Care and Feeding

The Burden of Choice

What questions should I ask when choosing a school for my child?

A woman looks quizzically at a school.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Deagreez/iStock / Getty Images Plus, lawcain/iStock / Getty Images Plus, and Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eight grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

I live in a large city and am lucky to have the choice of multiple different public elementary school options. My child will be entering kindergarten, and it’s the time of year where I’m supposed to attend open houses and put together a ranked list of my preferences for a school choice. Apart from the obvious differences, like physical building features or different art/music/after-school program offerings, I am at a total loss for what I should be looking for to compare these schools. What kinds of questions should I be asking the principals and prospective teachers?

—Mystified by Choice

Dear Mystified by Choice,

When it comes to asking questions, the first thing to do is prioritize what is important to you. What kind of school environment and learning experience do you imagine for your children?

For example, some parents prefer a school day that prioritizes high academic achievement and the behavioral skills that come with that type of learning—determination, focus, the ability to sit still, and how to apply knowledge. Others (like my wife and I) prefer that their young child has more access to free play, time outside, art, music, and literature. You may value science and math over art and literature. You may value free play over a structured environment. Or maybe you’re hoping to find a perfect balance of the two.

Think about the priorities you set for your child to determine the questions you should ask. How is your home life structured, and do you want your child’s school day to mirror that philosophy? Try to envision what you want your child doing on a typical school day. What do you want your child learning? Your answers to those questions will shed light on what exactly you should ask teachers and principals.

Last, let me urge that in addition to talking to principals and teachers, you speak with parents. While principals and teachers can offer you an excellent picture of their programs and priorities, parents can often offer a less idealized version of the school and what is happening within its walls.

Good luck.

Mr. Dicks

My family lives in a town that has remained pretty darn red despite … well, despite everything. Meanwhile, I’m in the other direction politically. My young son recently had a homework prompt asking him what he would do if he became president. Other than casually pointing out the prompt on the homework sheet to him, I didn’t have anything more to do with it. I assumed he was going to write something like “ice cream for breakfast!” He wrote that when he’s president, he’s going to tear down Trump’s wall.  

I was thrilled and entertained by his answer, though I kept it cool and told him I was proud of how hard he works on his homework. The homework has been turned in, and there’s no going back now, but I’m wondering how it will go over. I can’t imagine his teacher, who appears very nice, would possibly react badly, but I’m sure this issue will come up again. I try to teach him about things and, while I don’t believe in indoctrinating children politically, I believe there is right and wrong, and that right now one party is firmly on the wrong side. He asks questions and (sort of) knows some things that are going on in our country.

I am worrying, though, whether these views could negatively impact him in this town. Do I need to do anything to tone him down when it comes up? Do I steer him away from such answers? If he does the work, but it might upset someone, do I make him redo it? That doesn’t seem fair. Thanks.

—Feeling Blue

Dear Feeling Blue,

You didn’t say what grade your son was in, but based on the “ice cream for breakfast” line, I’m assuming lower or middle elementary. Your son may be a little too young to understand this quote from Elie Wiesel, but your letter brought it to mind: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The quote goes on: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

If your son believes that lives are at risk and dignity is imperiled, that people are being oppressed, he should speak up about it.

I would, however, prepare your son for the consequences of doing so. You may want to warn him about possible backlash from his “red” peers; certainly, let him know some of his classmates will disagree with him. It might be helpful to coach him on how to respond dispassionately to criticism, how to argue with reason rather than emotion.

He may get pushback from a teacher—if not this year, then down the line—but I certainly hope not. Any teacher worth her salt will be an impartial critic of the task she assigned. For example, I do an argumentative unit with my eighth-graders during the third quarter, and my students get to choose which issue to argue in their essay. I teach them how to research their topic, find reputable and unbiased sources, identify and avoid logical fallacies, and support claims with facts, statistics, data, and expert testimony. Some of the kids take positions I fervently disagree with, but as long as they meet the criteria on the rubric, they get a good grade on the essay.

I’ll end with this: Going against the political grain will, at the very least, sharpen your son’s debate skills. Here’s a quote from another sage (wink, wink), Isaac Jaffe (played by Robert Guillaume) on Sports Night: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people, and if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It sounds like your son is a smart kid. If he can hold his own against smart people who disagree with him, he will do fine in school, and well … he should probably run for office.

