Experts’ strategies for picking the right Arroyoland school for your child

After half a dozen years of floating in calm parental waters, I’m once again paddling into the whitewater. My kid and his friends will soon emerge from the cozy chrysalis that is their elementary school and wing it at new schools — middle schools. Their families face a Pasadena Problem — actually, a souped-up First World Problem: Which of the area’s decent-to-excellent public (local, charter, magnet) or private (including independent, with no outside overseers) schools will be best for their child?
I concede that worrying over this decision is making mountains out of mud pies. At least that’s what Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education, believes. “For the vast majority of upper-middle-/upper-income individuals, I honestly don’t know that it matters too much at the margin which school you chose, especially in an elementary school,” he says. He notes that affluent kids have advantages — educated parents, enrichment opportunities, tutors — that mean they’re likely to fare well in all but the worst schools.
Point taken. But parents still have decisions to make. And while no school could transform a young Billy Bush into an Elon Musk, Arroyoland schools do vary in their values, approaches and offerings. So here’s some of the expert advice I’ve gleaned:
Children spend so much time at school that finding a place they’ll enjoy is paramount, according to Terra Toscano, Head of Walden School in Pasadena. “You want them to love learning,” she says. She recommends observing the students at a prospective campus. “Are they happy? You can tell.” (Disclosure: My child attends this independent school.)
“When you walk onto a campus, make sure you feel comfortable and take the name [prestige/reputation] out of the equation,” says Elizabeth Jones, president of the Institute for Educational Advancement, a Pasadena-based support group for gifted children. “It’s about fit,” finding what’s right for your child, she says.
Hold on, I’ve got you touring schools already. Let’s back up a bit. First you need to figure out which schools to visit.
GreatSchools.org allows you to map schools in your area. It also offers data on public schools. But you’ll need context, so be sure to read the “parent tips” on each school’s webpage. (Don’t make too much of the star ratings and reviews; like many online reviews, they’re probably not a representative sampling, but rather the thoughts of people who are excited or irritated enough to log in and comment.)
You can also find public school achievement scores on the California Department of Education’s School Dashboard (CASchoolDashboard.org). The numbers can be misleading, however. “If you’re looking at the percentage of kids who are reading at grade level, that is really not a measure of how good the school is,” says Polikoff. “Those are really measures of who is enrolled in the school and how affluent the school is.” He says more important are growth numbers — the improvement in student achievement from year to year. “That’s a measure of how schools are actually contributing to your kid’s knowledge,” he says. California’s data on that isn’t robust, but it’s available under the “status and change report” tab.
The Great Schools website also maps private schools, but the information provided isn’t as useful as the schools’ own websites, which you can find through the
California Association of Independent Schools. It lists and maps member schools on its website, including many of the area’s private schools.
Of course, the prestigious ones are expensive — around $20,000 a year for elementary school — but paying less might not buy you an advantage. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between a good comprehensive public school and a second- or third-tier private school,” says Polikoff.
It’s hard to compare public and independent schools because the privates are so good at marketing. “It’s worth going that extra step to find out about your public schools,” says Tracy Hoffman, lower-school science teacher at Westridge School for Girls, a Pasadena independent school. Hoffman sent all three of her sons to San Gabriel city public schools. “With my own children it worked out to where the private schools didn’t offer enough return on investment,” she says. While her kids thrived in public school, some of their friends didn’t. “They needed a different sort of environment [and] a smaller environment.”
Many public schools don’t offer tours, so Hoffman recommends turning up on campus at the end of the school day. Or see if you can attend an open house. “Do talk to the kids,” she advises. “Ask them really open-ended questions and see what they have to say — see if it’s something you would like to hear your child say.”
Once you are ready to tour schools, here are some more pointers. Toscano says all private schools will tell you about their mission. “But what you should be looking for when you walk around is evidence — evidence that it’s not just being sold to you.” If the administration says it values diversity, do you see it? If the school touts its arts programs, do the projects look creative or are they all the same? Pay attention to interactions that aren’t scripted.
Jones advises drilling down on how flexible the school is. Ask if a child is able to move on to new concepts when he/she has demonstrated mastery, and how they would facilitate that. “It’s really asking about the pace of learning, the depth of learning,” she says. And don’t be afraid to ask how they accommodate children who are struggling with a subject.
Also, says Jones, notice how the children relate to each other and the teachers: “Is there respect there — not fear but real respect?”
Progressive schools give children more say in their education and orient them toward making a difference in the world. If that appeals to you, consider Walden (pre-kindergarten through grade six), Sequoyah (K through eight) and Waverly (K through 12). All three are in Pasadena.
When my compadre Colleen Scott Pomerantz was evaluating elementary schools, her primary criteria were a “very nurturing, caring, safe environment.” Now that she’s touring middle schools, she’s paying more attention to the academics. “I want to make sure it’s the right fit for who he currently is,” she says, “but [also] who he’s going to be when he’s a teenager.”
Evaluating curricula is tricky if you’re not an educator. (If you’re gung-ho anyway, look at EdReports.org.) More important than which curriculum is used, says Polikoff, is how well it’s implemented. “Does the district support the teachers with professional development?” he asks. “Is there a coach in the subject to help teachers?”
Pomerantz’s son has requested a school where he won’t be among the youngest. Apparently, his ideas about middle school come from middle-grade books. “He’s convinced it’s going to be bullies and lockers and all this unfamiliar territory,” she says. The kid is onto something: Research suggests middle-graders fare better when there are younger kids around. Otherwise, says Polikoff, “in that transition year, the sixth graders now become the weakest link.”
By high school, you’ve probably got a better handle on the kind of student you’re raising. Private schools put more resources into college counseling, but the elite ones can be pressure cookers. And, as Hoffman points out, there are many excellent colleges that admit students from a range of schools.
She advises parents to ease up. “Let your child choose their path a little bit with what their passions are,” she says. “They don’t have to do everything. If they do a few things that they truly enjoy, their education will be phenomenal.”
Alexa, do any schools offer AP Pokémon?