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A citizen's guide to choosing a school for your child

By Ken Hung on Oct 8, 2015 02:46 PM

As the father of a kindergartner now attending a Philadelphia school, I’ve been following the recent flap over Philadelphia magazine’s photo for its October cover story, “A City Parent’s Guide to Schools.” Although I agree it was insensitive for the editors to put a group of White children on the cover of an issue focusing on the education of all of Philadelphia’s children, I wonder whether critics of the blunder did not go far enough.

As I read through the issue, I was troubled that the guide, though well- intended, seemed to be written with the idea that a parent is first and foremost an investor, someone who shops around for the right school as if picking a stock. I find this to be a little simplistic. After all, choosing a school for your child is not the same thing as buying shares in a company that may yield dividends – like a spot in the best high school or college – further down the road.

In the spirit of Philadelphia's article, I offer my own Guide to Finding the Best Philadelphia School for Your Child. It has a simple premise: Instead of looking at what a school can do for your child, consider what the school is or isn’t doing for everyone else who goes there, especially for those who might not look like you or share your experiences.

In addition to joining a home and school association or local “friends of” group to learn how to get involved in a school, consider what the school is doing to reach out to parents who don't have the time or know-how to join a parent group. The time of day that a HSA meets and the types of activities it plans might determine the type of parent who can get involved.

In addition to finding out whether a school has a program that will teach your child Spanish, Chinese, or another foreign language, find out what the school is doing for the families of students for whom Spanish or Chinese are first languages and the only language spoken at home. Does the school have a good "English as a second language" program? Does the school have translators who can communicate with the parents of those students? If the answer to these questions is no, then what is the school doing to get them?

In addition to finding out whether your school has a kick-ass principal, find out what the teachers, counselors, and other staff members are doing to improve the quality of the school. After all, they are the ones who will be working more directly with your child. What kinds of innovative activities are they conducting in their classrooms? What are they doing to build meaningful relationships not only with students but the families of those students? Do they feel that they are able to successfully advocate for them? Moreover, to what extent does the staff of a school feel valued for what they do, especially in light of the fact that many have been working more than a year without a contract?

In addition to finding out whether your school has high test scores, find out what impact standardized testing is having on the school. How much instructional time is being lost preparing for and taking the tests? How are the tests affecting the educational experiences and self-esteem of children who, due to language, family support, or whatever reason, have difficulty performing? What are principals, teachers and other staff doing to address these concerns? 

While you are doing that, ask yourself: To what extent are test scores really a valid measurement of the success of the school? To what extent are test scores and other “quantifiable metrics” used to undermine the work that those within a school are doing to build things such as a sense of trust, safety, and respect for diversity -- in other words, the foundation of what makes a great school.

And while you are at it, instead of merely finding out whether the elementary school will increase your son or daughter’s chance of getting into Masterman or Central, find out what the school is doing to create an environment where all students are valued as intelligent learners, regardless of whether they end up there or not.

In short, instead of searching solely for whether a school is a good fit for your child, understand that a school and the neighborhood around it is already part of a larger, dynamic community, one made up of relationships that may have been forged long before your child, or even you, were born. As a result, looking at a school solely from the perspective of what it can do for your individual child may blind you to the extent that a school may be successfully or unsuccessfully supporting other students, especially those whom you may know nothing about.

It’s not just about finding the best education for your kid — it’s about building the best education for all kids.


Ken Hung is a teacher at a public high school in Philadelphia.  He is also the parent of a kindergartner attending school in Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 8, 2015 4:19 pm

Yes yes yes!

Submitted by Daun Kauffman (not verified) on October 8, 2015 5:33 pm



 What's more Important:  Test Data or Life Data ?

A primary flaw of "Education eformers"’ paradigm is the focus on education as a single ‘silo’ of only one dimension(test results), blocks our view of the whole child.   See Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?”  Their system generates wrong decisions, life-changing decisions, based on uninformed, one-dimensional, misleading data — it’s not ACE-adjusted data – it’s without any perspective on wide differences in trauma rates. See  "Peek Inside a Classroom"

Submitted by Publius (not verified) on October 8, 2015 6:13 pm
Bravo, you have surmised a very complex problem the problem of unintended preferences and deliberate choice I don't believe people are prejudiced outright but I do feel that many want validation of commonality when presented with variance some people are unable to see clearly their own preference and how others may view them.
Submitted by Elizabeth Mosier (not verified) on October 8, 2015 9:07 pm

Well said! Thank you!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2015 9:47 am

This should include a full disclosure - Mr. Hung has taught at Central High School for nearly all of his Philadelphia teaching career.  Central, like Masterman, is a school where teachers are given enormous liberty in what and how they teach.  They are with the "cream of the crop."  Will he be satisfied if his children do not get into Masterman or Central?  There are many neighborhood schools - not in his neighborhood - that carry the weight of all the social ills present in Philly.  For some of those parents, they are looking for schools that are not status quo.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2015 9:10 am

Note - his child attends "a school" in Philadelphia.  I assume his child is attending "a school" that meets his criteria.  Most neighborhood schools - other than in wealthier / gentrified areas of the city like CC, Mt. Airy, University City, South Philly, Northern Liberties, etc.  - are lucky to meet the basic needs of students.

Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on October 10, 2015 8:48 am

If everyone in Philly thought like this in their engagement with the schools, then every school would be held to account for the kinds of things that make a good school and all schools would be good ones.  Of course, that presumes that a central administration is also sensitive to community expectations. 

Submitted by Philadelphia parent, teacher (retired) (not verified) on October 9, 2015 2:17 pm

As another Philadelphia parent and School District teacher (now working in schools as a retired volunteer), I thank you, Ken Hung.  My own kids got fine public school educations, preK through 12.  As a daily classroom volunteer in several schools, I see kids of 2015 getting good solid educations -- dedicated and competent teachers, caring environments, a spirit of transcending the dreadful shortages and disrespect that have befallen our city education system.

Submitted by Philadelphia parent, teacher (retired) (not verified) on October 9, 2015 2:58 pm

p.s.  The public schools of 2015 where I see good education happening are NOT privileged Center City schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 9, 2015 8:52 pm

When selecting a kindergarten for my child, I am only interested in what is best for my child. While I almost certainly will not use my neighborhood school, Greenfield, I do hope to use Masterman. The reality is that a parent with the means does view school selection as an investment. The overwhelming majority of sdp schools are an unacceptable choice for my child because I have the luxury and means to choose private school. 

Submitted by Philly taxpayer (not verified) on October 10, 2015 8:42 am

So you define yourself narrowly as a parent, not broadly as a citizen.  I wonder how your child will grow while under the influence of this self-interest mindset.

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