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  Barb Shaffer is a former Chicago area parent who tried to start a charter school in Libertyville, but eventually was defeated by the local school monopoly, which holds tremendous power thanks to Illinois' pathetically weak charter law. Barb points out the danger of evaluating a school solely by what she calls its "curb appeal".

Curb Appeal Education

by Barbara Shafer

When my husband accepted a new job in Minnesota, we knew it would mean shopping for a house and a school district. I'm a product of public education... for better and for worse, and I'd prefer to send my children to public schools when I can. The upcoming move provided that opportunity. Armed with Elaine McEwan's 10 Traits of Highly Successful Schools and my years in education reform, I began by asking real estate agents about school districts. I received the names of four possible districts which sounded promising in the commute distance to work. These were Curb Appeal only -- "reputation," state test scores, number of National Merit kids, percent going to college, facilities including marble floors, swimming pools, and Food Courts, etc. Last time, I bought my school on "curb appeal" and got a lemon. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? I don't think so.

A visit to each school's website narrowed my choices to two. Buzzwords like "Chicago Math," "award-winning USDOE Excellence in Education" or "Blue Ribbon" schools, block scheduling, elementary literature-based reading program, multi-age classrooms, team-teaching of fully integrated curriculum, work-based learning ... these were all clues that those might not be a "good educational fit" for our family.

The two High Schools that still sounded promising received a list of questions via e-mail from me. A Tale of Two Cities: The response from District "A's" counselor stated that "you'll find some of this on our website" almost parroting back to me that I'd found some information on their website, (but I'd also stated that I wanted greater detail.) No answers from District A. District "B's" principal responded to my questions by saying "I'll pull some information together and put it in the mail to you." Administrators: The correct answer is B. Be informative ... particularly when asked.

I arranged for a tour of both schools since I didn't want to nix or choose a school on account of a single individual. District A sent the incorrect name of the contact person but eventually arranged for us to "tour the school" -- everything but the classrooms. (huh?) District B's principal would tour us personally through the facilities including classrooms and his secretary arranged a time for us. Administrators: The correct answer is B. Be willing ... classrooms are where instruction occurs ... not the food court.

When we got to school B, the principal greeted us as well as every teacher and individual (paid or parent volunteer) in the halls by name. He paid special attention to asking our future high schooler about her interests. We toured the school where some classroom doors were open and students were hard at work on science labs or doing readings from drama, etc. Student work adorned the building and the work was well done... almost amazingly so ... lending credibility to his claim that some of the teachers have been professionals in their lines of emphasis prior to becoming educators. The bottom line is that every teacher seemed happy, friendly, noticed our "intrusion" but just kept on teaching. The joy of teaching showed. School A sent us to the counselor's office where our 14 year-old was asked if she was familiar with the "block schedule" (uh-oh) and we were cautioned about registering ASAP. We were taken on a tour of the entryway, the hall/locker bays, the Food Court, the gym and the media center. The classrooms predominantly had closed doors with the blinds shut. In the two classrooms we were able to see into (from outside in the hall), one had students lounging on each other and slouching in a drama class (very informal rap session?), and the science lab had kids milling about albeit doing science. Very little student work was displayed... only in display cases where my 11 year-old said "Mom, look that kid spelled 'symmetry' wrong." The correct answer again? B. Be proud of your student work and make sure it's something you can be proud of. Be willing to show that you know what you're teaching and that you show that love your job. Good classroom management and rigorous curriculum have nothing to hide.

After the tours, I asked my "hard" questions, not wanting to jump to conclusions without understanding first. What are your biggest selling point and complaint? District A: "The taxpayers really support education here and there are no real complaints." (In fact, this is what the real estate agent told us as he described School A as THE BEST one around) When pressured about the block scheduling, he admitted that people hated it when it first was implemented, but the complaints are subsiding. They don't know if it's harming the kids or not since they haven't done a longitudinal study over the three years of implementation. (WHAT?) District B: "We're committed to being good partners with our parents. Our community wants us to prepare these kids for college. So, that's what we do. Our parents are actively involved in PTA and boosters and being available to them is part of my job." and regarding complaints: "They say I'm too strict -- you know, a prison warden (laugh) and we're getting complaints that the dances are getting too formal and expensive." Administrators: the Correct answer is again B. Be honest. Every school has +s and -s. Principal B could have told me that kids had weak reading skills and it wouldn't have bothered me a bit ... as long as they were actively working to correct it. School A made me drag it out of them. At School B, the principal looked me in the eye as he stated "If you're asking if our district has STW funding ... the answer is yes. If anyone tried to mandate it as anything other than the voluntary vocational education it's always been, the community's answer and mine would be a resounding NO." Good people-skills this gentleman has...

Which brings me finally to disclosure. I find it amazing that home owners are required by law in many states to have full disclosure of "known defects" to protect buyers, but yet schools can still be "sold" (predominantly by real estate agents) based upon Curb Appeal with Let The Buyer Beware attitudes. If a school has knowledge of a curricular or organizational deficiency across their board, shouldn't they be required to disclose it? After all, the biggest chunk of property taxes a person pays in many communities is school funding. A house -- a cold material investment -- is meticulously governed by full disclosure. A child's education -- an intangible force shaping the entire life and future of a child -- is governed only by parents who've learned the hard way -- often when it's already too late -- that the buyer should beware.

Parents are well served by having an open mind, being considerate, and above all, being educated against "Curb Appeal Education."

Finally, it would be nice if legislators considered "full disclosure" for schools to be as important as they consider it for real estate.

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