Whether your child is entering kindergarten, middle or high school, you’ve moved to a new school district, or you’re exploring private schools, a tour can be a great way to get to know a prospective new school. Here are some questions to ask to make the most of these visits — whether in person or online — and make sure the school you select is one both you and your child feel good about.
School Logistics and Operations
What looks like a great school on paper, and feels like a good fit when you visit, might not be right if it doesn’t work with the realities of your life. Matt Thornton, director of the Robert C. Parker School near Albany, New York, says many of the questions he gets from families are logistical, and it makes sense to think granularly about what it would mean for your family (and your schedule) to attend the school. Some questions to consider asking about logistics include:
— What time does the school day begin, and when is the earliest children can be dropped off?
— Is before- and after-school care available, and how much does it cost?
— Is busing available for all students?
In addition, now that all districts have experience with virtual learning, you might ask whether — and under what conditions — the school would go virtual. Will the school cancel for snow days, or will students be expected to log in from home during inclement weather? And if there is an expectation of virtual learning at any point, find out if the school provides devices.
Finally, Thornton recommends asking about COVID-19 and more general health and safety policies, so you are clear about the expectations and environment.
Academics and Learning Opportunities
Before visiting, look up the school online to gather information on academic outcomes, so you can ask questions about any data you find concerning. In addition to checking independent rankings, you can look up state assessments for individual public schools by searching your state report card website.
At the same time, keep in mind that the data captured doesn’t tell the entire story. Andrew Theado, principal at Upper Arlington High School in central Ohio, encourages any caregiver with questions or concerns about a school’s ranking to look into what it’s based on, which can help give context to the data. And Thornton notes it’s important to remember there are other ways for students to demonstrate mastery of a given subject beyond just state assessments.
He suggests asking these questions on tours to understand how schools are measuring student learning:
— How does the school assess children?
— How will I know my child is growing as a learner?
— How engaged in learning are students at this school?
Finally, at the high school level especially, it’s important to ask about the different programs and pathways the school offers learners. Are there Advanced Placement courses? Partnerships with local universities? Career and technical tracks? Students who have strong academic interests in certain subjects might ask 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 mandated by law.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives and School Culture
An environment where students feel safe, comfortable and welcome is an environment that’s conducive to learning. That’s why understanding a school’s culture is essential. Asking staff how they support students’ sense of belonging — whether through clubs and activities or schoolwide policies and priorities — can demonstrate how leaders are thinking about building an inclusive and supportive space. Thornton recommends asking:
— How does the school incorporate social-emotional learning?
— What are the school initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion? How is the curriculum informed by the work? Who is responsible for supporting these initiatives?
— What is the school’s mission statement, and how is it enacted throughout the building?
“I think any school worth their salt will have a very robust mission statement that can be shown with examples,” Thornton says.
Similarly, Theado’s decisions as an 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.
Limitations of Remote Tours
With some tours taking place remotely, whether due to coronavirus restrictions or for families who haven’t yet moved to the area, getting the overall feeling of the building can be challenging, even once you have all your questions answered.
Columbus parent Katy Macke says she and her child decided against a highly ranked high school after visiting in person, in part because they didn’t find the exterior and grounds welcoming. “We want it to feel like you’re pulling up to a school that you’re proud to go to,” she says.
The entranceway alone can tell you a lot about a school; you might ask to see photos of this area. Other spaces that are important to students — and are often left out of tours — are the bathrooms and the cafeteria. If you feel awkward asking for photos, you can always ask to talk to families of current students to get more information. “To hear it from a parent perspective is really good,” Thornton says.
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