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School Tour Tips from a Mom, by Maren Stewart

checklist iconChoosing the right school for your child can be a daunting task. There are so many choices…and so little time.  Numerous resources exist to help with the decision making process from on-line databases and grading systems to sophisticated school websites and even professional coaches/advisors.  However, in my opinion, nothing is as beneficial as an old-fashioned visit.  Seeing it is believing it, and shadowing a potential school can be a really great opportunity for both you and your child.  Be sure to make the most of it by preparing with the following tips:

Be Intentional:  You and your child should have several things in mind as you visit a school.  Don’t simply let the experience wash over you but be thoughtful and deliberate about the things you want to see, hear, and experience.

Be Inquisitive:  Don’t be afraid to ask questions – both factual and otherwise. You want basic information, but it is also good to get opinions from teachers and students. And don’t make assumptions; this is your chance to learn so much more than a website or marketing materials can convey.

Be Open:  Visit with an open mind, free of pre-conceived perceptions.  If you go expecting or looking for certain things, you likely will miss out on some valuable insights. And, sometimes you might even be pleasantly surprised to learn things weren’t at all what you thought.

Each visit is – and should be – unique but here are a few things to keep in mind:

boys in a gymnasiumPhysical facility:  is it a place you would want to spend the majority of your time?  Just like a work environment, our kids spend a great deal of their days at school.  It doesn’t need to be fancy but is it bright and welcoming?  Is it clean and well-maintained?  Is school spirit visible?

….and is there a gymnasium and does it look well-equipped?  A cafeteria that supports healthy food options? Are there outdoor areas for recreation or quiet studying?  Is the library updated and is technology incorporated?  A stage/theatre?  Dark room? Art room? Science Lab?  These may be important resources, depending on your child’s interests,

bored studentStudents:  what are the kids doing?  How are they interacting with each other?  Does there seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the students?  Are they laughing and smiling in the hallways and common spaces?  Do they generally look happy and engaged?

…and do they participate in class?  How?  Do they show respect for their teachers and each other?  Do they appear curious and interested or do they look bored to death? Hint: you can tell a lot simply from body language.

Teachers:  how do they interact with students?  Are they supportive and empowering?  Would you be afraid to ask questions or would you be encouraged to speak up and participate?  Is there a sense of mutual respect? Is there good rapport between them and the students?

…and are they articulate and knowledgeable? Do they seem passionate? Can you envision them igniting interest and curiosity in your child?  Are they people you want your child to look up to and emulate?  Are they good role models?

Curriculum: students learn in different ways so be sure to understand the model and how it is presented.  Is it a structured or more informal approach?  Is there a particular lens through which material is presented, i.e. a global or artistic perspective?  Regardless of your child’s particular interests, is it important to have PE every day?  How about art or foreign language?

high school bandExtra-curricular:  What types of clubs, sports and affinity groups are available?  Can students initiate efforts related to their own interests? Listen for examples of how widely accessible these opportunities are and whether students are taking advantage of them. Hint: you can find clues looking around the building for meeting notices, events and activity sign-ups.

Approaching your visit with some deliberative thought will prove beneficial for both you and your child.  However, while it is important to be prepared, you shouldn’t get too focused on specific things.  Be sure to experience the school during your visit – get its vibe – and try to picture your child being a part of it.

Using these easy tips and keeping in mind these few things will ensure that your shadow experience will be productive and meaningful. And, it will allow you and your child to make an informed decision that is right for both of you.

Tips to Calm Your Nerves After Filling Out the Choice Form, by Meg Freedman

researching a schoolThe time has come to fill out the Denver Public Schools choice form for 2015. If you submit your form by January 30, 2015, you have the best chance of getting a space for your child at your top-choice school. (If you need it, here’s the official word on how to enroll in a DPS school.)

If completing the choice form is a little fraught for you (like it was for me), pull up a seat. Let’s calm your nerves—or at least set your expectations.

1) Don’t get too attached.

Certain public schools have few spots for non-siblings or non-neighborhood kids, or they’re just small schools. And it can seem like hardly anyone gets into them. This includes neighborhood, charter, and innovation schools. Just know when you fill out your form, that some schools aren’t likely to have a spot for your son or daughter. But as I’ve said before—you can’t win if you don’t play. If you absolutely love a school, throw it on your form. Then try to forget about it so you’re not too disappointed if it doesn’t work out. On the other hand…

2) Be careful what you wish for.

My kids didn’t get spots at any of our “reach” DPS schools, nor did most of my friends’ kids. However, I did know someone whose daughter got a spot at a tiny and very highly-regarded charter school. When she got her choice result letter, my friend said “we only put x school on our form because we didn’t think we’d get in. Maybe we should have gone to the neighborhood school with everyone else.” Turns out her daughter’s thriving where she landed. Just know you could be the one to win the lottery.  And make sure you’d be truly happy to go to any of the schools you put on your list.

