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Selecting children's school takes parental homework

A new school year is at hand, and many parents are thinking about enrolling their children in private schools. Smaller classes, individual attention and a safe learning environment are fundamental requirements for a quality education. But not all schools are created equal, and with such an array of mission statements, methods, philosophies and practices, parents need to take time to discover what guides the school their children might attend.

The best way to evaluate a private school is to look, listen and ask lots of questions. Start by reading the school's brochure or report on performance standards. This information could tell you enough about a school to remove it from consideration. Reputable schools don't claim to be the answer for everybody, just an alternative for children whose needs or talents might not be recognized and developed in public school.

Next, make an appointment to visit, and tour as much of the school as possible. Ask to see the curriculum and textbooks. In general, effective learning materials are rich in content and will stimulate a child's natural curiosity.

As you continue your tour, ask these questions:

How many students are in each class? Children need smaller classes, especially in the primary grades, so the teacher can provide individual help. Kindergarteners through third-graders learn more in classes of 20 children or fewer. In later elementary grades, class size can rise into the low 20s without having a negative impact on learning. Of course, a large class with an inspiring teacher is far better than a small class with a mediocre teacher.

How is reading taught? No subject provokes more debate than the teaching of reading, which splits into two opposing methods _ phonics vs. whole language. Phonics emphasizes sounding out words syllable by syllable. Most Americans older than 30 learned to read phonetically. Whole language focuses on reading for meaning, and kids are encouraged to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words in context rather than sounding them out.

Teaching kids to read shouldn't be an either/or proposition. What works best is an approach that combines phonics for decoding sounds and whole-language immersion that excites kids to read and write. Look for classrooms that are filled with age-appropriate books, where teachers read to kids and kids read on their own and to each other.

What about the arts and physical education? In elementary school, music, art and physical education should not be considered electives. They need to be integrated into the curriculum. Look for a school where children in the early grades are encouraged to sing, dance, act, drum, draw, paint and participate in athletics.

Is there foreign-language instruction? The earlier children are exposed to hearing and speaking a second language, the better able they will be to learn the language.

How is the classroom managed? Kids learn best in a positive, orderly environment where expectations and consequences are clearly communicated, and genuine, frequent praise is routine.

How is learning evaluated? Tests should not rate only student performance but also should measure the quality of instruction.

How are parents kept informed of children's progress? Do teachers schedule conferences and send notes home regularly? Do they suggest how parents can help their kids get the most out of school?

Does the school employ a guidance counselor, and what role does he or she play? Before you leave, ask a few teachers and the principal to describe the school's goals. If their responses agree, you'll know that they speak in one voice, and the school has clearly defined goals.

A good school (private or public) is run by a principal who has vision, passion and compassion. A good school has teachers who enjoy the challenge of teaching kids, no matter what their ability levels. A good school prepares students not just for the SATs but also for life.

One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is the opportunity to get a quality education. But as with any other major decision they make for their children, parents need to do their homework first.

Carolyn Sandlin-Sniffen teaches language arts and reading at Seminole Middle School in Pinellas County.