Today’s post comes from Anne Williams-Isom and Jennifer Jones Austin. Anne Williams-Isom, author of the GCP post “Words of Wisdom from a Montessori Mom” (October 4, 2011) is currently the Chief Operating Officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone. She and her husband are raising their three children in Harlem. Jennifer Jones Austin is the Senior Vice President of the United Way of NYC. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn where they are raising a daughter, 14 and a son, 10. Anne and Jennifer consider themselves child advocates and have been friends and colleagues for over 15 years.

As mothers of African American boys concerned about every single aspect of their development, we want to share our thoughts on one of the most important decisions a parent must make: choosing the right school. On countless occasions we’ve asked ourselves, “What is the right environment for my son? Are his teachers nurturing and caring? Who will protect his self esteem and give him space to grow so he can become all he can be academically, socially and emotionally?” Tough questions, for sure, and it is no simple task for parents to find the answers.

Here, with what we hope is a bit of wisdom born of our experiences, are some of our tips for selecting a school for your son. Of course, many of our thoughts are applicable for all parents when selecting schools for their children, but we believe that because issues of race, class and culture so underlie our society even today, there is an added layer of complexity for parents of children of color, and African American boys, in particular.

Academic Rigor That Meets Your and Your Child’s Aspirations

We are going to begin with an assumption that very little needs to be said about academic rigor. We assume that as a concerned parent, you will look first at the available data for your son and the schools to ensure that the schools you are considering provide the academic rigor you believe most appropriate for his educational success and future.

Social and Emotional Stimulation is Important

Next, the task is to figure out whether the school environment is socially and emotionally stimulating. When choosing a school in your son’s early years, factors including proximity to home, diversity, class size, school curriculum and school culture are key in social and emotional development. As your son grows older, each of these factors takes on greater or lesser significance depending on his interests, maturity and development.

Diversity is Key

For boys of color, the racial and ethnic diversity of the school should be a strong consideration. For a child trying to develop his sense of self, being the “only one” can be brutal. It is important that children of color see that all members of the school community — other students, faculty, administrators and other key personnel — reflect positive images of people of color. The curriculum should reflect the experience of students of color as well. A school committed to diversity and children’s social and emotional well being will have formal mechanisms in place, such as support groups, to help parents of color navigate the inevitable bumps that come up.

Note that school and class size may affect diversity. If you’re looking at a small school you want to make sure your son will not be the “only one” in his grade, and if it is a big school you want to make sure your son does not get lost. If your child is entering at a later grade in a larger school you want to make sure that the students of color in his grade are friendly and open to new students. Most importantly, you want to make sure that there is a critical mass of students of color in the school to help provide your son with a sense of belonging.

The “Right Fit” is Paramount

In the final analysis, what’s most important is that your son is in a school that is the “right fit”. There’s no easier way to turn a boy off from school than to put him or keep him in a school environment that doesn’t nurture his interests and talents while meeting his academic needs and aspirations. What does it mean to find the “right fit”? Well, it’s not a one size fits all definition, and it may not be constant in your child’s life. The right fit is relative to your son and it may change as your son grows and develops.

The best way to define the “right fit” is with examples. If athletics play a key role in your child’s maturation and development, enrolling him in a school that doesn’t have an organized athletics program may prove challenging to keeping him engaged. If your son comes alive in a learning environment that emphasizes the humanities and world languages, and you insist that he goes to a school that caters to students interested in math and science, his grades and social life may reflect his unhappiness. Putting your child in a school that offers little in arts and culture, even though your child is artistically inclined, will limit his ability to further develop his talents.

Finding the “right fit” does not mean enrolling your child in a school that emphasizes your child’s interests over other key subjects and learning activities critical to his development. It simply means making sure that the school environment you choose provides the right balance of academics and other developmental programs that will ensure your child receives the educational experience that helps him to flourish in many areas, including those important to him.

Finding the Fit

How do you go about finding all of this information about the schools you are considering for your son? Talk to as many people as you can while you are looking at schools, and listen carefully to their answers. Be actively engaged during the touring process and ask questions at every opportunity. Speak with an assortment of parents who have children in the schools, don’t just rely on one family’s impressions. Know what your son needs, and as you visit each school, ask yourself if you can see him being happy in this environment. Push aside any anxiety about the process and focus on your mission, which is finding the best school for your son.


More posts from Anne and Jennifer are coming soon. Stay tuned for their next post: “What To Do When The Road Gets Rocky for Your Son at School (And it Will)”.