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Finding a School Best-Suited for Your Child

A letter from Kristen McDonald, the vice president of program and policy at the Skillman Foundation

People are often surprised to learn that my husband and I have six kids. Most families just aren't that big these days, blended or not.

But it's true. My kids range from age 3 to 20. I have one child in college and one in daycare. The other four are all in high school – in three different high schools. Count them up, and my kids are in five different education settings, each meeting their specific needs.

It's crazy at times, yes. Schedules don't always align. Getting around can be a logistical headache. But honestly, I wouldn't change a thing. The sometimes scary logistics are something we live with, because my husband and I believe personalizing our kids' learning experiences is so important. It's a choice we believe will pay off as they grow into adults and graduate from high school, pursuing their unique talents and strengths. They are each in a school that specifically meets their individual needs, caters to their strengths and helps them identify and address their weaknesses before they hit a college campus.

My family, like many in Detroit, is lucky to have so many options. There was a time when making a choice to send each child to a different school was either prohibitively expensive or impossible due to lack of options. Now, options are abundant in many areas, including Detroit – where different school models are available across the city. And many of those options are free or low-cost.

The downside is that the growing marketplace can be stressful for parents to navigate. But it has its blessings, too. If you can narrow down the playing field to the quality options – which is getting easier, with resources like the Excellent Schools Detroit Scorecard – you can get serious about finding a school that is best suited to your individual child's learning style, needs and future plans.

At the Skillman Foundation, we believe this concept is so important, that it is one of three pillars of quality we focus on as we work with Detroit schools to improve. Quality can mean different things to different people. To us, proficiency and test scores of course matter, but they're not the sole basis of what makes a school a quality option. A good school has strong math and reading instruction and deep connections to the neighborhood and community that surround it. And perhaps most importantly, a good school personalizes education, which means the school values each and every student as an individual capable of great things.  

Personalization is not an entirely new concept, but it is perhaps more important than ever. Our world we live in today is incredibly fast-paced and changing all the time. When I grew up, we didn't even have remote control for our TV, let alone things like Netflix and social media. Technology is ubiquitous today. The world my kids are growing up in is different, and as adults, they will be expected to keep up with the constant change. Our schools must prepare all of our youth to thrive in that change. Each student comes into a classroom at a different place, with different strengths and weaknesses, and with a different past. The more schools can meet students where they are and take them where they want to go, the better prepared those students will be to compete in today's economy.

We're working with a set of 15 schools in Detroit that made a commitment to improve their capacity to personalize learning. Whether your child attends a school that embraces that philosophy or not, there are things as a parent you can think about doing to make sure your child is getting his or her needs met.

Ask your child's teacher how he handles students falling behind or moving faster than her peers. Encourage the teacher to check in with you about topics or situations your child finds challenging – or when a passion appears to be sparked. Sit in on classes at different schools to observe how teachers interact with students, and look for environments that will work for the way your child learns best. Speak with school leaders and expect schools to care about what you as a parent think and have to say, and press back if you're not experiencing that.

Finally, talk to your student. Find out as much as you can about what matters to her and about how she best learns. For my kids, one child thrives in more competitive environments. One likes structure. Another is motivated to achieve by attending a performing arts school that allows her to major in dance. Knowing each is in an environment best suited to these factors builds my confidence that they'll find success. And that's a confidence worth driving to three different buildings to secure.  

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