Best elementary schools...
July 27, 2007 1:09 AM   Subscribe

What are the best elementary schools for kids?

I am looking for some detailed advice on the best elementary schools. Best meaning advanced in education, when compared to public state schools, and a great sports affiliation. My husband and I have a 5 year old whom we have in a private kindergarten program this year, but we are looking for the best possible elementary school for her next year. Since she is our first child, we do not have much experience on schools and teachers.

The private school we have her in for this year, Tutor Time, is very focused on teaching the child according to their learning styles. This teaching method is something that my husband and I greatly agree on. Also, we are allowed to have direct communication with her teachers so that we are always updated and informed about her progression at school and, if any, setbacks so that we may do additional work with her at home.

Private schools are definitely favored, but we would like ones that are not affiliated with religion either. I have been hearing great things about Montessori, but they seem to be very strict on whom they allow in their program, especially if the child had not been in their program since the beginning of their education.

So my questions are:

1) What types of schools have any of you had great experiences with as far as education, parent-teacher relations, and sports?

2) If Montessori is one of them, what is the best way to get in their school if my daughter has not been in their program before?
posted by dnthomps to Education (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with things on the ground in Phoenix, but I am an English teacher abroad (and I teach kids and adults), so I've got some experience managing classes and working in education that might overlap here.

I'd say some of the best indicators of quality at any school are, at least in my experience:
- small class sizes
- a good mixture of more structured/less structured time
- an absence of meddling on all levels: administrators who leave teachers fairly free to innovate and adapt lessons, parents who support and trust teachers and let them get on with their jobs, and kids doing a lot of the learning and investigating themselves
- happy staff, not just happy teachers

Additional good things which may or may not be possible for you, but which I think could be desirable:
- if the school was walking distance from home, parks, friends' houses, and the library, or at least bike-able (though in broiling Phoenix this might seem brutal, I started walking home as soon as I was allowed to - 4th grade? - and loved the time by myself and the independence)
- if the sports teams, at least at first, are based at school, so it's easier logistically on the family
- if you enable your child to flirt with all sorts of passions and interests (again: library!) without making it seem like he/she has to commit to something forever (example: you'll have paid for karate lessons, and now your child wants to go to physics camp...)

Finally, you say you're looking for "the best possible elementary school." I'd wager that the vast majority of elementary schools, public or private, regardless of what you hear from parents or the media, will provide an excellent learning environment for any child, because half the value of going to school in those first early years is about developing social skills. If they learn about reptiles or long division a year earlier or later, in the long run, it doesn't really matter, as long as your child develops a love of learning.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 1:40 AM on July 27, 2007

A good part of your child's education experience will depend on home life.

*If you want to give her a real head start, throw out your TV and read to your child LOTS. Using TV as a baby sitter is a wonderful relief for parents, but rots childrens' brains. Somewhere around first grade, introduce your child to Harry Potter. You'll learn why J.K. Rowling is the world's first billionaire author. We've also had good luck with Newberry medal and honor books. When your child starts reading, share the reading. You read a page, then let her read a page. Alternating keeps her from getting tired, but keeps you moving through the story at a pace that will hold your interest, too.

*I second mdonley's comment that walking your child to and from school is incredibly valuable. If you're lucky enough to have a walk or bike ride of around 15 minutes, that's perfect. Your child(ren) will be leaner and healthier than their classmates, and will grow up understanding that exercise feels good and walking puts you in contact with your neighborhood. And, bonus, it's good for you too.

*Just by luck, we started our children in a school that runs preschool through 8th grade. Now that our son is in middle school, we're thrilled that he's still sharing classes with kids he's known for years. Kids can start being mean to each other around middle school. If they've known each other for 5 years by then, there seems to be less of this.

*You say "Private schools are definitely favored, but we would like ones that are not affiliated with religion either." Unless you are militantly anti-religion, I would offer that Catholic schools are worth a look. In our area, they offer sports programs at earlier ages than anybody else. In primary grades, there is no discussion of the sexual morality issues that separate many people from religion. Catholic schools are run on tight budgets so they depend on parents volunteering their time in the school. If you jump right in and volunteer, lots, you will find yourselves linked in with a real parent community that will be one of the joys of your life for many years. And, because Catholic schools are moderately priced, and try not to turn away children for financial reasons, they tend to have pretty diverse student bodies.

*Finally, when evaluating schools, look more at how the children behave on the play ground than at what the building looks like or how many computers they have. A large group of happy and well behaved children is what you want.

Good luck to you.
posted by takenRoad at 4:30 AM on July 27, 2007

Thank you both for your comments. My husband and I have definitely starter our daughter on the right footing in terms of development and education, she is definitely not a tv couch potato. In our house, she must do something stimulating and educating, like drawing or puzzles or the development workbooks that teach you to write and match items, before she can get any television privileges.

