Whether your child is entering kindergarten, middle school, or high school, you’ve moved to a new school district, or you’re exploring private schools, a visit can be a great way to get to know a potential new school. Here are some questions to ask to get the most out of these visits – whether in person or online – and make sure the school you choose is the one you and your child feel comfortable at.
School Logistics and Operations
What looks like a great school on paper and seems fine when you visit may not be right if it doesn’t fit the realities of your life. Matt Thornton, principal of the Robert C. Parker School near Albany, New York, says many of the questions he receives from families are logistical, and it makes sense to think in detail about what that would mean for your family (and your schedule) going to school. Here are some questions to ask about logistics:
- What time does the school day start and when can the first children be dropped off?
- Are before and after school childcare services available and how much does it cost?
- Is the bus available for all students?
Also, now that all districts have experience with virtual learning, you might wonder if – and under what conditions – the school would go virtual. Will the school cancel snow days, or will students have to log in from home in the event of inclement weather? And if there’s an expectation of virtual learning at any time, find out if the school provides devices.
Finally, Thornton recommends asking about COVID-19 and broader health and safety policies, so you are clear about expectations and the environment.
Academics and learning opportunities
Before visiting, research the school online to gather information on academic performance, so you can ask questions about any data you find regarding. In addition to checking independent rankings, you can view state ratings for individual public schools by searching for your state school report website.
At the same time, keep in mind that captured data doesn’t tell the whole story. Andrew Theado, principal of Upper Arlington High School in central Ohio, encourages any caregiver with questions or concerns about a school’s ranking to review what it’s based on, which can help give a context to data. And Thornton notes that it’s important to remember that there are other ways for students to demonstrate mastery of a given subject beyond state assessments.
He suggests asking these questions during guided tours to understand how schools measure student learning:
- How does the school assess the children?
- How will I know my child is growing as a learner?
- How engaged are students at this school in learning?
Finally, at the secondary level in particular, it is important to learn about the different programs and paths that the school offers to learners. Are there advanced level courses? Partnerships with local universities? Career and technical tracks? Students who have strong academic interests in certain subjects can inquire about learning opportunities in those areas.
And students who are identified as needing services, including through 504 plans and IEPs, can ask how the school would accommodate them — especially at private schools, where special education services are not available. not mandated by law.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives and School Culture
An environment where students feel safe, comfortable and welcome is an environment conducive to learning. This is why it is essential to understand the culture of a school. Asking staff how they support students’ sense of belonging – whether through clubs and activities or school-wide policies and priorities – can show how leaders plan to create a inclusive and supportive space. Thornton recommends asking:
- How does the school integrate social-emotional learning?
- What are the school’s initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion? How is the program informed by the work? Who is responsible for supporting these initiatives?
- What is the school’s mission statement and how is it implemented throughout the building?
“I think any school worth its salt will have a very strong mission statement that can be illustrated with examples,” says Thornton.
Likewise, Theado’s decisions as administrator are informed by the building’s strategic plan, which prioritizes fostering a sense of belonging for all students through extracurricular opportunities. “We want to make sure that all students have a place to plug in,” he says.
Remote Visit Limits
With some tours taking place remotely, either due to coronavirus restrictions or for families who have not yet moved to the area, it can be difficult to get a general idea of the building even once you have answered all your questions.
Columbus parent Katy Macke says she and her child decided against attending a highly ranked high school after an in-person visit, in part because they didn’t find the exterior and grounds welcoming . “We want you to feel like you’re coming to a school you’re proud to go to,” she says.
The entrance alone can tell you a lot about a school; you could ask to see pictures of this area. Other important spaces for students – and often overlooked during visits – are the toilets and the cafeteria. If you feel uncomfortable asking for photos, you can always ask to speak to families of current students for more information. “Hearing it from a parent’s perspective is really good,” says Thornton.