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Finding an Awesome School for Your Kids: What to Look For

The formula for the perfect place is an inexact science. But here are seven ironclad signs – from teachers and culture to the building and parent support.

Everyone wants the best possible schools for their children – and most of us seem to think we've found exactly that. Studies have found that most people would give their neighborhood school an A grade, even if they aren't pleased with the job "schools" in the abstract are doing.

What's the secret to a good school in southeast Michigan – or anywhere? Surprisingly, it's not terribly complex. And what attracts parents when they are looking at a brochure – things like MEAP scores and flashy new buildings – are minor elements in what actually creates an outstanding learning environment.

1. Quality teaching makes the difference

"We're in the people business – human resources and human development," says Ed Bretzlaff, who, up through the 2011-2012 school year, long served the assistant superintendent of instruction in the Bloomfield Hills Schools – widely regarded as one of the best districts in Michigan. "There's an old saying that your school is only as good as this year's teacher."

That means that what goes on in the classroom – and how successful a student is there – is part of a complex interplay of student, teacher and environment. The best teachers are able to adjust their approach in a way that helps each student learn, even with the varying levels of ability, readiness and support students bring to school.

2. School culture and learning environment

School culture is, in short, the "feel" or atmosphere of the school. Bretzlaff says it's a combination of curriculum, leadership, teaching and environment that makes up a school's culture. "You add all those things up and you have something called school culture, how the school feels: 'Is this the right environment, in its sum total, for my kids and my family?'"

It's expressed in things like the work displayed on the walls, the way the staff communicates with students and families, and their expectations of students.

3. School leadership sets the tone

As critical as quality teaching is quality leadership. A school's administrative team – principals and vice principals – set the tone for the way the school will operate. An upbeat, positive, well-organized principal is going to go a long way toward creating the type of culture where most students can succeed.

"You really want to look for leaders that are passionate about what they do and are also competent," said Barbara Markle, assistant dean of K-12 outreach in the College of Education at Michigan State University. A strong focus on student instruction is key, she adds.

4. Clean and well-maintained buildings matter

While well-maintained facilities are important, the newest, flashiest buildings and technology are more of a "nice-to-have bonus" than an essential part of student achievement. "Students like a bright, clean environment more than a new one," Markle says.

Similarly, while technology is important, it must be addressed in the service of instruction, not the other way around. Bretzlaff points out that today's students are going to need a high level of comfort with technology to meet the demands of the modern workplace.

"The old 'cells and bells' model of a small square classroom and rows of desks – those days are over, so we really need to have facilities that facilitate a more modern approach to teaching and learning."

5. Parent and community support for schools

Over and over again, we hear how important parent involvement is for schools. But it goes beyond simply having an active PTA. Schools reaching out to parents in new ways and the community as a whole supporting its schools are also important factors.

"I think schools that have strong parent groups, where parents are there in support of learning, is something that is important," Markle says.  "Community businesses need to be involved in schools as well – parents are not just involved in isolation."

6. Test scores are just one factor

While the media breathlessly reports on MEAP scores every year and the test scores are most commonly looked at as a key indicator of school success, they are simply one measure of a school's quality. What matters more is individual student improvement year to year.

"There is not and never will be one test that can assess all the important things kids need to come away from school with," Bretzlaff says. "It's one data point."

7. No one-size-fits-all school

While there's no such thing as a perfect school that will serve all learners ideally, elements such as personalized instruction, school culture, strong leadership, well-maintained facilities and community support typically add up to a terrific school.

Any school that's paying attention to all those elements should be able to create an environment where any student can succeed. And student success, however that might be defined, is the ultimate goal of any school that's doing its job.

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