

February 22, 2001 | 7:00 pm

The good news about being a Jewish parent in Los Angeles is the number of choices you have for your child's Jewish education. There are over 150 schools affiliated with the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) representing all the denominations in our community. The bad news is that you have to choose from all those schools. Since each school offers something different, making the right choice can be overwhelming. What's a Jewish parent to do?

It is true that there are many important details to consider in choosing a school. However, there are also some basic principles that can clarify your choices, saving you time and energy. Here are some guidelines to help you think more clearly about choosing your child's school.

Look for the best available school, not the perfect school.

When I was a school principal, a mother came to visit me at my office. "I've visited 15 schools," she said, "and I haven't liked any of them." I told her, "You probably won't like this one either." It is important to remember that the perfect school exists only in our imagination. In reality, every school has areas of strength and weakness, and should always be striving to improve. This doesn't mean settling for second best; a school can be wonderful, terrific and outstanding, even if it is not perfect.

Look for an effective school, not a good school.

Every Jewish school in Los Angeles is "good" in the sense that it has an adequate facility, a competent faculty, a well-organized curriculum and cares about the students. However, it is more important to know whether or not the school is effective. An effective school is one that is able to demonstrate that it achieves its goals. Obviously, you would want to know what the primary goals of the school are and how the school organizes itself to help the students achieve them. One way to learn about the effectiveness of the school is to ask if the school is accredited by any agencies (BJE, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or the California Association of Independent Schools). School accreditation tells you that the school does what it says it does. It is a good check on "truth in advertising."

Look for a school that matches your Jewish perspective.

The first question to answer is which question are you asking: "Should I choose a Jewish versus a secular (public or private) school?" or "Which Jewish school is best for my child?" Either way, choosing a school is really a long-term commitment to a community. It is important to feel that you have a place in that community, and that you support the message the school is modeling. You should ask yourself if you can imagine becoming good friends with other families in the school. For example, ritual practice varies widely in our community's schools. If you do not practice any of the rituals that are promoted by the school, you may not feel at home in the school community. You don't want to be the only family that keeps kosher, or is Shabbat observant, or the only family that isn't. Choosing a school successfully means finding one that matches your beliefs, goals and practices. On the other hand, you also have to be honest about your willingness to learn and change. The school you select will have a great impact on your family's life. Are you willing to try new things? Are you willing to explore seriously the Jewish issues that will arise because you've chosen to give your child a Jewish education? Are you willing to be honest with your child (and the school) about some of your questions and uncertainties about the big questions in life?

Remember that a school is effective when the parents, teachers and administration all share a common religious (and educational) vision. The more disagreement there is between these groups, the less effective the school will be.

Look for an administration that will work with you.

We all hope that our children will experience only success. However, it is more realistic to assume that our children will run into some problems at some point in their school careers. Sometimes it is a social situation that becomes oppressive, such as feelings of getting picked on. However, it could also be something more serious, such as a trauma in the family (death or divorce) which affects your child's learning. It might be a motivational issue, such as a teacher who doesn't "click" with your child. It could be the discovery of a learning disability, which influences your child's academic achievement. When choosing a school, you should ask how the administration of the school will work with you, not if, but when there is a problem. What kind of support system is there in the school? What kind of access is there to the key decision makers? How does the school encourage families to communicate? Choose the school that has an administration that gives you the greatest sense of trust.

Look for a school that gives you the things that are most important to you.

In choosing a school, all things are not equal. How do you compare playground space with a computer lab? Is art more important than science? Is the hot-lunch program more important than the after-school electives? Only you know what is important to your family. Make a list of the things you would like to see in your child's school. Include as many details as you can. Once your list is complete, rewrite it. This time, put the items in order of priority to you. Keep in mind that issues like convenience of location and affordability should be included in this list. The school that is right for you is the one that gives you the most high-priority items on your list. This is really another way of recognizing that no school is perfect. If the school offers you the 10 most important things on your list, it won't bother you so much that it can't provide items 19 and 20 at the bottom of your list. Of course, this opens up the possibility of your working to improve the school by finding ways to get those items into the program too.

The three most important things you can do to begin choosing a school are: talk to your friends who have children in school, visit schools yourself and call the BJE at (323) 761-8605) for a copy of its newest publication, "Looking for a Jewish School: Handbook for Parents."

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