Choosing the Right Elementary School for My Child

In today’s education landscape, families no longer have a de facto choice for early education. Many parents have the opportunity and option to decide to send their children to public, private, parochial, or charter schools. This decision is of critical importance at the elementary school level as their child’s first full-time educational experience can be the catalyst that launches a lifetime of learning.

It is more evident than ever that the experience a child has in the elementary school years sets the stage for the educational experiences which follow. These years shape a child’s love of learning and should be life-changing experiences.

The elementary school years are the years of investment. During this time, children hone their skills, develop academic stamina, and learn the lessons of scholarship through sustained efforts and guided practice. These habits and skills are mastered in lower school.

Before beginning your research of the varied elementary school options, take time to define for yourself the “ideal school.” What are the specific needs of your child? How would you describe your own educational philosophy? Ultimately, you are seeking to align a school’s stated mission, educational philosophy and vision, with your own educational philosophy, and the hopes and dreams you have for your child. By establishing and ranking your priorities, you will more easily be able to narrow your choice to a selected school that is a  perceived fit. This is the alignment that you are seeking in the school search.

The research confirms the importance of early experiences and the powerful combination of home, preschool and primary school in improving children’s learning.

Pam Sammons, Principal ResearcherThe Effective Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE)

The Internet can be a powerful tool in helping you create a shortlist of schools; there is a tremendous amount of school-specific information now available online, including school profiles, policies, test scores, and demographic stats. Information can be found directly on a school’s site or on third-party sites such as: GreatSchools and Niche. This data, while an important factor in the decision-making process, doesn’t provide the complete picture of a school.

When choosing an elementary school, it’s important to ask questions beyond the numbers found on a website. No online review or profile can take the place of a school visit, when you are able to observe teachers and students in a class and form your own opinion of the campus environment. Your visit to campus will give you a true sense of the school’s philosophy, people, and physical plant; ask current and past parents, students, teachers, and alumni to speak candidly about their experience with the school.

Here are 12 key factors to consider before choosing an elementary school. The answers to these questions will help you make an informed decision about the best elementary school for your child.

Elementary School Students

1. What is the school’s mission, vision, and educational philosophy?

A school’s mission or philosophy will ultimately shape the student experience.

The Waterford School inspires individuals to pursue lives of meaning and purpose by providing a world-class liberal arts education that stimulates intellect, ignites passion, and shapes character. Waterford’s Lower School begins the formal process of building a strong, complete foundation to support a lifetime of growth and learning.

2. What is the learning environment like? And how does class size contribute to that learning environment?

Take the time to observe classrooms during a regular school day. You don’t need to be an expert in education to identify engaged students and compelling teachers. What kinds of exchanges do teachers have with their students? Is the classroom a place where you would want to spend your time? Would your child’s learning strengths and needs be supported in the classroom?

Class size is an important factor to consider at the earliest grades. Researchers have found that younger children learn and perform best in smaller classes (20 students or less). A small class size, however, may be beneficial only insofar as a teacher tailors their instruction to the needs of the class (SAGE University of Wisconsin-Madison). Ask teachers how the number of students in their classroom affects their teaching style. Do students work in small groups? Do students receive individual attention?

Waterford teachers work to make meaningful connections with each of their students.

The quality of any school begins and ends with its classroom teachers. Waterford’s skilled teachers are dedicated to fostering engaging and welcominglearning environments. Teachers acknowledge the tremendous role they play in a child’s social and academic development, and work to make meaningful connections with each of their students to unlock their full potential.

The Waterford student experience is enriched by daily classes with specialists in science, visual art, music, physical education, computers, and movement. Waterford specialists are accomplished practitioners in their areas of expertise: students learn piano from a musician, visual art from a painter, or biology from a scientist. Students meet with specialists in dedicated studios, labs, and gymnasiums tailored to elementary instruction to facilitate in-depth curriculum exploration. Waterford combines specialized arts and science instruction with the core subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, and history to create a cohesive and stimulating educational experience.

Ultimately children will come to love what their teachers love. By design, Lower School students at Waterford are surrounded and taught ably by these passionate exerts throughout their years in the Lower School program.

The Waterford School understands the value of small classroom size. A low teacher-student ratio allows teachers to know their students and appropriately challenge every student in their class. In PreK – Class III the schedule is set up so that teachers can work with even smaller groups of students (5-6) for small-group instruction, allowing for individualization and differentiation.

3. Will my child feel and be safe?

Approaches to discipline and safety vary widely from school to school. Ask how teachers and administrators address behavioral problems and bullying to get a better sense of the school’s disciplinary climate and expectations for student comportment.

Dana Carlson, Lower School teacher, speaks of the importance of character and how Waterford prepares students to meet the challenges of the world.

