Thursday, January 10, 2008

School Tours

It's open enrollment time for elementary schools here in Milwaukee! After making the decision that yes, we are going to enroll Grace in a K4 program rather than keep her in day care another year, we thought the prudent thing would be to go and check out some of the elementary schools in the area. We can chose up to three schools that we would like Grace to attend, and luckily, there are three schools that are within a mile or so of our house and I toured all three in the last couple of days. Here are my findings:

Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities-

We toured this school last night as part of a district-wide open house that was taking place, and we were warmly greeted as we entered the school. Turns out that the woman who greeted us was the school's K4 teacher, and so our tour began with a look at the K4 classroom. I was immediately struck by how large it was and how the room was appealing to the senses without being overwhelming. There were separate "work" and "play" areas and the room had a sliding wall that opened into the K5 classroom, and Grace was immediately taken with the variety of toys and other fun stuff that was at her disposal. The teacher walked me through a typical day in the K4 room, which includes at least one "special" (art, music, phy ed) per day along with a mandated sixty minutes per day of Math instruction and ninety minutes per day of Language Arts/Reading instruction. At first I thought that seemed a bit excessive...I mean, they are four-year-olds, for Pete's sake, but then the teacher explained to me that a lot of this instruction is done through creative play, so the kids don't even really realize they are being taught. I asked if any Foreign Language instruction was integrated into the curriculum, and unfortunately it is not, although small snippets are taught. Also, kids in this K4 room don't get a nap time, which may or may not be an issue for Grace come September.

We toured the rest of the school and found out that this particular school goes up to eighth grade. Aaron and I were both very pleased with the look and feel of the school and we both liked the sound of the way that things are run. Obviously, the school focuses on an arts and humanities curriculum, so they are taught not only what people do and what they think, but also how they express themselves. Students are encouraged to begin playing a musical instrument in first grade. They participate in programs with the Milwaukee Art Museum. They can take piano lessons right at the school. They take field trips, once a week, to the Milwaukee Public Library. The biggest thing, curriculum-wise, that I liked is that they integrate their school-wide themes (they have three per year) into each curriculum so students can learn how things fit together, rather than having fragmented themes that don't mesh.

This is a smaller school, with an enrollment of approximately 250 kids from K4 to eighth grade. Class sizes are small--the K4 class has twenty kids this year and they expect the same next year. This is also classified as a Citywide Specialty School, which means that they accept kids from all over Milwaukee, but give enrollment preference to kids that live within a mile of the school (which would be us--we are less than a block from Tippecanoe).

At the end of our tour, we met the principal, who was very eager to answer any and all of our questions. She seemed warm and personable yet professional and knowledgeable. She reinforced a lot of the information that our tour guide provided us, and invited us to come back during a normal school day to see students and teachers. She directed us into the office to pick up an enrollment packet and after having some more questions answered by the friendly office staff, we left with a great impression of the school and of the staff members that we met.

Whittier Elementary School-

This description is going to be much shorter, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. We also toured this school last night as part of the district-wide open house and in all fairness I will say that I was so taken with Tippecanoe that already I had a bias against Whittier. So, I didn't go into the tour with the most open of minds.

That said, there really wasn't a tour at all. No one greeted us as we walked into a school. Really, the only thing directing us at all was a sign on a table asking us to sign the Visitor's Log, and from that point on, we were on our own. We managed to find the K4 room by listening to some of the other parents that were touring (none of the rooms were marked well) and I was relieved to see that the K4 teacher was actually in the room when we got there. She addressed a group of about six of us parents, telling us about a typical day in the K4 room but she went through it so quickly that I found myself having more questions at the end than I started with. I did manage to find out that the kids' days are split in half, with the morning focused on academics and the afternoon focusing on play time. A nap is included in each day, right after lunch time. Beyond that, the information was lacking. And, when I asked about Foreign Language, the teacher gave me a smirk and reminded me that there are bilingual schools within MPS that Grace could attend. I half apologized to her for the question, telling her that I am bilingual and that exposing my child to foreign languages is important to me, to which she replied, "You should teach her at home, then." AAAAAAALLLLL righty then.

After visiting the K4 room, we wandered around the rest of the school and made our way to the office, where I asked the secretary if they had any literature about the school that I could take home. She said no but that she could give me a student handbook instead. Not quite what I was looking for, but better than nothing I suppose. We left the school then, because there was nothing else for us to discover. There were no teachers roaming the halls to answer our questions, and certainly no administrator could be found, either.

We were not impressed at all with Whittier. I would think that if you knew you were going to have people coming through your workplace you would make an effort to put your best out there. That certainly was not the case with this school. It was enough to make me strongly consider keeping Grace in day care another year if we don't get our first (or second) school choice.

