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Educational choices overwhelming

Few decisions that parents can make are as nerve-racking as settling on which school their child will attend.

That’s likely because the educational options can be overwhelming: Will Junior do better at a public school than at a private college prep academy? Charter schools can be a consideration, but what about home schooling?

In any case, it is not a decision parents should make lightly — or without educating themselves a bit first, said Peg Tyre, author of “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve” (Henry Holt and Co., 2011).

Tyre, a longtime education journalist who has written for Newsweek magazine among others, is also a parent. She said she debated these same issues while weighing educational options for her own children.

“What basis do you choose schools on,” she asked. “You go into a classroom — all the kids look cute, all the teachers seem nice, all the artwork looks creative.

“So, we look at test scores, but we really don’t understand what that means. We see numbers … (and assume) if the numbers are up, it must be a good school; if the numbers are down, it must be a bad school. Actually, we need to be a little more sophisticated than that.”

The problem, she said, is that “you can’t tell a school by its name. If it says ‘college preparatory charter’ or ‘fancy prep school,’ the name doesn’t really indicate how well the kids do.”

In writing her book, Tyre said she wanted to “give parents a little bit of a framework with which to look at some of these things (so) they might be able to make better choices.

“A lot of times it comes down to what’s closest to your house, what can you conveniently get to on your way to work … and in that case I think it’s useful to know a little bit about schools,” she said. “Then, if it’s not a perfect school for your child, you can at least advocate for things to make it better.”

She does, however, cut parents some slack: “It’s not our job to know about schools. We have to keep a roof over our heads; we have to get dinner on the table. … It’s not easy. Sometimes it feels like it’s all you can do just to stay on top of things.”

However, she said, schools, teachers and principals educate our children, so it’s not fair to ask them to educate us about education, too.

“We know that engaged parents get better outcomes for their kids, and I think we need to brush up a little bit … to be able to advocate for the right things for our kids.”

In searching for a school, Tyre said, parents should look for one that teaches “classes that are about something” and offers students “experiences” in science and math that build “content knowledge” while expanding children’s vocabularies and providing “a wider understanding of the world.”

While there is no such thing as a perfect school, she said, a good school, is one with a thoughtful, research-based curriculum that exposes kids and moves kids forward in reading and math, science and history. A good school is also, she said, one that offers kids plenty of opportunity for physical movement, exposes them widely to the arts, gives them opportunities for music education and offers the chance to experience leadership roles through after-school activities.

Tyre is a big proponent of high-quality preschool experiences for children and devoted an entire chapter of her book to the subject. She advises parents to begin considering preschool options for their children early.

“You want to look at things like: Do the teachers understand what the building blocks of pre-literacy are? Maybe your child is going to learn to read before kindergarten, but that’s not a goal really. What is a goal is putting (the child) in a language-rich environment,” she said, where he or she will have opportunities to hear and speak plenty of words through storytelling and rhyming, as well as be introduced to math via counting and measurement exercises.

“There’s a difference between preschool and baby-sitting,” Tyre explained. “Child care is good, and then at a certain point you want a sort of enriched child care. Then, as they get closer to kindergarten (age), you really do want to have that preschool experience.”

That experience should include a lot of play with “skills embedded in the play.” Young students “should also have good, warm connections with their teachers … because those early connections with teachers are very meaningful to children.”

Rita Abramson could not agree more. For a dozen years, she has served as director of Seton Academy’s northwest Las Vegas campus, at 3801 N. Campbell Road. (The school’s other local campus is in southeast Las Vegas).

The private school, which has 330 preschool and kindergarten students attending classes at its campuses, was founded in 1963.

“The primary mission of Seton,” she said, “has been that the parents and the children have this wonderful feeling that this is the beginning of their educational experience in a very positive way.”

While the youngest students are only 20 months old, Abramson contended that even the smallest tots learn at Seton Academy.

“With 2-year-olds, they do the Pledge of Allegiance like everybody else; they’ll (learn about) the calendar and the weather like everybody else,” she said. “The stage will be set for them to become (more) involved as they move up and the years go by.”

Abramson described Seton Academy as a traditional school with a curriculum based largely around language arts and reading. Each of its campuses has 10 classrooms staffed by both a teacher and an assistant teacher. (The school is not hiring additional teachers now.)

Preschoolers are taught using a kindergarten-level curriculum; kindergarten students are tasked with first grade-level work.

“The children have the skills to be able to sit down and write. They have the skills to talk and express their ideas,” she said, noting the “concentrated education” students receive during a typical school day at Seton Academy.

“There’s play in between and there’s recess, but there’s a lot of learning going on.”

Full-day kindergarten tuition at Seton Academy is $850 per month. When parents opt to pay for a private school kindergarten education versus accepting a free public-school education for their child, Abramson said they are likely “choosing it so that (the student) will get the extra education” benefits.

When students advance from Seton Academy, she said, “They are ready to go to almost any environment and they will excel because of the structure they’ve had.”

