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Think about what you are seeking

How does your child learn best? Does he or she have any special needs or interests?

You should look for a school that meets your child's needs. The child, for example, may be creative or an independent learner. Or may work best under close direction in a structured environment.

See for yourself

Some schools, including the magnets, hold open houses. That is a good starting point, but parents should consider visiting prospective schools on their own. Schedule an appointment with the principal or other school administrator. Go when school is in session to see how the pupils act and work and how they use facilities such as the library. Don't be shy: you are the customer.

What to look for and ask

Walk the school and check out the facilities. Does it have a kitchen and cafeteria? How well stocked is the library and does it have a full-time librarian? Is the card catalog computerized? Does the school have a computer lab that is available to all pupils? Are computers located in classrooms? In the library? Are computers networked with others in the school or with outside on-line services such as the Internet? Does the school have CD-ROM players and other interactive media? Does the school have a playground and other outside facilities? What is the condition of the auditorium and gymnasium? Does the school have a health clinic and how often is it staffed by a nurse? Does the school have shop and home economic classrooms?

Ask about the staff. Does it have a good mix of younger and veteran teachers? What kind of support staff, such as counselors, is available? At what ages are art, music and gym taught by a specialized teacher? If special teachers are not available, how do regular classroom teachers provide those offerings? What is the ratio of students to guidance counselors in junior and senior high school?

Check out classrooms. How large is the average class size? Do the rooms seem inviting? Do kindergarten rooms have activity centers, such as a kitchen corner or block area? Is there art work hanging in the classrooms and hallways? Does it display creativity or is it more of the cut-and-paste variety that involves children merely following instructions?

Ask about curriculum and methods of instruction. Ask for the school's general education philosophy. Every school does things a little differently: Ask how the school distinguishes itself from others. Does the school offer any special programs or pilot projects? What themes are infused into curriculum?

To what degree do teachers engage students in participatory, hands-on learning? Ask if the school has a curriculum that teaches students how to use computers and how it is applied in regular course work. How are art and music infused into other curriculum? How often are pupils scheduled to work on computers and go to the library?

How much emphasis does the school place on standardized tests and how much time is spent preparing for them? How are pupils assessed beyond the traditional paper-and-pencil tests, and how are student evaluations communicated to parents? In elementary school, ask about high school courses offered; in high school, ask about college-level courses offered, as well as opportunities for internships.

Inquire about other school programs. Ask for a list of extracurricular activities, such as sports and clubs. What about after-school tutoring and other academic opportunities?

Find out where students go after completing grades at the school. Ask for a list that shows what high schools eighth-graders have advanced to. In high school, ask about college and job placements and the amount of scholarship money awarded to graduating seniors.

Talk about discipline and security. How does the school handle disruptive students? What support services are available for children with behavior problems? How does the school control access to the building during the school day? For high school students, ask about the school suspension and drop out rates.

Ask about parent and community involvement. Does the school have a parent group? How many active members and when does it meet? Does the group get involved in educational issues? Are parents recruited for volunteer activities during school hours? Is there a school-based management team? How often do pupils go on field trips? Where do they go? Does the school have a partnership with a company or community organization? How does the school promote civics and good citizenship?

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