A.E. Burdick Elementary School-

Burdick was the last of the three schools that I toured, and I decided to tour it partly just because Burdick is our Neighborhood School, meaning that if we want Grace to go there, she goes there pretty much automatically. I toured the school today, so there was no open house going on and I had the advantage of observing a typical school day. I was pretty sure at this point that nothing would sway me from making Tippecanoe our first choice, but Burdick proved me wrong.

My tour was guided by the Tech Ed teacher, who has been at Burdick since 1989. He was very proud of the fact that most of the staff at Burdick has been there for five years or more, and this low turnover rate certainly sounded good to me. He began our tour by handing me a pile of literature about the school and made sure I had an enrollment form and knew how to fill it out. He then gave me a rundown of the school's history and explained how the school is structured. Like Tippecanoe, this is a K-8 school, so Grace could attend all the way through Middle School if we wanted.

Like Tippecanoe, Burdick has a very warm, inviting atmosphere. Each teacher I encountered greeted me warmly and introduced me to their class. (The lovely music teacher even exclaimed, "Look at the pretty, young Mommy!" Nice touch.) All of the classrooms are large and class sizes were reasonable (around twenty-five kids each). Enrollment is around 500 students. The curriculum overall is much more meat-and-potatoes than Tippecanoe...the focus is on the core subjects, but there is also a large emphasis on technology and music. I was surprised to see a row of computers in both of the K4 rooms, and by eighth grade, each student has his or her own computer. The school also places a high value on parental involvement, and I met several parent volunteers throughout the tour.

The one thing Burdick has that Tippecanoe doesn't is controlled access. No one can come into the building without being let in by the office and there are security cameras at each entrance into the school. The office staff monitors outside activity that is picked up on the cameras on TV's in the office. It's not a sketchy neighborhood by any stretch, but there is a certain peace of mind knowing that not just anyone is allowed into the school.

There are two K4 classrooms at Burdick, both structured the same way. K4 students get a 45-minute nap every afternoon at Burdick. Like Whittier's, Burdick's K4 classes focus on academics in the morning and then creative play in the afternoon, but there aren't any exceedingly high expectations in place. The K4 teacher I met with stressed to me that kids in her room are allowed to learn at their own pace and receive plenty of one-on-one instruction if need be. She explained that each child has his or her own learning style, and that she attempts to each to each of those different styles. She also told me that she focuses a lot on the social skills kids need to develop as they move into Kindergarten. Finally, she stressed that these kids are pretty little yet, so they receive all of the attention and nurturing that they need, while learning in a fun and creative way.

At the end of my tour, I met the principal, who at first glance was a little too coiffed and stiff for my liking, but was very nice nonetheless. He invited me to come back and bring Aaron and Grace anytime and told me to call him with any questions. He asked me lots of questions about Grace and told me he was looking forward to seeing her in the fall. Then the secretary made sure I knew how to fill out the enrollment form, gave me a handy checklist with the things I need to bring in to enroll Grace, and bid me adieu.

So, I'm torn between Tippecanoe and Burdick. They are both so different that it is hard to say that one is better than the other. If I had to choose right now, I could pick Tippecanoe over Burdick just because I really liked their arts and humanities emphasis, but honestly, I think I would be happy with Grace attending either school. I think I'll leave Whittier off my list altogether.


Carrie Purins' novel said...

Wow you are really lucky to have two such schools so close to you. I've done a zillion school tours and I agree with you that the ones that don't have it together for the open house day are not worth considering.

My thots:

1) Being a block from school is so awesome (Nutmeg's preschool is just down the block from us). Sounds like either of your top 2 schools would afford u the opportunity to get to know parents in your neighborhood.

2) U might want to look into what the parent community is for each of your top 2 choices. If one is especially involved or if one is known to be plagued with politics and such, that might help make your decision.

3) U can compare the schools' stats on

4)A small school sounds really neat to me. Then again make sure there aren't any plans in the works to shut it. Is it well below its full attendance rate? If so it could become a target for closing when the district looks to cut costs.

5) Is computers in the K4 room a plus or a minus to you?

Sara said...

I have mixed feelings about computers in a K4 room. I suppose if the computers are used rarely and are only used to enhance learning, then I am ok with it. That seemed to be the case at Burdick, which had the computers in the K4 room.

However, I'd have to do more digging to ensure the kids aren't just plopped in front of the computer to keep them out of the teacher's hair. That, obviously, is not ok with me.

Thanks for the insight and the info! Much appreciated!