3) Don’t give up hope.

After you submit your choice form, the next step in the school enrollment process is for you to get a letter back in early March with your allocated “round 1” spot. If your child doesn’t get a spot at your top choice school at that point, there’s still plenty of time for that to change. I heard of people’s kids getting spots at schools a few days after the March letters were sent out, a few weeks before the start of school, a few days after the start of school, and even a few months into the school year. In a school system as large as Denver’s, there’s constant and significant movement in and out of schools. People move out of their neighborhood or of out of the school district, or get late-breaking spots at private schools, and subsequently open spots for other kids. I’m not saying scurry to the mailbox every day. But don’t be too bummed out if the initial result wasn’t what you were hoping for.

4) Be open to a happy surprise.

I like shiny things. So we put another neighborhood’s well-regarded school and two sought-after charter schools above our neighborhood school on the choice list. And I was a little crushed when we didn’t get into any of those other schools. The good news is that now we love the one we’re with. The community aspect of our neighborhood school has been amazing. On any given day on the playground, I can hang out with one of my old playgroup friends, one of my yoga teachers, one of my husband’s co-workers, and the realtor who sold the house across the street from us. When other moms and I carpooled to a school field trip the other week, it took three minutes to pick everyone up. I can’t swing a cat on a walk through the neighborhood without hitting a friendly face. And our kids are thriving in school. Turns out our last-choice school has benefits we couldn’t have realized until we were enrolled there.

playground aerialSpeaking of yoga teachers, one of mine centered a class around the idea to “hold it lightly.” Embrace what you love but don’t contract carpal tunnel with your clutch on it. With school choice, you may get what you wish for, or you may not, but you may be just as glad either way.


Meg FreedmanMegan Freedman is a freelance writer and researcher, with a special focus on medical and wellness topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and three children

A-School Profile: Cotton Creek Elementary

In this Q & A, Principal William Kempsell of Cotton Creek Elementary shares some details about his A-school in Westminster, Colorado.

Describe your school’s mission and illustrate it with an example from the classroom.

Cotton Creek Elementary

Cotton Creek Elementary is dedicated to the educational success of each individual through a partnership among students, staff, and the community. We live this mission on a daily basis through the unique relationships fostered within our school. Our highly successful Special Education programs provide support for students in a manner that promotes least restrictive environment. We are also fortunate to have an extremely supportive Parent Teacher Association. Thanks to their fundraising efforts and collaboration with our school community, we have greatly increased the technology at Cotton Creek. Students now have new and innovative ways to access the curriculum throughout their day.

Each year, the school community develops a school-wide theme to promote a singular focus for the year and build community. Our theme for the 2014-15 school year is “Building Minds, Building Futures,” a message that students and staff chant and celebrate at the start of every morning.

KinderTechnology CCEWhat are one or two ways that the team at your school meets students’ academic needs?

At Cotton Creek, we offer ongoing, collaborative planning for teachers, closely looking at student data to monitor their progress. During weekly professional development trainings, teachers continue to learn and grow in their instructional practice. We carefully examine the Colorado Academic Standards to ensure that our units of study are closely aligned and meeting the needs of students in Kindergarten through Fifth grade.

Pumpkin Run CCEName one or two characteristics, programs, or other detail about your school that makes it a special place.

Cotton Creek is a neighborhood school that proudly serves students with a wide range of needs and abilities. We support students with significant needs through our structured learning programs. Students in these programs receive specialized instruction to increase their communication and social skills and their ability to access relevant standards based instruction.

We also have exceptional Music, Physical Education, Art, and Computer classes for all students. The specials team collaborates with classroom teachers on a regular basis to provide unique opportunities for students.

Cotton Creek offers two options for kindergarten to ensure students are learning foundational skills to prepare them for first grade. We have half day programs, as well as tuition-based, full day kindergarten.

What’s the most frequently asked question from parents visiting the school – and how do you respond to it?

We tend to get a lot of questions about the kinds of opportunities and learning experiences that we offer to meet the needs of students with a wide range of ability levels. In addition to the differentiated instruction occurring in the classroom, we have a variety of intramural clubs for students. From choir and art club to Lego Robotics and a variety of sports clubs, students are learning, socializing, and developing important skills both in and beyond the general classroom.

Where can parents go to learn more?