She can speak English, Spanish, and some Sign Language and is able to write words, as well as her name, and knows how to add/subtract between numbers 1-10. Everything we do at home is educational and she is a great Harry Potter fan and has everything to do with the book series.

From what I have witnessed with other parents, she seems to be very advanced in her progress. And yes, takenRoad, having her in a k-8 program is also something we want because we would love for her to grow up with her friends. She is currently an only child and while I am a stay at home mom that encourages outside time for her to play and ride her bike, I know it is key for her to be with kids her own age.

I believe we are set on the home front, but I just have not seen much of the advanced Arizona schooling other than Montessori. And I really am inquiring for any advice on how to get into that school, they seem to be very selective and will only take kids that have been in their program since they were 3 years old.
posted by dnthomps at 4:41 AM on July 27, 2007

I don't really have much to add to this thread, but I just wanted to say that Montessori schools seem to be a pretty polarizing subject with a lot of people. Very few people will argue with private schooling, but there are enough very good, as well as very bad Montessori schools out there that it may be worth doing a little homework on the internet to see how the ones in your area pan out.
posted by Loto at 5:18 AM on July 27, 2007

I lied, I do have something to add. Public schools still may be an option for you if you can get your child into the gifted program. In second grade, I was placed in the gifted program for my school district and remained there until I graduated. It did not replace normal classes, but the program worked with teachers to offer more difficult/interesting material, took us on field trips to interesting places (Broadway, Washington D.C., various museums and aquariums.) We were also pulled out of class for one day a week where we did various activies like playing the stock market, writing poetry, dissecting various things, etc.

Parents were also directly involved in the program through chaperoning trips and helping with projects (the mother of one student, a doctor, helped us dissect a cow eye.

The IQ cutoffs for each school vary, but from the sound of your kid I don't think you have to worry.
posted by Loto at 5:23 AM on July 27, 2007

Picking up on one of mdonley's points, I would say that the true value of elemenary school (and everything before grad school, really) is more like 80% social and 20% educational. As such, I would suggest sending your child to a public school, so she can learn to socialize with her community as a whole, and not some self-selected elite subgroup. The education she gets at home and in the outside world will fill in any gaps in what she learns in school.

Also, I would be very, very careful about thinking your child is "very advanced." Those kind of expectations can be brutal on a kid, and thinking in those terms isn't really helpful for parents, either. I would get an independent assessment of your child's aptitude before pushing for special treatment or looking at more-challenging schools. My experience is that schools, both public and private, hear all the time about a parent's wonderfully bright child; it's much more rare that a parent shows up with evidence of such.
posted by backupjesus at 5:51 AM on July 27, 2007

Just a note on IQ-based gifted programs...ymmv WILL vary greatly.

Most of those programs are geared for kids 1-3 grade levels above their classmates in a given field (math, reading, etc.) When I was tested in first grade for "Gifted"---I was, afterall, a booger---but a booger who always got his work done fast, I tested at an 8th grade reading level. The lowest I tested in anything was 5th grade.

Anyway, long story short, they didn't let me in because they said I'd hold back the other students.

From my perspective, and I worked with varying kids of varying abilities for quite a while, taught some school, etc, is that education for young kids is the same as college education. You get what you put into it, or rather what you invest in it, as both a parent and a student.

Also, CHEERS to you for saying you want something other than Montessori---BLAH to that.

Some things that lots of people don't really consider when looking at schools for their kids---how long have individual teachers been there? With rare exception, teachers who have been in one place for 20 years are uhm...a little past their prime. (They could have taught for 40 years and be excellent, but usually these teachers have bopped around a little.)

Also, how receptive are principals to your questions? Do they return phone calls? How many teachers are available for a given grade, what is their discipline policy (it should be something you agree with 100%), do they have an active parent involvement routine, how long is the bus ride? What time to they start? (Schools that start before 8 piss me off. As a kid, you're supposed to get at LEAST 9-11 hours of sleep a night. I dare you to get your kid in any extra curricular activity, get her homework done, and get her to sleep early enough to get enough sleep before catching a ~6-7am bus.)

There's a lot to consider. Often schools have open houses, that sort of thing. I'd go to them, or at least make contact w/ administration about being interested in their school. Take notes, meet some teachers. What I think are valuable traits in teachers are NOT the same traits my parents did---and everyones will vary. Just look for the one that's what YOU like.
posted by TomMelee at 6:01 AM on July 27, 2007

Thank you, TomMelee. I know a lot of people reading this may think my husband and I are one of those parents that push their kids with unreasonable expectations, I guarantee we are not. But I was raised under a private school and know the great things that can come about it. I also know that many parents believe that just because their kids are in a great school, their job is done. That is not the case either. We are very involved parents, but not meddlesome.