Waterford School is committed to providing a safe learning environment for our students. Knowing that learning is most effective in a safe and caring environment, Waterford has outlined behavioral expectations for all students, faculty and staff in a comprehensive Student Handbook. A priority is placed on the social and emotional development of the students and appropriate interactions among peers. Additionally, Waterford School has a full time Director of Safety and Security on staff who is available on campus all day and who ensures all areas of our 41 acres are safe and secure.

4. How much homework is assigned? What is the school’s approach to homework?

At the elementary school level, a student’s homework often provides opportunities for parent involvement and represents a link between home and school. Ask about a school’s approach to homework. How much homework is assigned by grade? What types of assignments are typically given? Is homework assigned over weekends and vacations? Does the amount of homework vary by teacher or does the teaching staff subscribe to the same homework philosophy?

The Waterford Lower School recognizes the importance of collaboration between home and school in the healthy development of the whole child. Homework assignments offer practice, application, and extension of topics introduced in the classroom. Appropriate amounts of homework establish habits of learning, and homework is assigned Monday through Thursday. A significant amount of this homework time is spent reading and once a month students enjoy a “Read With Me Night,” when families spend their child’s entire homework time reading together. (Time spent on homework per evening by class– Class I: 10 minutes, Class II: 20 minutes, Class III: 30 minutes, Class IV: 40 minutes, Class V: 50 minutes)

5. How is technology integrated into the curriculum?

Technology continues to play a growing role in 21st century education. Elementary schools are in a unique position to shape the budding relationship students have with technology. Learn how technology is used to support teaching and learning at a school. What Internet and computer skills do children learn? What types of computers or tablet devices does the school own and where are they situated? How often and in what context is technology used in the course of a day?

Waterford students in classes III-V are taught digital citizenship, keyboarding skills, email etiquette, and programming skills as part of the computer curriculum.

At The Waterford School, technology becomes a tool weekly to enrich and extend the classroom experience. Waterford students in Kindergarten-Class II test into their appropriate learning level and work at an individualized pace through reading, math, and science modules.

Classes III – V attend computer class three times a week for 45 minutes in an Apple computer lab. Classroom assignments are completed in the lab using a variety of computer applications such as Google Docs, Keynote, Garageband, Numbers, and Pages. Their computer instruction also includes digital citizenship, keyboarding skills, email etiquette, and programming skills in Scratch and

6. How do the arts fit into the curriculum?

Fewer public elementary schools are offering visual and performing art classes given recession-induced budget cuts and an increased focus on reading and math initiatives. Research in neuro-education, however, has shown that education in the arts strengthens and develops connections in the adolescent brain that benefits all learning (Johns Hopkins University School of Education). Ask what types of art programs are in place at the school and what kind of support they receive.

Waterford students work with highly-credentialed Arts specialists in dedicated studio spaces in visual art, music, and movement.

The Waterford School’s philosophy has always asserted that the best education for children includes art, music, physical education and dance instruction along with a carefully crafted, vertical curriculum in traditional subjects: math, language arts, science, and history. Arts classes are an integral part of each student’s education and are taught by specialist teachers as a regular part of the school day. Students begin arts instruction in PreK and Kindergarten and continue their studies in the elements of art, music literacy, and movement through Class V.

7. What extracurricular activities are available for students?

Extracurricular activities allow students to pursue interests outside of the school curriculum, build positive social relationships with peers and mentors, and have been found to have a positive effect on academic performance (U.S. Dept. of Education). What types of after-school activities does the school offer? Are these activities available to all students? Do you anticipate your child being interested in any of the activities offered?

Waterford School offers an array of extracurricular activities that serve to extend and enhance the academic experience. Among the extra-curricular activities available, Waterford Lower School students may join the Robotics Club, Chess Club, Community Service Committee, Outdoor Club, Library & Book Club, Ski & Ride Program, Math Club, or Dance Academy. These clubs meet regularly and welcome students of all abilities. There are competitive robotics, chess, and math opportunities available for students who wish to compete. Waterford School also offers a wide variety of summer camps and courses

8. How does this school support students with different strengths and needs?

When visiting any school, it is crucial to consider the academic and social-emotional needs of your child and their learning profiles. Does your child perform above grade level and need to be challenged in an accelerated environment? Does your child have a learning disability that requires individualized attention? Look for a school with the resources and professional expertise in place to meet your child’s needs.

At Waterford, work is differentiated in each classroom to meet the needs of each individual student.

Waterford is a college preparatory school with a challenging and demanding curriculum by design. Work is differentiated in each classroom to meet the needs of each individual student.

The Waterford Lower School employs a full-time school psychologist who addresses the needs of individual students through the use of student plans. The school psychologist works with the administration, faculty, and parents to facilitate collaboration between home and school in order to maximize individual student learning.

Waterford has a state-of-the-art, in-house Academic Support Program for reading, writing and math. Our tutors are trained by  Waterford professionals and work closely with classroom teachers to provide support for our students when needed.

