Should Choosing an Elementary School Be This Difficult?

Parents are often faced with choosing a school for their kids without all the necessary information.

If parents don't have the proper resources, it's not exactly easy to make the right decision on a school. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

New Orleans is a unique city in many ways, including its education system.

This is because all public schools—charter and district-run—are citywide access schools. Regardless of where parents live, they can select from an array of schools for their children. In fact, nearly three-quarters of New Orleans’ students attend charter schools. Proportionally, that’s more than any other U.S. city.

For parents, choosing the right school, whether in New Orleans or anywhere else, is a new worry. Neighborhood schools once provided an easy answer, but now with more school choices, decision-making and application processes are harder to navigate. In essence, parents are consumers shopping for the best school as they would for their cars.

A recent study by Tulane University’s Cowan Institute for Public Education Initiatives shows that parents in New Orleans are often lost in the school choice wilderness.

Researchers asked parents to participate in focus groups in order to discover “how parents access information, how they select schools, what qualities they look for in schools, and their overall satisfaction with navigating the school choice system in New Orleans.”

Although the study’s focus is on New Orleans, the findings can provide a roadmap for parents and school districts anywhere in America.

One of the research’s key components is the importance of accurate information for parents. Word-of-mouth from friends and family is often the primary way parents make a decision, which ultimately may or may not be best for their own children. The study notes that parents often “made unknowingly false statements or expressed confusion about certain aspects of the application process, admissions requirements, and the school system in general.”

In that regard, the researchers concluded that “parents relying on word of mouth as a source of information may miss out on potentially beneficial opportunities for their children.” They recommended schools provide more relevant, reliable information and include perspectives from other parents.

Academic excellence was naturally a main priority for parents, but they often wanted more than the results of a school’s test scores.

“Parents were interested not only in academic preparation but a holistic, balanced educational approach that would teach their children life skills and allow them to be creative,” the report stated.

Extracurricular activities, teacher-student ratios, safety, varied curriculum and diversity were also critical.

One elementary school parent told the researchers, “I want to add that diversity was really important…My concern about some schools, many schools, is that they’re homogenous. They are either all black or all white. That is not the world that we live in...I want my children to be able to relate to everyone…”

But teachers were a major concern as well because parents often removed their children from a previous school because of a bad teacher. Parental opinion often varied on what makes a good teacher. Some wanted certifications, while others wanted a caring teacher with enthusiasm.

They also want a curriculum that includes art, physical education, and African-American studies. But some parents simply wanted the basics—bookshelves filled with books, desks for every students, and clean, safe bathrooms.

In conclusion, the study says, “Parents’ descriptions of an ideal school went well beyond the criterion they said they used to select their children’s schools, suggesting a difference between the ideal and the realities of current choices in New Orleans. Nonetheless, most parents seemed to feel it is possible for public schools in New Orleans to someday live up to their ideal.”

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