You make a great point about staffing. The school we have her in now seem to be very open in communication and I honestly love having that kind of relationship with the teachers. I would like to have that same kind of relationship with her elementary school teachers, but I fear that may be too much to ask for a public school program. I would like her to be in a classroom that had a good teacher-student ratio so that she receives enough direction. Most public schools in Arizona are overcrowded and, unfortunately, our education standards show it.

I have not heard of any poor experiences with Montessori, can any of you elaborate if you have any? Every official site I went to raves about them, but I have not visited many forums, so I am getting some biased information.
posted by dnthomps at 6:14 AM on July 27, 2007

Montessori School Question on Ask MeFi

According to the educators who responded, Montessori kids were behind academically when compared with their peers once they transferred into a different school.
posted by Loto at 6:26 AM on July 27, 2007

You should check Great Schools for stats and performance evaluation test scores.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:31 AM on July 27, 2007

I went to and only 2 Montessori schools were in the 10/10 ratings. I found other public schools who were listed as 10/10 as well, more than I thought I ever could for Arizona.
posted by dnthomps at 6:33 AM on July 27, 2007

Thank you for the Montessori posting Loto.
posted by dnthomps at 6:35 AM on July 27, 2007

Okay, I just read that Montessori thread, and it is grossly misinformed.

First, the term "Montessori" means nothing. It's use is not controlled or regulated in any way. If you are considering a school that represents itself to be Montessori, verify that it is accredited by AMS or AMI, which will mean that the teachers went through an extensive training program, and that the school's facilities, the classrooms, the materials are all up to the same standard.

Second, the Montessori approach is not to create good academic achievers, though a study published in Science indicates that that is a result. (Yes, I know that link goes to an AMI webpage, the article there is a reprint of the study in Science.) The purpose is to develop well-adjusted children who will make a contribution to the world around them.

Third, a number of private schools copy the AMI-base montessori approach without calling themselves Montessori. They buy similar materials, structure classrooms the same way, organize students the same way, they just don't use the name. I went to a public elementary school that I learned decades after the fact was basically Montessori in its approach in grades K-3.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:38 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to and only 2 Montessori schools were in the 10/10 ratings. I found other public schools who were listed as 10/10 as well, more than I thought I ever could for Arizona.
posted by dnthomps at 9:33 AM on July 27

I wouldn't rely too heavily on that rating. From

Which tests are GreatSchools Ratings based on?

GreatSchools Ratings are based on each state's main standardized tests. To get the details on specific tests used in your state, go to any school's ratings page and click on the link below the ratings that says "See which tests were used."

Why don't private schools have GreatSchools Ratings?

Private schools are not required to publicly report test results, so they do not have GreatSchools Ratings.

posted by Pastabagel at 7:47 AM on July 27, 2007

You say you want her to be encouraged to learn in her own learning style...thing is, eventually she will have to learn how to deal with other learning styles. It might be good to expose her to different learning styles while she is young and her mind is flexible (rather than when she hits college). Who knows, she might adopt a different style than the one she currently uses. Just because she naturally gravitates to one style doesn't mean it is the one that is best for her. One thing about public elementary school --every teacher I had had a different take on the best way to learn. So, I learned both good and bad ways for me. I learned about writing essays using notecards in fourth grade -- I still use the approach that Mrs. Kovac taught me, and I never would have selected this approach on my own (way too organized for me!).

If your child is super smart, she will need to learn how to deal with being bored at school. I'm not saying every hour of ever day should be spent bored, but this is something that is going to come up again and again in her life -- being able to learn something new from stuff you already know.

There are other advantages to going to public schools, too. They are affordable, the children attending typically come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and the school community will help you connect with a wide variety of parents in your local community. Don't rule them out. If you are worried about their stanards, ask the local high school for a list of colleges that the graduates attend -- you might be surprised!
posted by Eringatang at 8:43 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ok, give up the idea that you can find a school that has both a spectacular academic program and a top-notch sports program. In at least 99 out of 100 cases, a school will only have the budget to do one or the other really well. If you look around, you will find that there are sports opportunities in the community: YMCA/YWCA; Park District or Municipal Community Center; "little league" sorts of organized sports; karate dojos, gymnastics centers, and other private sporting facilities. You mention wanting teachers that are willing to cater to indivudual's learning styles; well, you will find every one of these options to be more interested in helping individual athletes on a personal level than an elementary school P.E. teacher, who must divide his time among 20-30 kids and may tend to focus on one or two "star" students. And I haven't even addressed the issue of "redshirting", where parents hold their kid back a year under the pretense of "developmental readiness" when they actually mean "so he'll be bigger and more coordinated on the sporting field."