—Ms. Scott

Dear Ask a Teacher,

I’m a teacher, and my colleagues and I are stumped. I teach at an alternative high school, so most of our students have trauma, emotional or behavioral issues, mental health issues (especially anxiety), and the resulting truancy records that go with these things. One of our students has had a problem with body odor for over a year. Students complain, teachers gently hint, the counselor has had a heart-to-heart, and the administration has called home, but nothing changes. Apparently this teenager just doesn’t care, and no one can physically force her to shower.

It’s not just a little body odor; it’s a pervasive oily, meaty smell that follows her around and lingers around her chair. She has friends, and apparently none of them say anything to her. Many of her other teachers use air fresheners or fragrances in their classrooms, but I have a severe sensitivity to artificial fragrances, so my room just stinks. Other students come in and complain about it. I find myself avoiding her in class as well, which is not how I’m supposed to do my job! Any ideas? I would love an inspired solution.

—Any Fresh Ideas?

Dear AFI,

Oh my. My heart goes out to both of you.

Poor hygiene can be a sign of depression, neglect, and even sexual abuse. I wonder if the counselor and administrators who’ve interacted with her have looked for signs she might be suffering from something more serious than B.O.? Since your school serves a high number of students with mental health issues, I am guessing you have already considered that possibility. But maybe it’s worth asking the counselor to meet with her once more to see if there is a deeper problem?

Of course it’s possible she’s one of the rare teens who is simply unconcerned and impervious to peer pressure. If she is suffering from abuse or a mental health crisis, a counselor is unlikely to solve her hygiene issues immediately. You need to find a way to cope with her smell and mitigate the stench that remains after she leaves the room without artificial fragrances. I must confess I’m not knowledgeable about sensitivity to chemical scents. Can you smear some natural menthol vapor rub under your nose? Take an Altoid? Chew mint gum? Dab lavender oil on your wrists? Breathe through your mouth? Apparently coffee grounds and activated charcoal will absorb bad odors. This won’t solve the problem, of course, but might help with the lingering smell.

I hope you can find a solution that helps you both. Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook

I’m having some issues with my son’s school. He’s 5 and goes to a public school for kindergarten. My child has probably missed six days of school for illness. Since I work from home, if he’s sick or not feeling well, I don’t feel the need to force him to go sit in a class with 21 other kids and potentially get them sick. He missed two more days of school when we needed to go out of town for court for my divorce. He has also been late a few times. (We have had to adjust to this new schedule of him going to school, but it has been no more than three times that he’s been late.)

I started to receive letters from the school that are a little threatening about him missing 10 percent of the school year, even if the absences are excused. They say that if this continues, we can be liable for legal action. To me, what it seems to come down to is that our town is fairly poor, and every time a child misses school, they don’t get paid for that day.

Yesterday, my son came home from school with impetigo. (This is a contagious blistery thing on his face—he has had it before.) I took him to the doctor, and he’s on antibiotics. (He also has a cough, stuffy nose, and diarrhea.)

I don’t want to force him to go to school with this. I am home, and there is no reason for it. His missing school has not affected his learning. I’m in constant contact with his teacher, and he’s keeping up with his class in his reading, writing, and math. Am I wrong to want to keep him home?

—Sick of Bureaucracy

Hey There Bureaucracy,

First off, thank you for keeping your son home when he’s sick. My recommendation is always to keep kids home if they are contagious. Regarding the letter you received, we have similar issues in our school, so I can see the problem from both sides. While I can’t speak to your district’s funding structure, I can say most states have some type of law that requires kids under the age of 18 to “attend school regularly.” The term “regularly” varies depending on your state’s law. Here in Washington, our law takes effect when a student has more than 10 unexcused absences. However, we try to avoid litigation by contacting the families and beginning a conversation about improving their child’s attendance.

Since you’ve received a letter, it seems your son’s school is trying to start that conversation before legal action is taken. I’d recommend chatting with the principal or counselor to get a better understanding of what the expectation is for your child’s attendance going forward, and how a contagious illness fits into that. The school district likely has a legal obligation to inform your family of the law and its consequences. In my experience, legal action is rarely taken unless a child misses a considerable amount of school. Legalities aside, it doesn’t sound like you’re wrong here to want to keep him home, especially since you’ve been in constant contact with his teacher. I am sure your son’s teacher and classmates are very grateful. I hope he feels better soon!

—Mr. Hersey