9. What professional development opportunities do teachers have? How do teachers collaborate?

The professional culture of the school greatly informs the student experience. Research has demonstrated a clear connection between teacher effectiveness and student performance (Center for Public Education). Do teachers collaborate and share a unified vision for their students? Are professional development opportunities available to teachers? Are teachers held to a high standard?

The Waterford School employs teachers with extensive experience in elementary school education. The school seeks, supports, and retains talented faculty members who share a deep passion for teaching; the average years of service among Waterford Lower School teachers is 15 years. And all Specialist teachers are highly-credentialed within their disciplines.

Teachers attend weekly grade-level planning meetings, as well as several cluster and Lower School meetings throughout the school year. The main purpose of these meetings is to provide an opportunity for collaboration as well as share and exchange ideas among teachers. Educators are expected to always be looking at the latest education research to determine revisions and additions that should be made to the curriculum as guided by the research. A teacher’s ability to read and understand research and then create effective curriculum is valued and developed in Waterford teachers. Waterford teachers are encouraged to apply for professional development funds to attend conferences and classes, view webinars, participate in online training or other opportunities.

10. How does this school keep parents informed? How can parents be involved at the school?

Studies have shown that when parents are actively involved in their child’s education, especially during the elementary school years, children perform better in school and like school more (National Education Association). A school plays an important role in determining the levels of parental involvement in school. Find out how the school communicates with parents and what expectations the school has of its parents. Does the school encourage parents to volunteer? Does the school have an active PTA? How will you know how your child is doing in the classroom?

Parents working their students in the classroom
Parents are partners in a child’s education at Waterford.

Waterford School is a community of families where collaboration between home and school is key to the success of their children within our programs. Waterford parents have many opportunities to help with classroom activities, homework, and extracurricular activities. At Waterford School, teachers and parents are partners in a child’s education. Teachers intimately know their students and actively communicate with parents. Extensive progress reports are provided at the end of each trimester and parent-teacher conferences are held three times a year to discuss student progress.

Additionally, getting involved at Waterford is possible through many events and activities throughout the year. The Parents Association meets monthly to discuss relevant, topical issues as stakeholders in the Waterford experience. And parents are invited to join as volunteers at the many on- and off-campus events during the school year. Finally, parents are kept informed by a weekly newsletter that both recaps and shares stories from the past weeks, but also looks ahead at ways to be involved.

11. What is the physical environment like?

A school’s physical spaces facilitate the interactions students have with their peers and teachers every day. When visiting a school, take into account the appearance and functionality of the the indoor and outdoor spaces. Also look for dedicated learning spaces for specialized instruction in areas such as physical education, computers, art, library studies, and science labs.

Physical education and dance classes are an important part of every student’s week.

Research has drawn a direct and positive correlation between physical activity and learning. The Institute of Medicine recommends all schools should provide at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for students, including an average of 30 minutes each day in physical education class for all elementary school students. Does the school prioritize physical education? Do outdoor spaces encourage movement?

Every Waterford Lower School student attends P.E. twice a week, in addition to dance once a week. Morning, lunch, and afternoon recesses are important, and are scheduled in as part of each student’s day.

The Waterford School believes there is a clear link between well-designed facilities and academic excellence. The campus spans 40 acres at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains and is comprised of 10 buildings totaling 250,000 square feet. The Waterford Lower School campus includes a library, gym, and specialized spaces for science, music, art, computers, and a state-of-the-art Outdoor Classroom.

The Waterford Lower School Outdoor Classroom, a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, which fosters highly effective, nature-based outdoor learning, and has been nationally recognized by Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

12. What distinguishes the school from others?

All schools, both public and private, have their strengths and special focuses. A school’s commitment to a certain program or philosophy will give you a sense of the school’s core values. Ask yourself if the school’s values will align with and support your child’s interests, strengths, and personality.

The Waterford School is deeply committed to providing every student a rich educational experience rooted in the Liberal Arts. The verticality of Waterford’s rigorous curriculum gives each subject area real purpose in a student’s journey from preschool to commencement. The Waterford Lower School offers an academic program that effortlessly blends the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, and history with daily visits to specialists in the subjects of science, visual art, computers, library, music, dance, and physical education. At Waterford, all of these disciplines (together with a variety of extra-curricular activities and programs) come together into a cohesive, unified educational experience.

Making A Decision

Lower School Students Outside

Don’t leave your child’s elementary school education to chance. Take the time to schedule visits to your preferred schools. Use the above list of questions as a starting point for discussions with school administrators, teachers, and parents. Choosing an elementary school is one of the most important decisions you can make for your child.

Celebrate the choice — you have an exciting opportunity to pick a school partner in your child’s educational journey. Above all, remember to trust your instincts — you know your child best!

We would be delighted for you to schedule a campus visit to Waterford School. Come see for yourself why Waterford is a leader in elementary school education.