In many cities, parents have options for choosing a school. Parents aren’t limited to what is closest to them, and can take advantage of unique features that different schools offer.
While this choice can be great, like anything, too many choices can be overwhelming. So taking a tour of schools can help. We have found that having a rubric or structured way to think about your choice can help simplify it. Ultimately it still may be complicated. A decision on a school is a values decision. Often there are multiple people at the table of this decision – parents, your kids, sometimes grandparents. Sometimes families are blended. And folks might prioritize things differently.
Having a shared language can make things easier.
Pre-Step: Dates & Logistics
But first things first, take care of logistics.
In your city and community go to your local district’s website as well as other schools you are considering to understand what the days are for choice options and tours. Learn what the steps are. It can be confusing, so in addition to looking at what is publicly available, it’s always great to talk to a few parents too.
10 Things That Matter in Touring and Choosing Schools
1. Welcoming Community for Parents and Students
Your child’s school is a place they, and possibly you, will go daily. You want to make sure the school is a place where you – and your child – feel welcome. How can you tell? Well, you really can get a “vibe”.
Do teachers and staff smile at you? When you call, do you feel welcome?
I remember calling a school once to schedule a tour. They spent so much time telling me how unlikely it would be for us to get in because we weren’t in the primary geographic area. Before I’d even entered the front door, I felt unwelcome.
2. Culture & Structure
Different schools have different cultures and structures. You may find a culture and structure that works for your family may not be a great fit for your best friends. Or you may find that a culture and structure that works for one child doesn’t fit for another. We’re a bit more of the chameleon model in our family – and work to have our kids adjust to their environment. But it is something for you to consider.
Tightly structured versus loose?
Some schools are more structured. There are clear expectations for how kids walk in the halls, talk to teachers and each other, routines, classroom protocols, etc. Some schools are less structured. There may be high variability in what happens between classrooms, there may not be uniforms. There is research that supports multiple types of structures.
So focus on these key questions when considering structure:
1) what aligns with our beliefs and values?
2) what is the school’s intention or purpose behind their chosen structure?
3) how does the culture and structure enable or disable other things you may care about as a family?
The reason these questions are important is because a school that is intentionally unstructured versus a school that just didn’t come up with routines or structures is vastly different.
Similarly, a school that is very strict or rigid, but that can’t articulate a why behind it can be similarly mismatched.
As we were touring schools the main thing we were looking for was an intentional culture.
Our son ended up at a Montessori school where they had free play in a large forest for a large portion of the day. But the school had a very clear purpose and reason for their structure.
Our daughter ended up at a school where they sit with their fingers laced through much of the day. But the school has a very clear purpose and reason for how they used that free play time.
And in both instances we saw positive outcomes and benefits to the intentional culture and structure.
3. Academic Philosophy and Focus
There are many different academic philosophies – and dimensions to consider when thinking about academics. I think about 3 strands:
So within curriculum philosophy there are a few things to consider. Some curricula are built on a more constructivist approach – wherein kids construct their own meaning. Other curricula are more based on a concept called direct instruction, wherein kids learn what is taught, and then may apply it. There’s lots of debate and preferences – and personally I am open to multiple philosophies. You do want to try to make sure your child’s school at least HAS a philosophy on curriculum.
A sub-component to this curriculum philosophy is what the school or district believes on how curriculum should be implemented. Some schools believe in a teacher curated curriculum. Others believe in a more centralized curriculum. There are pros and cons to both. As a former teacher my choice would be about 80% centralized curriculum with the option for me to tweak and improve and innovate.
As a parent I probably tend towards wanting a centralized curriculum that allows me to go online, learn about and support what my kids are learning, etc.
But other schools and parents love having teachers have the freedom to create lessons that they see fit depending on their class of kids.
Schools and classes can also differ on their delivery philosophy. Some schools believe kids should sit and listen, other schools like to deliver content via call and response and chants. Some schools like kids to do project based learning to learn the content. Some schools rely heavily on technology and computers to deliver content. And of course some schools do all of the above. You may not care which method a school uses, and that’s totally appropriate too. Just know that it is something you can consider. And ideally schools are thinking through what they believe about how knowledge, skills, mindsets and information is best delivered, facilitated, and/or acquired.
Academic focus area
Some schools may be better in one particular academic focus area. Do you care about that? You may feel like you are really personally comfortable with Literacy so you want your kid to go to a school that offers stronger Math support. Or you may love Science and really value your kid going to a school that offers a Science lab and depth in those areas. You may really value foreign languages and may want your child to have exposure to languages early. Or again, you may just want your child to have an academically well rounded education. All of these options are okay – and worth considering.
While diversity is great for any student or family, depending on your child or family it can matter even more.
When I was getting ready for school back in 1982, my mom called the school I was slated to attend. As the conversation wrapped up she said, “One more question. What’s this school like for Black children?” The administrator on the other end – both misunderstanding her question and not knowing she was Black – responded with, “You don’t have to worry about that. We don’t have very many of those here.”
This is the school I ultimately was sent to. And my parents had to do what most parents have to do – optimize across multiple variables. Back in the early 1980s sending your kid to a school with diversity as a consideration was less possible than it is now.