Start looking by finding your area in the Education Department's database of accredited schools. You can search for private, public, or both. Realistically, unless you are willing to move or your school district has a choice program, you have your neighborhood school and private schools. The affiliation of private schools is clearly stated in the listing. Once you have a short-list, google the individual schools that are of interest to you: read about their programs and philosophy, look up any relevant data. At some point you will have narrowed things down to 2-5 schools, so call and ask them to send you information (be prepared to be asked a few questions about your child). If you like what you see and hear, schedule a tour of campus. I feel sure you will find something that is a good fit, but you will have to work for it. The only guidance I will offer for this is there is a fine balance between classes that are too big, and classes that are too small.

I have lots of opinions on education, feel free to ignore them.
posted by ilsa at 9:02 AM on July 27, 2007

Just have a look at the Sadie Mossell Tanner Penn/Alexander School in West Philly, a public (mostly minority/immigrant/ working-class) school partnered with U Penn. From personal experience, I can say it's an amazing elementary school. And it's known as such.
posted by spitbull at 9:57 AM on July 27, 2007

I'm not a big fan of Montessori-style education because I really don't have a problem with old-fashioned expectations, consequences, and tests.

With that said I believe that one of the greatest shortcomings of modern education, regardless of style, is that we're teaching people what to think, not how to think. Which is, I think, really the result of parents who either feel to separated from their childrens schools to voice their opinions, or that they want people to do it for them.

Bear in mind as I say all these things that I was a punk and remain true in my heart to counterculture.

I've worked as a youth advocate, in youth group homes, and with various and sundry youth-oriented programs--both for students who excel and those who do not. In any case, I think it's ultimately important that we empower teachers to make decisions, empower our children to take a role in their own educations, and empower ourselves to give a shit. Otherwise, and to quote the theme song from the show "weeds", we're all made out of ticky-tacky and we all look just the same.
posted by TomMelee at 2:14 PM on July 27, 2007

re. Eringatang's comment -- my own experiences in public elementary schools and gifted programs bear out this advice. I can't compare public and private education, having had no private-school experience, but I will say that I learned most from teachers who challenged my learning style rather than catering to it. Part of learning is disrupting one's internal equilibrium and then finding a new balancing point.

I was bored a lot, though. And I didn't usually like it. I wouldn't want my own kids to be bored, but on the other hand, I think that I did a lot of productive thinking/doodling/growing during that downtime. Looking back, I appreciate having had the time to figure things out without constant outside stimulation/interruption.

I guess my point is: teach your kids to be inquisitive and thoughtful and to love learning, regardless of how material is presented. Then it won't really matter where they go to school.
posted by Chris4d at 2:32 PM on July 27, 2007

Montessori schools tend to make children much more independent than other children their age. However, when they switch into normal high schools or colleges later in life they tend to challenge authority (which could be a good thing) and feel depressed when put into situations in which they don't have much freedom. I have had lots of friends who grew up in private/public/Montessori schools and thats been my experience. If you choose a private school, make sure that it is one with lots of diversity. I left private school in the 8th grade for an arts magnet and I have a lot more diversity in my group of friends than any of the friends I left at private school.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 4:26 PM on July 27, 2007

I think most kids start out being inquisitive and eager to learn but then we send them to schools that kill that impulse by telling them what they can learn and when they can learn it. Sure, most smart kids will see through that and start learning on their own. I know I did. Still, I wanted something better for my kid.

That's why my 9-year old daughter has attended Montessori schools since preschool. She is in Montessori elementary school now and it is definitely the right thing for her. One of the things I like best about Montessori is the way it tries to convey to kids that education is important and that what they do at school all day is of value. It's never mindless busywork; their work is exciting and challenging and they get a real sense of satisfaction out of doing it.

We have never had any concerns that she might be behind if she switched to public school. In fact, the other thread is the first place I have ever heard anyone say that was a problem. All of the parents we know who have sent their kids to public school from Montessori have had the opposite experience.

One other thing, Montessori-educated kids tend to be a bit more serious and self-possessed than other kids. That can be off-putting to some adults who aren't used to Montessori kids but it isn't a bad thing. My daughter is still a goofy 9-year old most of the time. She's just a goofy 9-year old who loves algebra, always pushes in her chair, and lightly taps you on the shoulder to get your attention.

I could go on but, at the risk of being twee, it might be more useful if I turn the keyboard over to my daughter:

I highly recommend Montessori schools. The majority of the schools using the Montessori method allow children to work at their own pace, and if there is a good student-teacher ratio, the teachers can often give each student individual attention. For younger children in Montessori schools, there are a variety of materials designated for certain subjects. The materials allow children to learn mostly on their own by observing and interacting. Not only do Montessori schools teach children academically, but they also teach children about respect for others and their environment, and to learn how to learn. My favourite thing about Montessori school is probably that if a student is falling behind or exceeding the expectations, the teachers will either help that child or provide that child with more difficult work.
posted by atropos at 7:16 PM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

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