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How to Choose the Best School, Extracurricular Pursuits and Tutors

What you need to know before choosing a school and the right questions to ask

Malia Jacobson

Published on: September 27, 2018

Kids in school

A generation ago, educational goals were pretty simple: Kids were expected to stay out of trouble, get good grades and graduate. Most parents sent their kids off to the nearest classroom each morning with a wave and a smile, relatively unworried about whether that school offered the optimal academic environment, an ideal student-teacher ratio or a robust slate of extracurricular activities. 

Today’s parents face a different path, one mired with twists, turns and a multitude of educational options intended to help kids succeed both inside and outside class. From picking the best school to settling on a tutor to which sports and clubs to throw into the mix, the array of available choices is as exciting as it is overwhelming. 

Here’s how to sort out a few big ones: picking a school, whittling down options for after-school enrichment and determining if your child could benefit from an academic coach outside of school. 

School cool: Finding the best learning environment for your child

Modern schooling can take place wherever families choose, which makes wading through available options increasingly time-consuming. For some, heading to school each morning might mean pulling up a chair at the kitchen table: A growing number of Washington youth (between 3 and 4 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics) are schooled at home, many via accredited online schools, such as Columbia Virtual Academy, Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) and the Renton School District’s H.O.M.E. program.

Families opting for public school outside the home used to be locked into their neighborhood school. No more: A number of public school districts, including Seattle Public Schools and Tacoma Public Schools, offer school choice, which means that families are assigned to their neighborhood school but can request a transfer to any school within the district. (Transfers are approved on a space-available basis.) Once parents determine that they want their child to attend a public school, they can whittle down their list of options further by looking at factors such as school size, paraeducator support, college prep guidance and other metrics.

If public schools don’t seem like a good fit, a growing list of local private schools might be worth a look; according to the Seattle School Guide, Seattle’s 116 private schools generally offer smaller class sizes and the option for religious instruction (about 44 percent of Seattle’s private schools are religious), but they are often less diverse than their public counterparts. And then there’s the private school price tag, which runs $13,000–$14,000 per year on average. 

Whether parents choose public, private or an online academy, here are some questions to ask a school leader:

  • What is your school’s ratio of teachers to students? 
  • How many paraeducators or other support professionals are employed here? Is one assigned to each classroom?
  • What percentage of your students are students of color or minorities? 
  • What is your school’s approach to handling disruptive behavior from students?
  • What safety measures are used to secure the school and grounds during the school day?
  • For high schools, what types of college prep or scholarship help are available?
  • What percentage of the school’s parents volunteer? What types of parent volunteer opportunities are available?
  • How much homework can students expect?
  • How does the school communicate with parents?
  • Does this school offer an anti-bullying curriculum? How is bullying handled?
  • What types of accommodations and support are available for students with disabilities, learning differences, extreme food sensitivities or sensory processing disorders?
  • Outside of tuition, what fees or costs can parents expect throughout the school year?

Making the grade: What about tutors?

Even if you’ve found a school where your child feels challenged and supported, you may need outside academic help for a particularly difficult subject or phase. 

According to math tutor Schuyler Dunphy of Seattle Tutoring Services, signs that it’s time to call in a tutor include chronic challenges with teachers or schoolwork that parents haven’t been able to resolve, repeated clashes with a parent over schoolwork and struggles in an advanced subject that parents don’t feel qualified to address. 

Ask a tutoring agency what types of references, background checks and screening questions are used in their hiring process. “If you are hiring a tutor directly, ask questions related to their areas of specialty and how they would handle specific situations that could arise during tutoring sessions,” Dunphy says. It’s also vital that students buy in to the tutoring process, notes Dunphy, so be sure to ask kids what they’d like in a tutor and build those questions into your interview.

  • Do you have training or credentials related to teaching children in my child’s grade?
  • Do you specialize in helping students with ADHD or other learning differences?
  • How would you handle working with a child who resists showing their work in a subject or doesn’t want to ask questions in class?
  • What strategies do you use to keep the subject interesting? How do you keep students focused?
  • How would you handle a child who feels discouraged or defeated in a particular subject?
  • How do you communicate with a child’s parents regarding progress and expectations?
  • What are your fees? (Expect to pay $45–85 per hour or more, depending on your tutor’s qualifications, says Dunphy.)
  • What is your policy regarding cancellations, rescheduling or no-shows?

Extra credit: Balancing extracurricular activities

To raise a kid who excels in school and beyond, think outside the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, extracurricular activities are linked to better grades and school attendance, and kids who participate in such activities are more likely to go to college than those who don’t. 

The time required for extracurricular activities can vary — anything from an hour per week for an after-school club to 10–12 hours per week or more for a sport — but the payoff can be an increasingly mature, responsible child who learns to manage time wisely. 

Tamara Jones, parent of a middle school student in Tacoma, says her daughter started taking more responsibility for her own health, from sleep to nutrition, after participating in two sports last year. 

“We saw a lot of growth in personal responsibility over that year,” Jones says. “She realized she had to get to bed at a certain time 
to have enough energy to do the things she wanted to do.” 

Whether your child leans toward sport, music, art or a STEM-related extracurricular pursuit, asking the right questions of leaders or coaches can help you prepare for a smoother, less stressful experience:

  • What credentials or background do the coaches or leaders have?
  • For sports, does the coach have training in concussion protocol?
  • What weekly time commitment can be expected?
  • Are there summer or off-season expectations for participants?
  • Are there fees or costs for equipment, uniforms or other items participants need?
  • How do coaches or leaders communicate with parents?
  • What’s the most common complaint from participants and their parents?
  • How do coaches or leaders resolve conflicts between participants? What are grounds for removal from the team or club?
  • How can parents connect with parents of other participants for information about carpools or other general questions?

And remember that no academic choice is ever permanent. If a chosen school, tutor or club isn’t a good fit, families can begin their search anew, armed with newfound knowledge about their students’ needs. 

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