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Smart Moves : Many families are willing to pull up roots to find 'good' schools. Here are some tips for selecting schools that meets your needs.

February 04, 1996|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Stephanie O'Neill is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Colleen and Mark Bidwell worked hard to make their Long Beach house a home. They've owned the house for four years and have refurbished the hardwood floors, put up wallpaper, repainted and landscaped.

Even with that all done, however, they are planning to move.

The change they hope to make won't take them very far from their present neighborhood and it won't necessarily land them a more beautiful house. What's more, it will lengthen Mark Bidwell's nearly two-hour round-trip commute to work. And they most likely will lose money in the sale.

But, they said, the trade-off--a good neighborhood school for their 4-year-old daughter--is worth it.

The search for quality schools is a familiar one to Southland parents. It's often also a defining reason many otherwise happily situated residents are willing to pull up roots and find new neighborhoods.

"If there was a good school near where we lived, we probably would have stayed right there," said Richard Seigel, who recently moved with his wife, Janet, and two young children from Marina del Rey to Pacific Palisades. "The school and the children were the main issue."

Joan Sather, a real estate agent in the Pacific Palisades office of Prudential Jon Douglas Co., said she has many clients who are facing the same choices as the Bidwells and Seigels.

"A lot of people are making decisions on where to live based on schools," she said.

That's especially true for parents who want their children to attend public, instead of private, schools.

Many public school districts provide choices, including open enrollment, which allow children to attend schools outside their neighborhood boundaries; magnet schools, which offer specialized and enriched academic courses and attract students from throughout the district; and charter schools, which are freed from most local and state regulations in return for proof of students' progress.

But what makes a school "good"? And how do parents find those schools? Test scores tell only part of the story and often a skewed one at that, education experts say.

Parents and educators familiar with the quest say there are no hard and fast objective rules. Often, gut feelings are the best indicators.

Most agree, however, that concerned parents should research their options in order to find a school well-suited to their children and their family.

"I really think you need to match the school with your child and your family philosophy," said Kim Morton, co-author of "Mother's Ink Guide to Area Schools," which focuses on San Gabriel Valley schools.

Morton and co-author Susan Dollar recommend that parents first get general information about the schools in a particular area, then narrow the list to the most promising. The next step, they say, is a personal visit to the school and the classrooms.

School Visits

An ideal time for such visits is when school is in session. "It's a great way just to experience what it's like to be a kid in the class," Dollar said of school and class visits.

Once there, parents should scrutinize the surroundings, she advised. "Is the teacher happy? Do the children appear to be awake and turned on to what the teacher's saying? How's the feedback?"

Katie Braude, executive director of the nonprofit Palisades Education Complex in Pacific Palisades, also recommends school visits.

"You want to know if teachers are lecturing to kids all day, or if the kids are engaging in a lot of hands-on activities," Braude said. "You can tell so much by simply seeing the interaction between the students and teachers."

Further, the atmosphere of the school can also say a lot about it, said Diana Dixon-Davis, a PTA member and community activist.

"Just walk around the campus and see if it looks halfway clean [which shows] pride in the school," she said. "It doesn't take money to make it look put together. It does take money to repair. If there's trash and graffiti everywhere . . . a sloppy looking school is often a sloppily run school."

Class Size

California has one of the worst teacher/student ratios in the nation, but many schools have found ways to lessen the problem. School visits can also give a good idea about how large classes are handled. Braude also suggests that parents ask school administrators how they deal with large class sizes.

"Do they have aides in the classroom? Do the kids work in groups? There are a lot of ways to decrease the teacher/student ratio," Braude said.

Curriculum

Braude suggested that parents ask school officials if they can see some of the children's work. Parents can then judge whether the students are involved in projects and if there is a theme to the students' work.

"You can ask the teacher, 'Are they learning something in social studies that relates to English?' " Braude said.

"At [elementary] schools that seem to be doing a good job, often when you walk in the room, you see a lot of stuff around," Dixon-Davis said, "Teachers bring in pictures, materials, and the classrooms are very stimulating and interesting."

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