But now it can – and should matter. It makes sense to want your kid to attend a school that reflects the diversity of your community. This can include:
- socioeconomic background
- learning style
Again, this is an area that may be easier said than done. And it’s important to be honest with yourself – and to realize that a diverse school may require other trade-offs.
Why is that? Because in a diverse community that means there’s even a greater likelihood of a diversity of needs and experiences.
Creating a shared and unifying school culture becomes that much more important – which also means there may be trade-offs.
5. Extracurricular activities
When considering extracurriculars you don’t just want to consider if there are extracurricular activities, but what they are!
In Houston my sister attended a high school that was for kids who wanted to be in the health professions. They didn’t have sports teams on the campus. I went to a high school where sports were central to our school culture and identity. The average SAT score at my sister’s school was probably about 200 points higher than the average SAT score at my high school. We probably had kids who had SAT scores as high as at her school, but we also had kids who had very low SAT scores. Her school was an exam magnet, my high school was a zoned high school with academic magnet options within it.
Almost 100% of the kids who graduated from her high school went to college, many of them majored in the Sciences. Our high school college matriculation rate was a bit lower (closer to 80%) but we also sent kids to great colleges, and some kids went to college on full athletic scholarships.
Some schools have great extracurriculars in foreign language, others in music, others in sports, others in politics. Some schools have a diversity of extracurriculars but they aren’t particularly strong in any of them. Some schools have few extracurriculars, but they dominate in the ones they offer.
Again, there’s not necessarily a right answer. But you’ll want to be wide-eyed with yourself on what matters most.
6. Proximity and location
This is probably an area that I gave ZERO consideration to that I really should have considered. Traffic is a real thing, as is having a community and village who can help you out. Give real consideration to the logistics of getting your kids to and from school, and being able to get there yourself.
Sometimes a school that is close to you isn’t an option for other reasons (safety, culture, academic rigor). In those events, consider if you think you’ll be able to enlist a community of other folks. Do you know, or can you get to know, other parents at the bus stop? Does the school have strong after care or before care options? Is it at least close to your work? Is transportation provided?
I just want to encourage folks to be clear eyed about the tax of having to get your kids to and from school, especially if the school doesn’t offer after-care or transportation. Parents do heroic things for their kids, so you’ll certainly be able to figure it out. I would just encourage you to put it into your consideration set.
And when you are touring a school or learning more about a school, ask questions that help you understand how you’ll be able to navigate the logistics. Also consider whether they value having parents who don’t live nearby. Some schools have many families from across the city, and pride themselves in supporting that geographic diversity. But if a school prefers to work with kids and families who live near the school, that is important to know as well.
7. Parent and Teacher Community
There’s a lot baked into this topic, but you’ll want to dig into the parent and teacher community. Consider asking questions like,
What are the traits the school looks for in teachers?
- What is the relationship between parents and teachers like?
- How do parents engage with the school?
- How can parents share their thoughts and ideas with the school?
- What are examples of ways parents and teachers have worked together?
- What are minimal expectations of parents?
- What are the school’s minimal expectations of teachers?
There are also questions you should ask yourself!
- Are the parents people you would enjoy hanging out with?
- If you were going to need some help with someone picking up your kid or supporting you, does the parent and teacher community feel like one you could connect to?
- Do you like the parent community?
- Do you like the teacher community?
- Do you respect the parents?
- Do you respect the teachers?
8. Leadership & Vision
Last but certainly not least is leadership and vision.
- Who is leading the school?
- How long have they been around?
- What is their vision for the school? For the students within their school?
- What do they think are the assets of the school?
- What are their values?
Those are all questions you can ask the leader. But questions you’ll need to ask yourself include…
- Do I feel comfortable talking to this person?
- If my child is having a challenge do I trust that I can engage this person and they’ll work with me?
- Does their vision align with my vision?
- Do their values align with my values?
9. Your Kids
Kids are resilient – and can probably do well in most places as long as they feel, and are, safe. Still, children have unique needs. Some kids need a more structured and predictable environment. Some kids need a small community. Some kids need a place where they can run around more. This is the beauty of parents. You know your child. This is also a good time for partnership. Because sometimes as parents we make assumptions about our child that may be wrong. Talk to other parents and friends. For example, my son who did great at the school where he was running around in forests. Turns out he also does well in a more traditional classroom environment also. I thought it might be a tough transition – but it wasn’t.
The one thing to know is your kids will read a lot of the cues from you on schools.
10. You and Your Family
This is basically the “all of the above” answer. The reality is you’ll need to consider the values, logistics, and needs of you and your family. For example, having all of your kids in one school is a perfectly acceptable reason to make trade-offs on other things you care about.
Values also are important. Take some time to write down what matters most to you and your family – and then you can start to think through how school choices may align.
Ultimately, touring a school and choosing a school are complicated. School selection can feel really high stakes. Take comfort in knowing – it will be okay.
Happy touring! And if you want to keep reading on this topic, check this out: https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/the-school-visit-what-to-look-for-what-to-ask/