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Clues to a good school? Parents might check the parking lot

Lots of parents are calling or sending e-mails asking "How do you pick a school for your children?"

Award-winning PBS journalist John Merrow, a former educator, has some unusual, excellent suggestions in his recently published book "Choosing Excellence." His ideas will also help educators, families, school board members assess a school's strengths and weaknesses.

Merrow opens with a great idea -- spend a few afternoons at the teachers' parking lot at the end of the day. His experience is that "if most teachers can't wait to get away from school, then you should have reservations about having your child go there."

He urges families to check out how the school honors academic excellence. And he suggests comparing that with how much recognition outstanding athletes receive. He isn't anti-sports, he just wants excellent work of all kinds to be recognized. He wisely suggests looking around, to see if excellent student work is displayed, whether it's an elementary, middle or high school. Is the work creative or does it look very much the same?

Merrow urges that families go beyond asking if the school has a PTA, or some form of parent organization. He suggests finding out if the parent organization addresses "real issues in the school, such as (perhaps) cheating, student motivation or an achievement gap. Or is it largely ceremonial."

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Merrow thinks it's important to ask students if discipline policies are clear and fairly enforced. He asks what happens when someone tries to be a bully, whether it's OK to be smart in the school and whether most teachers welcome questions from students.

If the school offers advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses, Merrow wants to know if these courses are open to anyone who wants a challenge or only a select few. (His bias is that the courses ought to be open to anyone who wants to try. I agree.)

Merrow thinks it's OK to ask about test scores, although he believes that no single measure, including a score, tells you everything you need to know. He urges, and again I agree, that families inquire about trends. Are scores stable, moving up or going down? In reporting scores, the school should follow achievement of the same students.

Attendance is important, for students and faculty. So Merrow suggests asking the principal about both. The same is true for mobility. It's important to know what percentage of students and faculty leave each year. If more than a handful of faculty leave, it can be a sign of trouble.

Merrow urges folks to check out schools -- be they magnet, charter or neighborhood. "Choosing Excellence" is available in bookstores and at amazon.com.

Some folks ask me, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could just put our youngsters in the nearest school?" It might be easier, but it wouldn't necessarily be better for youngsters. Merrow's wise, practical ideas show how choosing and assessing schools should be done.

Joe Nathan is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and director of the institute's Center for School Change.

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