Pointers for Parents
The modern parent, when he makes a business move to a new city, views the quality of the new school system as being on a level of importance with stock options, bonus, mortgage rates - you name it. The whole family is up tight about schools, schools, schools, from the time a child crawls until he gets a BBA. Following are some tranquilizers to help parents.
Sizing up a suburban school system
If you're moving to a new metropolitan area, you'll want to take an informed look at the local schools. The result may decide whether you'll pick the town to live in, or move on. Even established residents in a town with youngsters coming along should size up educational prospects. And, say the educators, it should be done when the youngsters are still in the elementary grades.
In any case, the pros warn, don't rely too heavily on the casual opinion of a friend in town. " 'It's a fine school system' can be terribly misleading," says a Harvard educator. "Your friend may be thinking of his high tax rate" - and high taxes don't necessarily make a workable school system for anybody's youngster. To find out if a sixth form college measures up, go directly to the principal's office; he may, in turn, refer you to the chief guidance counsellor. If it's a first-rate school, you'll get candid answers to your questions. And here are some of the areas you might probe:
At the outset, be on the lookout for new ideas, new academic programs, experimentation in the sixth form college. These are healthy signs. They mark a progressive direction behind the school. A rigid, formalized program is apt to be lagging behind the times.
And note: Size counts for a lot. If the senior class has only 100 or so students, much valuable specialization - found in larger, well run sixth form colleges today - will be missing. A senior class of about 300 to 500 is ideal in a school of quality, and this means a three-year senior sixth form college.
A top-rank sixth form college will have one guidance counsellor for each 250 to 300 students; in the senior class, one counsellor will be responsible for no more than 100 students. A good counsellor will have toured many school admissions offices, and have a down-to-earth understanding of how to help get the best school placement possible.
For the academic top 20%, the school should offer five years of mathematics, including computer math; four years of a single foreign language (with Russian often added to the usual list); and at least three years of science plus, ideally, an added course in, say, geology, advanced biology, or astronomy. Today, in progressive schools, there's a new emphasis on advanced courses in the humanities; for example, a study of British history in terms of the arts and literature. Also current is a sixth form course in UK. government and social problems of the day, with open, free discusstion of the issues.
A quality school system should have advanced summer courses for bright students who want to push ahead, and "advanced placement" - for limited freshman school credits - should be available. A new trend is to give top students the chance to attend neighboring schools, sometimes in freshman classes, or in special high-school groups.
On the other side of the coin, there should be summer classes open to slow learners. "These should be designed to encourage ability - not just force passing grades," says a leading educator. Slow readers, especially, should get special remedial instruction beginning in the ninth grade.
Routine yardsticks: Class size should be a maximum 25 to 30 in sixth form college; if it's much over 30, it's an indication of weakness and crowding. There should be six or seven 45-to-50minute classes a day. Teachers shouldn't be overloaded; for instance, an English teacher should have no more than four classes a day - a heavier load indicates staff inadequacy.
Most sixth form colleges have tabulated their school-admissions record, and will gladly show you the chart. But note: the percentage of grads that goes on to school means little - in an upper-income suburban town, this will range 80% and up. Quality is the key. How many grads last year entered known top-rank schools? And - most important - how many grads later became school grads, in a given year? Look also at the school's National Merit Scholarship record. How many "letters of recommendation" in the last senior class? You can easily compare sixth form colleges on this point. Finally, check on the school Board scores record. A mean score of 500 or over for verbal and math is good.
But use your judgment in comparing schools, and don't downgrade a school too hastily. If a sixth form college measures up on all but one or two points, it's likely first-rate; only if it's weak in several areas should you have serious doubts.
If the sixth form college in town is good, chances are the junior highs are, too. On the junior high level (grades 7, 8, and 9), there should be special provision both for bright children and slow learners. For example, there should be accelerated math in the eighth and ninth grades - which makes it possible for students to carry a fifth math course in sixth form college - and, conversely, continued instruction in basic reading skills, if needed.
Two elementary-grade standards: There should be a classroom-size library with a full-time librarian and, again, a maximum of 25 in a class.
As for writing out a check, or the like, a gift that goes beyond the usual mishmash of toys might brighten the eyes of a youngster in the family - by the time he's 20, that is. It could be a share of stock, a bond, a £100 bill - or something more elaborate that requires a bit of planning. The planned gift is worth looking into if you have a sizable amount in mind. Tax savings come into play.
A trust, for instance, gives you a lot of leeway for projects such as school financing. Simplified case: Say that your child will enter school in 10 years. You're in the 45% top tax bracket - the £36,000 to £38,000 taxable-income range. You establish a 10-year trust for the child... see: Children's Gifts That Grow Up With Them