What Moms Can Do to Protect Kids from Bullying

Heidi Ganahl

This week, Colorado School Grades is partnering with Moms Fight Back to highlight school safety issues. Check out Heidi’s first post about questions to ask when searching for a safe school for your child. 

by Heidi Ganahl

74% of eight to 11-year-olds say teasing and bullying happen at their school according to the National Crime Prevention Council. Bullying in schools is not an unusual problem, it is not bias to age or gender and it occurs in every state across the US. The importance of taking bullying seriously cannot be overstated. Victims of bullying and bullies themselves often struggle in school, experience a low self-esteem, become depressed and turn to violent behavior. Michigan State University School Violence Specialist, Glenn Stutzky, stated, “We have a whole generation of adults in the educational system that still view bullying as ‘just that’s the way it is.’” If we want our children to be safe, enjoy school and grow up to be respectable adults, we cannot accept this as the status quo.

As moms, we must remember that our children may be involved in bullying in a variety of ways: they may be the bully, they may be the victim, or they may be the witness of bullying. All three of these situations require us to guide our children effectively and to do what we can to empower them to behave with respect and kindness toward others.

Mom’s Fight Back has written several posts on bullying including “Cyberbullying 101 + Prevention Tips,” “Schools and Students Take a Stand and Get Creative | Bullying Prevention,” and “Kids Making a Difference: Anti-bullying.”  Today we want to share with you 9 things you can do as a mom to protect your child from bullying at school. These tips have been curated from the National Crime Prevention Council and

keep communication open1. Keep communication open. Ask your children how their day was and listen to what they say about school, social events, and their classmates. Pay attention and provide encouragement / guidance on any concerns or problems they share. Know who their friends are and help them feel comfortable talking to you.

2. Talk to your children about bullying and make sure they understand its consequences. Discuss what bullying is and how they can stand up for themselves and others safely. Explain why bullying is unacceptable and the negative impact it can have on people’s lives. Educate your children on where they can get help at school.

3. If you witness or hear about any bullying, respond right away. Do what you can to stop the bullying – even if your child is the one bullying.

4. Encourage your children to help others who need it and to stand up for those being picked on or teased.

model how to treat others5. Model how to treat others with kindness and respect. Never bully your children or bully others. Children who are bullied at home often react by bullying others. If your kids witness you hit, ridicule or gossip about someone, they will be more likely to do it themselves.

6. Support the bully prevention programs in your local school and community. If a program does not currently exist, reach out to other parents, teachers and concerned adults and start your own.

7. Teach your children how to solve problems without violence or harsh words. Recognize and praise them when they address issues, frustrations, or negativity in a peaceful and positive way.

8. Remember the importance of your kids feeling confident enough to stand up for what they believe in. Don’t hesitate when it comes to giving positive feedback and strive to have a safe and supportive home environment.

encourage your kids9. Encourage your kids to participate in activities they love. Pursuing their interests and hobbies can boost their confidence, help them make new friends and can help protect them from bullying.

By addressing bullying ahead of time, we have a better chance of keeping our kids engaged, happy and confident at school and at home. We will also be playing a part in the effort to decrease school violence and youth suicide. Let’s work together to be proactive and make a positive difference in the lives of our children.

Heidi Ganahl, founder and CEO of Camp Bow Wow and The Bow Wow Buddies Foundation, is also the founder of Moms Fight Back. Moms Fight Back is building a community of Colorado moms to tackle the issues only a mom is brave enough to take on! Our mission is to make moms the most important players in politics and problem solving for a happier, healthier, safer world for our kids! We may not be soldiers on the front lines, but we are soldiers nonetheless, fighting for our children’s lives; fighting to keep our kids healthy, sane, happy, safe. If not us, then who? Take the first step and join the army of moms at Moms Fight Back!

7 Questions to Ask When Searching for the Safest School for Your Child

Heidi Ganahl

This week, Colorado School Grades is partnering with Moms Fight Back to highlight school safety issues. 

by Heidi Ganahl

At Mom’s Fight Back, our main concern is keeping children safe. One of the best ways to do this is to address, understand and improve school safety. With the standard of School Choice, we have learned that choosing the right school for your child is hard enough when you are simply comparing teachers, curriculum, and performance. A vital element of your research however, should focus on school safety standards and procedures. When trying to determine the security and safety of a school, parents should speak with school officials, research the neighborhood and look into the history of school violence in the area.

The 2013 Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report, created by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, stated, “For parents, school staff, and policymakers to effectively address school crime, they need an accurate understanding of the extent, nature, and context of the problem. However, it is difficult to gauge the scope of crime and violence in schools given the large amount of attention devoted to isolated incidents of extreme school violence.” While it may be difficult to get the full picture of school safety, it is important to ask questions and seek out those in charge of school safety.

To help you get started with your research, we have curated 7 important questions you can ask when searching for the safest school for your children. To learn more, please visit, Education World, or ReGroup.Com.

1. Is there a point person who is responsible for school safety and can answer questions or make decisions if something happens / or if there is a policy concern?

