How to decide between schools in Charlottesville

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Ben Rekosh, 7, will start first grade at Stony Point Elementary. Photo John Robinson. Ben Rekosh, 7, will start first grade at Stony Point Elementary. Photo John Robinson.

Whether your little one is just starting school or is about to transition into a new grade, you want to make sure he gets the very best schools in Charlottesville have to offer. Here are a few things to consider.

How do I get involved?
With the start of the school year, you’re likely getting some requests to help with different projects at your child’s school. Volunteering is an important endeavor because it shows your child that you are interested and that you believe that education is a worthwhile cause.

There are a lot of ways for you to get involved, whether it’s reading to a kindergarten class, chaperoning field trips, holding an office in the Parent Teacher Organization, managing a fundraiser for the marching band, or organizing school dances. The important thing is for you to step up and offer to do something. But how do you get involved?
In the beginning of the year, most teachers will mention volunteer opportunities and things they need help with. If there’s no sign up sheet at the open house and your child doesn’t bring home a volunteer form, e-mail the teachers and offer your services.

Your school’s PTO will most likely have an information table at open house and back to school night, which will give you an opportunity to find out more about what the PTO does and how you can get involved.

If your child is in the orchestra, fencing club, or another extracurricular activity, e-mail the adults in charge and ask what you can do. Chances are, they will have several things they need help with.

A word of caution for parents of teens: Check in with your child to find out how involved they want you to be. While they might not mind if you help with the band car wash, it’s possible they’d prefer you didn’t chaperone every trip.—Jennifer McDonald

How do I choose?

Public vs. private. Say those words to any parent and you’ll have a spirited debate going in moments. While many parents have their own biases one way or the other and don’t give the issue much thought, plenty of parents struggle with where to send their children to school. They worry about getting the best education possible for their chil-
dren and wonder if the cost of private school is worth it. Here in the Charlottesville area, all of the school options are excellent, which makes the public vs. private decision all the more difficult.

Thinking about schools for your child, but not sure where to start? Here’s a list of pros and cons to get your gears turning. —J.M.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Pros:
It’s free.
More curriculum choices, plus different levels of classes for students of all needs and abilities.
Teachers are required to be certified in the field they are teaching and to keep their certification current.
Students have the opportunity to meet kids from different backgrounds.
Transportation to and from school is provided.
Cons:
Larger class sizes.
Students from all backgrounds, which is not something that all parents want for their children.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS
Pros:
Smaller class sizes; teachers can give students more individualized attention.
Some private schools offer focused educations in specific areas, such as the arts or the sciences.
For parents who want a religious foundation for their children’s education, private is the way to go.
Private schools usually have great college counseling and some will even organize trips for students to visit different schools.
Cons:
Tuition and fees can be quite expensive.
Some do not offer as wide a range of classes or different levels for children with differing abilities and needs.
Often do not have much diversity in the student population, which means that students are not exposed to a variety of backgrounds.
Teachers are not required to be certified or to take continuing education; knowledge of their subject is sufficient.
Transportation to and from school is usually not provided.

This is just a starter list of issues to consider. What it comes down to is
what is best for your student and your family. Ask yourself what kind of environment your child thrives in and how she/he learns best. Crunch some numbers to see what will work with
your budget.—J.M.

A weighty decision
On a Monday afternoon this past spring, my 13-year-old daughter Grace mentioned that she was going to be weighed and measured in P.E. class the next day and that she was a little anxious about it. Middle school students tend to be nosy and she knew that some of her classmates would try to find out other students’ weights, then discuss and compare numbers.

My daughter plays soccer, rides horses, fences, and runs. She eats a healthy balanced diet and makes a lot of good decisions about her nutrition every day. She is a healthy weight for her height and she knows it. Grace, however, was more concerned about the possible intrusion by classmates in P.E. and the ensuing conversations, which she wanted no part of.

After talking with my husband and daughter about all this, I e-mailed the P.E. teacher and politely requested that she not measure or weigh my daughter at school. I explained that since our pediatrician is pleased with our daughter’s health and development, there
was no need for the school to be involved. I got a great response from
the teacher letting me know that she understood and that she wouldn’t be measuring Grace.

I started to wonder why the school needed to weigh and measure the students. I thought perhaps it was mandated by the Virginia Department of Education, but according to the DOE’s website, the Commonwealth of Virginia does not mandate annual height and weight screenings. However, the DOE does encourage schools to include annual measurements as part of the overall curriculum of health and fitness being taught to the students.

I disagree with this, as I think that annual measurements are irrelevant to the curriculum being taught. My daughters are in school to learn and
I am happy with the health educations they have received. However, it is
my responsibility as a parent to pay attention to my children’s health—height, weight, eating habits, exercise, and mental health—and not the school’s.

As we all know, teenage girls are prone to body image issues, whether they’re unhappy with their weight, face, hair, skin, breasts, or some other body part. Girls can be their own worst enemies. True story: I went to college with a girl who was stunningly gorgeous and had even done some modeling. She was convinced her ankles were hideous, so she always kept them covered.

Weight is a very sensitive subject for many women, regardless of where we all fall on the spectrum, and it is information that many women choose not to share. Having a teacher weigh and measure students in class is not private, especially when the students are lined up and taking turns on the scales.

