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What the Heck Is a 'Good School'? (And How Can You Find One?)

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Breaking Bad (Copyright: AMC 2007)

This you already know: Parents want to send their kids to good schools. So that's why they flock to neighborhoods -- sometimes paying hundreds of thousands more to live there -- that purport to have them. But what does "good school" really mean? Is it really all about the test scores?

Increasingly, educational experts say: not really. These days, many of them hail the importance of other, less tangible goals such as fostering social and emotional intelligence. Others tout the importance of executive function skills: the ability to plan, focus, remember instructions, and multitask. In the Finnish school system, purportedly the best in the world, academics are delayed, homework and testing are minimized, and free play time is valued.

But not so much in the U.S. With the ever-growing emphasis on standardized test scores, including for the new Common Core standards, educators and parents worry that schools are "teaching to the test" instead of teaching what kids need.

So how can you really figure out what that is? As with all things parenting, you have to decide for yourself what's best for your family. Here are some tips on how to figure that out.

Determine what kind of learner your kid is

No matter what kids are required to learn, there are different ways to get them there.

Kids often have strikingly different learning styles. Some are visual, and fare better when things are illustrated rather than spoken; some learn better in groups; some are better able to focus if they're alone. And some simply learn best by doing. And while no school caters entirely to one kind of learner, you may be able to find a school whose approach works better for your kid. Talk to the principal and teachers about how they accommodate different learning styles.

Find out if the school has the basics

Traditional barometers such as class size, student-to-teacher ratio and, yeah, test scores do matter -- to some extent.

"They're the best predictors of a school or district's academic foundation," says Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, a nonprofit organization that provides nationwide school ratings. And schools need that foundation so they have something on which to build and to set goals.

Joyce Szuflita, an educational coach and founder of NYC School Help in New York City, has another view.

"If I were stuck on a desert island and could only ask for one piece of data while considering a school for my child, I'd want to know the percentage of kids who are chronically absent," she says, arguing that a high attendance rate indicates a positive school culture in which the staff, students, and parents are all committed to success.

Look beyond academic development

In addition to solid academics, experts increasingly tout the importance of a holistic education, which cultivates students' moral, emotional, physical, and psychological aptitudes.

Schools with programs that teach empathy, self-motivation, and adaptability -- or emotional intelligence -- equip students with the life skills proven to foster success. Having a high IQ might demonstrate mastery of a body of knowledge, but a high EQ (emotional quotient) indicates that a student can be flexible and understanding, synthesize information and successfully interact with all kinds of people, which might be better predictors of future success than high grades or scores.

Seek creative learning opportunities

Forget rote memorization; the academic and intellectual skills needed to thrive in tomorrow's multinational, dynamic workforce aren't the same as those that led to success before the millennium.

"Expansive ideas and creative thinking will become even more essential in the future," says Dr. Shimi Kang, author of the forthcoming book "The Self-Motivated Kid: How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children Who Know What They Want and Go After It (Without Being Told)." Consequently, she contends that a "good" school today is one that helps foster 21st-century skills such as creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

These might be schools with highly developed music programs, team sports, extracurricular clubs with broad focus (environmental protection, community service, even juggling or a "Harry Potter"-themed Wizards & Muggles club) -- any activity that develops diligence, creativity, and quick thinking.

Consider lower-ranked or up-and-coming schools

Szuflita suggests resisting the urge to follow the crowds to the "best" schools in town, which could have problems with overcrowding and waitlists, despite their virtues. Instead, track the progress of previously overlooked schools, ones that may have a new principal, an increasingly active PTA, and/or an attendance rate that has steadily risen, even if the school itself doesn't have the most stellar reputation or highest rankings.

Research (free) alternatives to public schools

Themed charter schools (which receive public funding but operate outside of their regional public school districts) or magnet schools (public schools with specialized courses or curricula that draw students from across school districts or zones) infuse their offerings and activities with a specific emphasis.

At Expeditionary Learning schools (nationwide), for instance, students study a single topic from many angles. Heavy emphasis is placed on the importance of nature, reflection, and service, and classes can involve Outward Bound -- style excursions.

The tuition-free Muskegon Montessori Academy for Environmental Change in Norton Shores, MI, drives home the importance of clean water by having students care for the local river.

Schools that take the multiple intelligences view recognize that intellect comes in many forms (e.g., word smart, people smart, numbers smart) and teach to individuals' strengths.

Check out the 'vibe' -- it really means something

This may seem obvious, but we can't stress it enough: Go see the schools for yourself, and visit as many as possible. (By the way, did you know you can search for homes by school district on our app?) You might discover what you thought was important isn't really at all. And test scores and state rankings don't convey the important yet difficult-to-quantify vibe of a place.

"Actually experiencing a school is the best way to inspect the vitality of the work, the energy of the teachers, and the rapport between the staff and students," says Szuflita.

One tip: Arrive early to the visit, so you can evaluate the school when no one is looking.

Ask yourself what 'good' means to you

What do you want from your school? Racial and economic diversity? Sports and arts programs? A campus? Leadership/internship opportunities? Is your No. 1 criterion a neighborhood school that you can invest and create community in, even if it means sacrificing a few things like class size or an emphasis on the arts?

If traditional academics and high test scores really are the most important things, you're lucky: Those are the easiest things to find.

Today, finding a good school means you grown-ups have to do serious homework, figuring out the best fit for your family and zeroing in on schools that are equipping students with the skills and experiences that will lead to a broader definition of success.

Anything else no longer makes the grade.