An educator since the 1960s, Abramson advises parents to begin investigating school options for their child at least six months before he or she is ready to begin classes. “That will give them a chance to see what is out there and get a feel for what is important (in an education) to them.”

She said when learning about a school, parents should always ask about its curriculum and how discipline issues are addressed.

“I have parents come back two and three times for (campus) tours, and that’s fine because it’s a big decision to make,” she said. “They come in with sheets and sheets of questions, which is … the way it should be.”

Judy Meese is admission director and parent liaison at the private Las Vegas Day School, at 3275 Red Rock St. She said visiting campuses is a “critical part of the decision” for parents when selecting a school and urges them to begin doing so a year before a child is set to attend.

“A school needs to match the children they serve. Every school has a different mission and purpose, which is only apparent upon visitation,” said Meese, who has worked at Las Vegas Day School for 17 years.

“Schools can make many claims in their literature or advertisements, but actually visiting the campus will be the best way for a parent to make an informed decision,” Meese said. “They will be able to see interaction between the teachers and students, the learning environment, the educational materials and if students seem to be happy.”

Las Vegas Day School, founded in 1961, has 870 students in its preschool through eighth-grade classes. Prospective students applying for admission to the school in grades kindergarten through eight must pass an entrance exam. New students entering grades two through eight must possess a 3.0 grade point average.

The school’s 57 certified and licensed teachers administer a curriculum that Meese described as “rigorous,” which emphasizes “the three R’s, work and study habits as well as discipline.” The school may soon hire two additional teachers as well as instructional aides. Resumes can be sent to jmeese@lvds.com.

“Parents need to think long-term when choosing a school. What are their hopes and dreams for their child, and where do they see them in the future?” After all, she said, “The single biggest reason that parents send their children to private school is to give them every advantage that a quality education can provide for high school, college and in their adult business life.”

In searching for a school, Meese said parents should inquire about its history and standardized test scores. At Las Vegas Day School, she said, students “consistently average between the 80th and 90th percentile” nationally on such tests.

Also, parents should press school administrators to explain the school’s curriculum and overall mission and philosophy. Parents should also, she said, feel welcomed by the administration to discuss their child’s needs or school concerns.

Class sizes can be among the concerns for parents. At Las Vegas Day School, Meese said about 20 students is average in its preschool classes, with up to 25 students per class in grades one through eight.

The small class sizes offered at the private Merryhill School in Summerlin are a point of pride for Principal Theresa Gotay.

The campus, at 2160 Snow Trail, features a preschool for students as young as 6 weeks old and an elementary school for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The latter classes typically number 15 to 20 students each, which Gotay said makes it possible for teachers to meet each pupil’s “personal learning needs.”

At Merryhill School, “We have a really well-rounded curriculum, and we really focus on a generation of learners,” she said. Besides its core curriculum, specialty subjects, including art, music, foreign language, technology and physical education, are also taught.

Also, she said, “We put a real emphasis on instilling compassion and our global responsibility to our world, so our students are really active in community service projects and understanding the importance of helping others.”

Gotay, who has been an educator for more than three decades, formerly served as assistant superintendent of schools for the Jordan School District in Utah. She was vice principal at Southern Highlands Preparatory School in Las Vegas before transferring to Merryhill School in 2011.

Despite her professional experience, Gotay said she struggled like most parents when making decisions about her own children’s education, and ultimately settled on a private school for them.

“I’ve been there and done that, and realize how important that process is. There is probably nothing more important than that initial (school) choice,” she said.

There are 180 Merryhill School campuses nationwide. The Summerlin campus features a staff of 19 people, including classroom and other specialized teachers, as well as administrative staffers. Although there are no positions available at the school now, Gotay continues to accept resumes at theresa. gotay@nlcinc.com.

When speaking with parents who are considering Merryhill School, she said, “The first question I will ask them is what are their educational priorities and goals that they have for their child. Each one of their children is going to be different so you can’t just say, ‘What’s your family goal?’ You really need to look at each individual child.”

Potential Merryhill School students must pass an admissions test and are invited to participate in “Discovery Day,” which provides them an opportunity to experience a typical day at the school before formally enrolling.

“I think that it really is a wonderful way of finding a good fit for a child,” Gotay said.

Finding that “fit” is important, agreed Abramson of Seton Academy.

“The biggest challenge for a parent — whether it’s preschool, public versus private — is that the school has a positive curriculum, that they’re willing to work with the parent for the fit of the child to make sure that they’re not just thrown into a class with 30 kids, and if there’s a personality conflict with the teacher or whatever, that (administrators are) willing to work with the parent on solving any kind of issue.”

Also important is for parents to be “constructively engaged with our kids’ schools,” author Tyre noted. “I think it’s very exciting the opportunities parents have now” to be involved in their children’s educational experiences.

“Parents need to be in engaged in what’s actually happening in the classroom; they need to be engaged with the teachers to become part of the learning community and encouraging schools to deepen what actually happens in the classroom.”

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