Interview on choosing the right school: Joanne Foster

Education expert Joanne Foster shares insights about choosing a private school for your child

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Joanne Foster is an education consultant and award-winning author of several books on childhood education and learning.

We asked her several questions related to the issue of choosing a school. We covered topics such as what to look for, learning about schools, mistakes parents make, school red flags, and how to know when a school isn’t working. Here’s what she had to say.

For more expert advice on a wide range of questions related to school choice, read our comprehensive guide. You can also read our parent interviews on choosing a school, as well as our in-depth advice guide on getting into a private school.

Q: What would you say is the biggest challenge parents face when choosing a school?
A: I say the challenges will vary from one family to another. For some families the challenge is finding the right kind of school that's close to home. For another its finding the right mix for their particular grouping of family concerns. For someone else it might be finding the best school that aligns with the particular interests of their child, or addresses their strengths and areas of weakness. There's no one formula, it's a matter of what works for any individual family.

For a lot of parents too, it's the challenge of information finding. They don't know where to go to seek answers to the kinds of questions that they have. Whether its related to a child's particular areas of strength and weakness, or whether its related to something that's going on in their family. Parents have their own responsibilities and lives, they need to keep those factors in mind when they're determining what they should do around schooling for their kids.

Q: What are some of the best ways to learn about schools?
A: I think that's a really important service that Our Kids offers. But in addition, ultimately the parents have to actually do some on the ground walking in the schools and get a feel for the school, and see what's in the foyer.  Is it sports trophies or is it arts trophies or is it academic trophies? What's the climate of the school? What's the feel? Are kids smiling? Are they alone? What's the dynamic within the school?

Q: Do parents underestimate the value of school visits?
A: I don't think they underestimate the value of it, but I don't think they all know the value of actually getting through the door and talking to people. And again, your fairs, your opportunities, your open houses where schools can come and talk about those kinds of things, that's invaluable to parents, because it gets them out there and enables them to find out on their own what things are available to them. And that's once they've shortlisted their schools, obviously, because they couldn't do that for 60 schools.

Q: What are some good ways to come up with a shortlist of schools?
A: Parents have to figure out what kinds of neighborhood they can afford and where there are amenities or opportunities for learning that align with their children's interests. If not, they're going to be dragging themselves all over the place. I think they have to be realistic around what's comfortable for them, what they can afford, because if they're stressed out and they have a lot of financial burden, that's not going to bode well for family harmony.

I think they also have to try to connect with people, see if they can find someone who can maybe give them some insights. This includes education consultants, but also parents. They can provide knowledge about what programs are being provided in the different schools and other points of differentiation. If you have a child with an exceptionality, you’ll really need to do your homework, to see which schools offer the right kind of support.

Q: What else do families need to think about in the earlier stages of the school search?
A: So their priorities would matter. What is important to them? Do they have financial concerns, because private schools can be costly? Do they have concerns around making sure that every child gets exactly what he or she needs? If it's a large family, for example, that this child is in, is everybody going to require something special? Will they be able to manage that, not only logistically in terms of getting them where they have to go but, again, financially?

I think another concern is whether or not they want something specific like a dual-language, or a faith-based type of education, because to a lot of families that's really important. That becomes the priority. For other families, it's based on what the parents feel is most important for them. To their way of thinking, "My child is going to get the same kind of education, or better than what I got," and that becomes the driving force. So each family has a different set of priorities.

Q: To what extent do you think the child's own wishes, values, and priorities should play a role in this process, as opposed to the parents?
A: I think kids have more awareness around what might be the right kind of learning environment as they get older. So someone, for example, in JK may decide, "I like this school because it's got a great playground." Well that may not be the best reason to pick a particular school. Or, "I want this school because Suzie or Johnny is going to it and that's why it's the best.”

I think you have to inquire what children's priorities might be, because they do have them, but I think you have to weigh those in accordance with an adult and what the rest of the family feels is important. It's important to ask children their thoughts and to let them feel that they're part of the decision-making process. A lot of kids will think, "Well, I want to make the decision," but they aren't necessarily skilled in decision-making. Decision-making, just like a lot of other things, is an actual skill. Learning to prioritize is a skill. So, until those skills have developed, you want to be very careful before you put all your eggs into that one basket.

Q: To what extent is the decision a matter of head, or analytical skills, versus trusting your gut?
A: It’s a combination. You have to really know your child. But I don’t think you can predict with certainty whether the decision will work out. I'm thinking more in terms of being anticipatory as the way to go. The best way to be anticipatory is to be prepared and well-planned. The only way that you can be prepared and to plan things in an efficient and effective way is to learn,  get knowledge, and ask questions. Then you can predict maybe a little bit better than you might otherwise, but I don't put a lot of stock in predictions.

Q: Are there common mistakes that parents make in the school-choice process?
A: Apprehension. I was talking to a mom this morning who was interested in knowing more about gifted program because her son was sent home with a note to please consider this. The question becomes, how is this going to have an impact on him in the long term? Will he still be able to do other things? Will he still have time? Will he get frustrated when he's not gifted in everything? Are they going to force him to do things? Is he going to be uncomfortable? They have a lot of questions. So that's an issue, sort of an apprehension around committing to something.

Another one is not talking to each other enough. Parents need to spend a lot of time talking to each other, to their child, and with the family. Talk about your priorities. Every family dynamic is different, and sometimes people talk but don't listen. There can be a problem with that too. Sometimes people just talk to hear themselves speak. There's that level of trust that has to happen within a family. There's that level of willingness to listen and respond respectfully to someone's concerns and questions. That is a key thing.

Q: What advice might you give parents now, that you wouldn't have given them when you first started advising parents?
A: Spend time talking to one another. Spend time in schools looking at what's going on. Once you've made your decision, be a participant in some way contributing to that school culture and environment, encourage your children to be the best they can be. Praise their efforts. Set a good example, in terms of your own efforts and creativity and intelligence building. Be a lifelong learner, because if you're a lifelong learner, your children will see that and hopefully learn from that themselves and take it upon themselves to take that route. I think the last thing is to ensure that the family dynamic is as strong as it can be, to spend time together bonding. Especially in today's technological world, more time talking and less time tapping.

Child-specific advice on school choice
For child-specific insights on choosing a school, read our guide. We explore how school choices crucially depend on kids' unique traits, such as their mental and academic focussocial tendenciesactivity level, academic interests (such as art and STEM), and other attributes (such as giftednessspecial needslearning disabilities, and social issues).

To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account and read our seven ways to choose a school based on your child's needs (i.e., overall fitmore academic challengesocial strugglesacademic strugglesintensive learning interestsuniversity preparation, and special needs.).

Read our other education expert choosing interviews: Janyce LastmanAnn and Karen WolffElaine DansonUna MalcolmRuth RumackJane KristoffyIrina Valentin

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