That said, I do understand that there are times when the adults in a girl’s life need to be more involved with her health and even her weight. I know parents who are keeping discreet tabs on their daughters’ weight and eating habits for a variety of reasons, including concerns about possible (or diagnosed) eating disorders. These are good reasons for other adults to be involved, including teachers, and I approve.

Going forward, I’ve decided that weight information is not something that schools should be collecting about my daughters. That is private data that has no bearing on their educations. I will be e-mailing my daughters’ P.E. teachers at the beginning of the school year and copying their school counselors on the communications. I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be, but I also intend to stand my ground.—J.M.

An A+ tutor
If you’re looking for the perfect tutor, you might want to hang around the proverbial water cooler (your nearest Starbucks) before turning to a Google search.

“I think word of mouth tends to be the best way for parents to find an effective tutor,” said Marina Koestler Ruben, author of How to Tutor Your Own Child. Ruben, who is a writing tutor, advises parents that a good tutor will:

1. Guide a student through the work rather than doing it for him or her;

2. Try to spark a passion for learning rather than having a “let’s-just-get-through-this” attitude; and

3. Be honest when he or she doesn’t know something and model the process of how to get more information.
And while hanging around the
coffee shop might cost you $4 a latte,
a good tutor doesn’t have to drain
your pockets. Consider hiring a smart college or grad student for a reasonable hourly rate.

Ironically, you’ll know you’ve found the right person when you don’t need him anymore. “The tutor is trying to make himself obsolete,” Ruben explained. “Eventually the student knows where to look for information, how to process and retain it, and how to inspire him or herself to continue learning.”
—Taylor Harris

Beyond blocks and Barbies: Finding the right preschool
When Sarah Dawson moved from New York City to Charlottesville, one of the first things she had to find was a preschool.

Following a friend’s recommendation, Dawson enrolled her son, Will, in Charlottesville Day School. Fortunately, it was a perfect fit.

“Within weeks, Will was learning so much and, most importantly, doing things independently that he had never done before,” she said.

Dawson appreciates that CDS values differentiated instruction, focuses on fit-
ness and the arts, and lets kids be kids. “For preschool,” she added, “play is king.”

For other Charlottesville transplants or parents new to the preschool scene, Dawson suggests joining the Parenting Network of Charlottesville (PNOC), a Yahoo! group where members often post recommendations about area schools.
Some schools, like CDS, are specific to Charlottesville, while others have names known nationwide, such as Montessori or Waldorf.

Julie Caruccio, who attended a Montessori school in Charlottesville as a child, chose to place her own children in the Uni-
versity Montessori School. Caruccio was impressed by the caring teachers and their genuine support for working parents.

“The fact that most of the parents were working parents [meant] my kids had lots of company at 5:25 when we all came screeching into the parking lot for pickup,” she remembered.

In addition, Caruccio has appreciated the way UMS prepares children for success in public schools.

The Charlottesville Waldorf School engages children through a focus on active play, a homelike environment, story time, and rhythm. The rhythm of a daily schedule is one facet of the school that intrigued parent Kerry McFarland.
“It’s amazing how keeping things the same excites the little ones,” she said. “When you’re older, you don’t necessarily like this, but at their young age, it’s really beneficial to know what comes next. There is a sense of self-confidence and security that comes with this.”—T.H.

Your child’s best advocate
Every child needs a parent who can speak up for his best interest. This is even truer for students with special needs.
Tierney Fairchild knows firsthand the importance of parental advocacy in edu-
cation. Her daughter, Naia, was born with Down syndrome. “For children with special needs, it can mean the difference between receiving (or not receiving) crit-
ical services or support that can help a child reach his or her potential,” she said.

But children don’t come with instruction manuals, and finding the right support for your child may prove overwhelming at first. Even Fairchild, who works as an education management consultant and writer, has found, “The legal and procedure language alone that accompanies an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can be daunting.” She advises parents “to ask questions and not to feel rushed into making any decisions.”

For the Fairchilds, making decisions has always been a team effort. Tierney considers her husband, Greg, her greatest resource. “We help each other stay on top of Naia’s progress, sharing areas for improvement, opportunities for growth, and, of course, celebrating accomplishments as a family,” she said.

Naia’s parents also pair their own observations and research with the recommendations of a larger team. “We have found a number of the professionals that have served Naia to be incredible resources,” said Tierney. “These people are experts in their fields, and we devel-
oped and have maintained relationships that aid and support us even well after Naia has needed their support.”

Great advocacy, then, can be broken down into two key components: gathering information and building partnerships. Tierney and Greg have used these tools to help develop an educational plan for Naia that keeps her constantly engaged with her peers. She takes a combination of classes—some with other students who have special needs, some with her typical peers, and some with a mixture of the two.

“I think inclusion is important for a number of reasons,” Tierney explained. “First, it creates the expectation that children with special needs can achieve at high levels; second, it provides opportunities for peer modeling. And third, it helps to reduce stereotypes and build bridges between all children.”

After years of parenting Naia, now a teenager, the Fairchilds may seem to have all the answers, or at least many of them. But Tierney’s words remind all parents they have something to contribute to the conversation. “You know your child best,” she said.—T.H.

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