Northampton School Committee: Questions to ask in choosing school

  • A pinwheel garden at the Leeds School in Northampton in memory of longtime teacher Denise Wood. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

It’s the time of year when some parents and guardians are making a big decision: where to send their children for elementary school, middle school, and beyond. And compared to choosing a college, say, it can be hard to find good information.

We can look up data on state websites, but how do we go beyond test scores to learn about a school’s culture? To help with this process, local educators have provided six key questions to ask when you visit schools.

What does the school do to make its classrooms comfortable for all children?

How does a school make the start of a new school experience easy? What does it do to create a warm environment inside the classroom? In Northampton, for instance, that process begins long before school starts, with visiting days in the spring and summer get-togethers. On the first day of school, our PTOs provide coffee and pastries for incoming caregivers — plus, if needed, tissues and hugs.

Northampton’s schools emphasize community, acceptance, and taking care of one another. Classrooms have break spots and cozy centers geared to small bodies. Students have been supported through gender transitions with understanding and love.

What’s the teaching like, and who’s doing it?

Teachers are the heart and soul of education, so it’s important to ask about the ratio of teachers to students, and the teachers’ experience, education, and training. Northampton elementary schools average a student-to-teacher ratio of 11 to 1. All of our teachers in core subjects are state-rated as “highly qualified.” More than a quarter of our teachers are educated beyond a master’s degree, and 4 percent have a doctorate.

How do your students access physical and outdoor play?

Young children learn by playing, so look at a school’s outdoor facilities and ask how often they’re used. In Northampton, for instance, kindergartners play outside twice during the school day, as well as before and after school.

Physical education classes are twice-weekly in elementary school and every other day at JFK. They’re held as often as possible on the outdoor fields, and focus on healthy living and cooperative (rather than competitive) games.

How does the school teach children about nature and the outdoors?

Children need connection to the natural world. That’s why Northampton’s elementary students go to Nature’s Classroom and do outdoor learning in the wetlands and woods near their schools.

Every school has a gardening program where children learn about plants, healthy eating, and how to grow food.

Bridge Street partners with Historic Northampton to learn about how people “way back when” gardened, the tools they used and what they grew.

How do you make sure that students are engaged and challenged at a high level?

It’s important for educators to engage students at every skill level. In the Northampton schools, that’s made easier by internet access and technology.

One school also runs a “Genius Hour,” allowing students to research something that they love, even in kindergarten.

All four elementary schools have 3-D printers. Students work in teams, using a CAD program, to design a 3D model and print it.

Students are also working via the internet with NASA scientists to study water quality using a data satellite that tracks the changes in surface water and ice levels on our planet.

What kinds of enrichment programs do you offer?

Because children are diverse, schools need a diverse range of activities. Northampton has various kinds of activities in the daily classroom, from recording podcasts to building and testing bridges made out of toothpicks.

We offer before- and after-school programs with dozens of diverse offerings, including animation, math club, improvisational theater, music, robotics team, and classes with a pastry chef.

We on the School Committee are all parents of children who have gone through this decision process, so we know that it feels like a big, and sometimes intimidating, step. But it’s also the start of a process where you and your children will join new communities and form lifelong friendships — and that’s exciting.

Further information is available from Ed Zuchowski, vice chairman of the committee, at ezuchowski@northampton-k12.us.