School fairs let you shop for a perfect fit
With the start of the new year comes a renewed focus on schools. Milwaukee Public Schools opened its enrollment period on Monday and many other districts are also signing up students in coming weeks for autumn.
MPS alone has nearly 180 K-12 schools and there are another 100 or so when you add in charters and private schools in the city, so the options can be daunting. A number of schools will also have closed, moved or had their programs altered by September, so there's a lot to learn about Milwaukee schools.
Via the three choice enrollment city parents can pick three schools and are nearly assured of getting into at least one of them. (Something like 98% get one of their choices.)
Don't hesitate, however. If you miss open enrollment and the first enrollment period for the Parental Choice program in February, odds of getting into your preferred school get much worse.
But how to decide which to choose?
Web sites like GreatSchools.org – which hosts a pair of school fairs in Milwaukee in the coming weeks – offer copious information. But if you want to meet folks face to face, there are a couple great ways to do it.
Most importantly, visit the school. This is a step you simply cannot skip.
Stop in unannounced for a tour, see the teachers in action, get a feel for the vibe of the school, talk to the principal. Is it friendly and welcoming? Do the teachers, staff and kids seem on task? Ask about achievement and discipline issues.
Ask about the details of school life. Is there after-school care, if you need it? Is there an active and vibrant PTO? Ask how you can get involved. Any school worth its salt will encourage parental participation.
"Almost all parents benefit from getting that reassurance about what that school looks like and how their child will fit into the environment,"said Milwaukee Public Schools spokesperson Roseann St. Aubin.
"Some schools are beautifully filled with artwork. Some schools you'll enter and hear music down the hallway. You might see that they have constant display of essays or reading materials and that's the kind of school you may feel is going to be working very hard on your child's behalf to bring that achievement it. I think it's important to meet teachers and talk with them and sit in to a classroom."
After you get the standard tour, ask to see more. Dig deep. You are trusting these folks with your child's education and safety, so don't be afraid to ask about any of your concerns. They will understand. If they don't or if you're not getting answers, you should take that seriously by taking your child elsewhere.
"Despite all that is said about public education and the challenges that do exist in any urban environment for education today," said St. Aubin, "we know that when parents get inside the schools, that comfort level rises. They get reassured by what is going on in that building. So, I totally advocate the tour. I am quite confident that there are many good fits all across the district for parents."
If you don't have a school or three that you want to tour, the GreatSchools Milwaukee School Fairs offer a means to narrow down your options.
A South Side schools fair takes place Saturday, Jan. 14 from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at American Serb Hall, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave., and a North Side fair follows at the same time on Saturday, Jan. 21 at The Shops of Grand Avenue Downtown.
"Choosing the right school is crucial in Milwaukee because families can choose among so many options – some high quality, and some not," said GreatSchools Milwaukee director Jodi Goldberg, who estimates that 17,000 Milwaukee households choose a school each year.
"Finding one that is of high quality that also matches a student / family's unique needs can be a challenge. The GreatSchools Milwaukee School Fairs give families a chance to gather information and meet staff and students from a large number of schools in one place so they can decide which few they would like to investigate more deeply and, ultimately which two or three they should visit. We also have school selection coaches right on site to help families think about what information they need to make their best choice."
Last year's two fairs – split between K-8 and high schools, rather than geographically, was the first for Great Schools in Milwaukee.
"We're trying it out because a lot of parents have a range of ages they are trying to find schools for, and they tend to need all the schools to be closer to them rather than on the other side of town," says Goldberg.
"So this year, they will be able to find a K-8 and a high school on the same weekend. Just having the Grand (Avenue) event was not reaching the whole city audience. It also allows us to focus a lot of our Spanish language resources more efficiently. The idea came from a couple of the South Side principals and the parents we consulted seemed to think it was a good thing to try."
About 100 schools participated in 2011. While schools are still signing up, at the time of writing, Goldberg said 28 South Side schools and 34 North Side schools had committed to participate this year.
Some schools don't participate because they have little or no capacity to accept new students. Others, like Milwaukee High School of the Arts require auditions and so do not participate in the fair.
"Parents and students get frustrated sometimes because most of the better known, selective and / or popular high schools are already finished with their enrollment process, and families don't know what else is out there," said Goldberg.
"This is a fantastic opportunity to see smaller schools with specific specialties and also some of the bigger comprehensive schools with interesting programs, as well as a full complement of sports programs, etc."
The fairs, said St. Aubin, are a great first step in the school selection process. But reminds parents that it shouldn't end there.
"I like the school fair for the compare and contrast," St. Aubin said.
"But just as you would take a test drive in a car, it's still important to follow up and go to the school. Stop by some booths at the school fair, pick up the materials for two or three schools that look promising; that have got what your child needs. Then it's time to make a quick appointment. Walk through the school, meet the principal, meet the grade level teacher and then make your decision. The school fair is very good on the front end, it's window shopping."
If you can't make it to the fair, which is free, of course, visit your local library to pick up a copy of GreatSchools' printed "Milwaukee School Chooser," which has information on Milwaukee's public, charter and private school options.
For more information on the fair, or if you can't locate a chooser, contact GreatSchools via e-mail Milwaukee@greatschools.org.
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