Whether your child is “moving up,” switching schools in your district, or moving to a new location, consider the following questions as you make your school decision.
Before You Go:
Ask, “What are the most important things you want in a school?” What qualities will meet your child’s needs? What kind of learner is your child? Does she like to work alone or in groups? Is she skilled at any particular subjects? Where does she need extra help or support? Does she need a highly structured environment or something more open and flexible? Is she shy or very social? Most importantly, what kind of school will work both for your child and for you?
When You Get There:
Consider if this school is a good fit for your child — and you. Can you picture your child being successful here? Will this school engage his interests, and work for his learning style? Will this school help your child feel confident — building on his strengths and help him with weaker areas in positive ways? Or, will this school’s approach discourage your child about learning? How will your child do socially in this environment? Plus, consider practical concerns like the availability of after-school care and transportation.
What is the look and feel of the school? Does it feel warm and inviting? Or cold and institutional? What kind of work is up on the walls? Is it original student work or “Student of the Week” posters? Are the facilities old or new? Is there a well-equipped gym? How often is it used? Do the teachers and students seem to enjoy being there?
Does the school have a particular philosophy or educational approach? Is the approach modeled on the work of any particular educators? Does the school utilize any special educational programs or offer specialized teaching? Some philosophies are play-based in the early grades, introduce reading and math earlier than others, and many schools incorporate multiple philosophies. Some schools follow specific educational models such as the Montessori Method, the Waldorf approach, Dr. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Dr. Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds strategies for children with learning differences, and more. Learn about Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and other philosophies.
How large are the classes? Class sizes in public schools are mandated by state standards, and they will vary from state to state. Ask your school what the approved size is for your area. Studies haves shown that younger children learn best with class sizes of 17 or under, but most public schools have far more students. So if the class is large, how does the teacher deal with it? Do children work in small groups? Do students get individualized assignments and unique attention?
What’s the learning environment like? Do students work cooperatively in small groups or by themselves? Is the teacher standing up and lecturing, or working with students in active ways? Is the teacher using visual and physical models as well as text to teach? Do kids get to manipulate objects as they learn? Are individual differences (such as in learning styles and academic strengths) being accommodated, or do all students do equal activities at the same time? Ask yourself, “Will my child’s learning style be suited well to this school’s approach?”
What kinds of exchanges do teachers have with students? Do the teachers make real connections with their students? Do the students seem excited and curious? Do the students respond with enthusiasm to teachers’ questions? Do many of these questions inspire children to think about and brainstorm answers, or is there only one right answer?
What does student work look like? Look around the classroom and ask to see some homework assignments. Does this work look creative and inspired? Are there fill-in-the-blanks answer sheets? Is this the kind of work your child would find interesting and benefit from doing?
How does the school address social-emotional issues? Does the school have specific guidelines and programs in place for helping children develop communication skills and work through social conflicts? Ask the school to describe their approach. Consider whether this will work for your child.
What are the discipline and homework policies? Many schools have specific disciplinary rules involving everything from “time outs,” to meeting with the principal, to expulsion. Ask for specifics and consider if they will work for your child and for you. Also, inquire about homework rules and regulations. What happens if children forget their homework or don’t complete it?
How balanced is the curriculum? “Look for schools that balance the three A’s: academics, athletics, and the arts in a three-part program for children,” recommends Harris. Find out how often kids have gym and arts classes, and what they do in those classes.
More Questions to Ask When Choosing an Elementary or Middle School
What’s the approach toward grades? Does the school use letters grades like A, B or C, a point system, pass/fail, or narrative evaluations? What kind of work is graded — homework, tests, projects? Consider whether this approach will motivate your child to succeed.
Are the needs of boys and girls addressed? Studies show that some boys and girls have different needs in school. Does the school have books that boys will want to read? Are certain boys disciplined because they are “boys” or because they need discipline? Are girls encouraged to speak out as much as boys? Are girls given opportunities in math and science? Do both boys and girls raise their hands in class and are they acknowledged equally? Ask yourself, “Will this school meet the needs of my boy or girl?”
Is the library inviting and well-used? What kinds of books are on the shelves? How often do students visit? What do they learn when they go there?
How “wired” is the school? What kinds of computers do they have, where are they situated? What kinds of computer and internet skills do children learn, and how is this learning incorporated into the curriculum?
What kinds of extra-curricular classes are offered and who gets to do them? Are these activities the same as what’s offered during the school day or are they exciting, hands on, and truly enriching? Are these activities offered to everyone or are they designed for the “most talented” or highest academic achievers? Would your child enjoy them?
How do parents get involved in the school? Is there an active PTA? How often are the meetings? Can parents volunteer in the classroom? If you do volunteer, what kinds of activities can parents help with? And will you get to work with your child?
How is information communicated to parents? How do teachers and the administration keep parents informed? Is there a good newsletter? Is e-mail used to communicate with teachers? How often do parents meet with their child’s teacher and how long are these meetings? Are teachers available for additional meetings if needed?
Is there a student government? How is student feedback elicited and incorporated? What grades can participate?
Do teachers learn from each other? “Ask if specific times are set up for teachers to talk, share, and collaborate,” advises Evelyn Spivey, Ph.D., principal at the Rand School in Montclair, New Jersey. “Find out what happens on ‘curriculum days’ and what kinds of additional trainings are offered to teachers.”
Is this school accredited? Public schools need to meet state and district requirements. Private schools get additional accreditation from organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Independent Schools.
Before You Leave:
Ask for materials. All schools will give out some materials but ask for specifics like class schedules, rule books, homework samples, newsletters, and policy statements. And then read them. These materials will offer specifics that tours don’t tell you — and help you determine if this is the right place for you.