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Getting Your Child Well Educated

A multi-award-winning educator's advice.

Even if your child or grandchild attends a "good" school, you may worry s/he's not getting as good an education as you’d like.

For ideas on what to do, I interviewed Dr. Barbara Nemko, Napa County Superintendent of Schools, member of the State Superintendent’s cabinet, regional schools superintendent of the year and this year named one of America’s top 40 education innovators, my wife and co-author with me of How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in as Public School.

MN: What's the most important thing a parent can do to help ensure his or child gets well-educated?

BN: Choose a well-suited school for your child. That’s key because that single action affects your child every day for years, in and out of the classroom. And today, you may well have more choices than when you and I went to school.

Of course, schools still vary on how well they do academically and that’s important, but even at the elementary level, there often are specialty schools. For example, in Napa County, we have a specialty school for the arts, the environment, and dual immersion: English-speakers in the class learn Spanish and vice versa. Parents may choose any school as long as it doesn’t affect ethnic and racial balance.

Another factor to consider, obvious though it may be: proximity to your home. Not only will that make transportation easier, it facilitates your child making friends with kids in the neighborhood.

MN: In visiting a prospective school, what should you look for?

BN: Walk through the hallways and peek into classes, especially those near your child’s grade. Do the students seem engaged or bored? On the playground, is the tone more pleasant or contentious? The parent should also talk with the principal.

MN: Principals generally try to “sell” their school. What sort of questions get past the sales pitch?

BN: In today’s schools, there are pressures to mix kids of widely ranging ability in the same classroom. So especially if your child is likely to be a not-average achiever, ask, “How does the school attempt to meet the needs of high- (or low-) achieving kids?” For example, do they place kids in levels for at least part of the day? How much do they use technology to individualize—Today, so much curriculum is available online, and much of it is wonderful—immersive, interactive, individualized. You might ask, “Are you a BYOD (bring-your-own-device) school? In BYOD schools, all kids are required to bring a smartphone, tablet, or laptop daily.

MN: What's the next most important thing a parent should do to help ensure their child gets a good education?

BN: You probably can’t get your child “the best” teacher every year, but in key years—when the choice is between a well-suited and a toxic teacher--that’s a year to try.

MN: But how do you know who’s who?

BN: Ask PTA members, neighbors friends---teachers quickly acquire a reputation. And watch them in the classroom—There, focus on a child like yours: quiet vs boisterous, an advanced learner or not. Does the teacher seem to address that child’s needs? You certainly want to avoid teachers that make every child do everything lockstep: “Okay, boys and girls, now open your book to page 258.”

MN: Many kids are disorganized: They lose homework and notes that need to be signed. Any advice?

BN: I wouldn’t nag. The more we nag, the more they’re inclined not to listen. I’d ask if the disorganization is making them uncomfortable. I’d ask why s/he’s disorganized: Don’t want to take the time? Don’t have a system? Then, I’d ask if s/he’d like to try to improve? If so, I’d suggest approaches based on their previous answers: Perhaps watch a YouTube video on organization. Or we’d pick out and even decorate a box to put near the front door where s/he’d store all their school stuff. Or we’d get a headstart by, together, cleaning out his or her notebook binder. Or, sometimes, schools have programs to help kids get more organized.

MN: Any advice on how to avoid a nightly battle over homework?

BN: Many kids participate in an after-school program. That may be a good time to do homework. But if it’s to be done at home, create a routine: a time and place for homework so it becomes part of their day’s fabric, like brushing their teeth. Have your child pick the place—Many kids prefer to do it where the parent is, for example, the kitchen table. Some kids like to get the homework done as soon as they get home, or after a snack, or after getting some exercise. The worst time may be right before bed—Not only may they be tired then, it can lead to games-playing to avoid bedtime.

MN: What if a child hates his or her teacher?

BN: Of course, ask the child why. If you think appropriate, ask the teacher a nonthreatening question like, “How’s my child doing?” “What issues is s/he having?” Often, once you know the issues you can, as a trio, improve things enough.

MN: What if the teacher is boring, a pill, not meeting the needs of your bright child and the teacher says s/he has to focus on the low-achieving kids?

BN. As I mentioned before, that’s where digital can help. But yes, occasionally, it’s worth describing the situation to the principal. Of course, be tactful. Say something like, “My child and I have tried hard to make it work with Ms Horribilis but there’s just a poor student/teacher match. I’m wondering if you might consider transferring my child to another class?”

MN: Any advice on after-school and weekend activities?

BN: Early on, I’d expose my child to a variety of things--art, science, drama, sports, singing in a choir, whatever--and see what they’re interested in and good at. Sure, try music lessons or a sport but usually you’ll know pretty quickly if that’s something in which the child has interest or aptitude. I wouldn’t force persistence in such things.

But do try to make sure your child is doing some fun reading every day and read to your child even when older—Or you read one page; s/he reads the next. If she’s an early or struggling reader, simply leave out a word periodically, perhaps one s/he could guess from context. Family read-aloud is a fine way to boost appreciation for reading and for family bonding.

Oh and yes, not every minute needs to be structured. We all need time to just enjoy simple things. Martin, you told me how much you, as a child, enjoyed simple things like lying on the grass and staring at a cloud. There should be room for that too.

MN: True. Any advice about summer vacation?

BN: Have your child help plan the vacation: where to go, what sites to see, draft the budget, research history on the place, even what restaurants to plan to go to. Have him search for nuggets in tourist books, the visitor’s bureau's website, the local newspaper, even the chamber of commerce. All that offers practical learning opportunities, family bonding, a way for your child to feel efficacious and grown-up, and makes it more likely that everyone will enjoy the vacation.

MN: Any other advice on how parents can help their child get well-educated?

BN: Especially in math, don’t let your child fall behind--One concept tends to build on another. If the foundation is weak, the whole house may later be shaky.

One other thing: In our ever-more academically-oriented schools, do try to get your child involved in theatre, sports, volunteer work, whatever, not just page 258.

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