2. Are there specific and easy to understand policies and procedures enforced in regards to school safety?

3. Does the school regularly exercise safety drills to prepare for evacuation or lockdown situations?

4. What prevention efforts are being made to eliminate safety threats? Is there an effective anti-bullying program in place? What is the school’s response to troubled students?

5. Are students, teachers and personnel trained on what to do and how to survive a shooting event or other violent attack?

6. Is there a clear coordination plan between the school and local first responders in preparation for an emergency situation? (A Crisis Response Plan is recommended as it is co-developed by the school and local law enforcement.) What plans are there for clear communication and effective mitigation of threats?

7. In the event of a crisis, what does the school want parents to do? What is their role in helping with the emergency, where do they call, where do they pick up their kids, what kind of documentation do parents need?

The National School Safety and Security Services created a list of 10 Practical Things Parents Can Do To Assess School Security and Crisis Preparedness that may also be helpful when researching schools. One of their suggestions is to simply ask your children about the safety in the school they are currently attending. Students will likely be aware of any security issues that exist or what would help them feel safer at school. The article also provides multiple questions that you can ask school officials and school safety specialists to create a clearer picture of the school’s safety status.

If you need help getting started on what to look for when researching schools in general or going on school tours, has a great article that provides helpful tips. Once you have come up with a list of potential schools, also offers a tool to compare up to four schools at a time.

moms fight backHeidi Ganahl, founder and CEO of Camp Bow Wow and The Bow Wow Buddies Foundation, is also the founder of Moms Fight Back. Moms Fight Back is building a community of Colorado moms to tackle the issues only a mom is brave enough to take on! Our mission is to make moms the most important players in politics and problem solving for a happier, healthier, safer world for our kids! We may not be soldiers on the front lines, but we are soldiers nonetheless, fighting for our children’s lives; fighting to keep our kids healthy, sane, happy, safe. If not us, then who? Take the first step and join the army of moms at Moms Fight Back!


School Safety Week: CSG Partners with Moms Fight Back

moms fight backThis week, Colorado School Grades is partnering with Moms Fight Back to discuss important issues in school safety and particularly how to keep safety in mind when picking a school for your child.

Moms Fight Back is led by a Colorado mom motivated to help other parents with tough issues such as Internet safety, bullying, sexual abuse and assault, and gun safety.

Some more on the organization: Moms Fight Back is building a community of Colorado moms to tackle the issues only a mom is brave enough to take on!

Our mission is to make moms the most important players in politics and problem solving for a happier, healthier, safer world for our kids! We may not be soldiers on the front lines, but we are soldiers nonetheless, fighting for our children’s lives; fighting to keep our kids healthy, sane, happy, safe. If not us, then who? Take the first step and join the army of moms at Moms Fight Back!


Stay tuned for more posts this week focused on school safety!

A-School Profile: DSST Public Schools

In this Q & A, Andy Mendrop of DSST Public Schools describes the charter management network, which runs many of the state’s top middle and high schools.

Describe your school’s mission and illustrate it with an example from the classroom.

DSST GraduatesDSST’s mission is to transform urban public education by eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century. We have a focus on being ready for college throughout our curriculum from 6th through 12th grade. Our students are required to pass rigorous courses, like pre-calculus, before graduating from DSST. They also participate in both an internship, which gives them an eye into the working world, and a senior project which asks them to research and write an extended paper on a topic before presenting it to a panel of adult DSST community members.

What are one or two ways that the team at your school meets students’ academic needs?

Our team uses ed. tech tools to assess and determine how each of our students are doing on specific skills. This helps our entire staff to determine what type of help each of our students need. Teachers work with specific students both during and outside of class to help them understand any skills they may have missed to help ensure that they continue to be successful and on track in their class.

Name one or two characteristics, programs, or other detail about your school that makes it a special place.

DSSTAll DSST schools focus on creating a culture of support for students to help them be successful at school. Every morning our students meet in a small group of roughly 15 students that meet with a teacher. This gives our students and parents a solid connection to our schools.

After our students meet their advisories they go to Morning Meeting. Morning Meeting is a time when our entire student body and all of our staff meet in one room as a community. The content of the meetings focus on our six core values, colleges and creating a strong community so that everyone can achieve their goals.

Our schools also focus on helping students to realize their academic potential through our one-to-one laptop ratio and educational technology.

What’s the most frequently asked question from parents visiting the school – and how do you respond to it?

DSSTWe are often asked “with your focus on Science and Technology do you also offer art classes, sports and extra-curricular classes?” Our response is simple: yes! We believe that a well-rounded education is important in order to have a successful academic career and a fulfilling life. Our schools offer sports, art classes and a host of after school clubs.

Where can parents go to learn more?