It is school preview season. Among fellow parents with kindergarten-aged children, the information overload has prompted no small amount of anxiety. Online parenting forums are overflowing with questions, second guesses, and uncertainty. This flurry of emotion is understandable. After all, choosing a school is not a trivial decision. In a real sense, choosing a school is also choosing the place and the people who will play a critical role in shaping the adults our children become. I get the anxiety -- I even share it sometimes -- but I have decided that I am going to do my best to see the good in each school and approach the process with an open mind.
Helpfully, our district – which gives families a list of nearby schools from which to choose – has made available a lot of information to consider when making the decision. In tabulating school quality, they include recent test scores and growth scores – which, by themselves, tell very little about the full complexity of schools – but they also provide survey responses from students and teachers and families, lists of school-based amenities, middle school pathways, demand reports showing the number of available spaces and the number of families who choose each school, and more. Each school’s website offers varying levels of detail about their curricula, community partners, family programming, and more. And, in the months before registration opens, each school has three in-person preview days where prospective parents are encouraged to visit, have a tour, and talk to school personnel.
My wife and I would likely consider ourselves informed consumers of schools. She has been a teacher for over 15 years. I have been working in education non-profits and education research for just as long. We have spent more than our share of time wandering through a wide range of schools. And so in one sense, we were well prepared for this process and for school preview days. We had some idea of what to expect and what not to worry too much about.
And yet, as the calendar days counted down to the first preview days, we realized that we were wary of relying solely on our instincts. We wanted to be thoughtful about what we were looking for and what kinds of questions we could ask that would give us a relatively complete and relatively colorful picture of the schools. And so we sat down to brainstorm questions – more questions than we could reasonably ask, as it turns out – but the process was enlightening. Thinking intentionally about how to gather information encouraged us to think about what was important to us and which questions we most wanted to prioritize in the limited time we had available to talk with principals and teachers.
Mindful that many other families are mired in a similar discernment process, I am sharing some of our questions and some of the questions shared with me on Twitter. It should go without saying that this list is hardly comprehensive and that while we may have “right answers” in mind for some of them, our right answers are by no means the right answers.
Ultimately, choosing the right school is hardly an exact science. Even in places with school choice, families’ choices are often constrained, sometimes quite severely constrained, by a number of factors. These include proximity to home, sibling preference, the availability of seats, and random chance. But though our choices may be constrained, that should not discourage us from thinking deeply about what we value and partnering with schools and districts to provide it. Indeed, these questions will remain relevant long after we settle our daughter into her kindergarten class.
- Do you have a Book Room? Can I see it?
- What does reading/writing or math time look like in your classrooms?
- What is your homework policy?
- What kinds of technology are used in the classrooms by teachers and students? How current is it? How does it supplement other kinds of learning materials?
- How many hours per week of social studies do students receive in the upper grades?
- What “specials” do students receive at this school? How often?
- Does the school have before/after school programs? Tell me about them. How much do they cost?
- Do students in this school write imaginative stories? Can you tell me about a story you liked?
- How, if at all, do you prepare students, teachers, and families for standardized tests? If you could do something else with that time, what would it be?
- Tell me about a field trip that your teachers, families, and students especially appreciate.
Students and Student Services
- How many students are typically in a class?
- How racially and economically diverse is the student body?
- What is your model for inclusion? What are the needs of your “inclusion students” and how do you meet them?
- Is there a full-time nurse at the school? If not, how often is the nurse in the building?
- What other service professionals are on-site (e.g., speech language therapist, occupational therapist, Reading Recovery)?
- Are there targeted programs for students at this school (e.g., non-native English speakers, students with autism)?
Teachers and the Teaching Environment
- What are teachers working to improve right now and how are they learning it?
- What kinds of professional development do teachers in your school receive?
- Do teachers at this school get a chance to watch each other teach? If so, how often? If not, why not?
- How long has your longest-serving teacher worked at this school? May I talk to her/him or visit her/his class?
School Climate and Norms
- What is the school-wide approach to community building and “discipline”?
- What was for breakfast and lunch today? Can I see the lunchroom?
- Tell me about recess. How long is it? Where do kids spend it? Does it ever get taken away as a punishment?
- Are there annual schoolwide events that you feel especially proud of? Tell me about them. Is it possible to attend?
- November: What story, if any, are your students and teachers telling about Thanksgiving? Who is represented?
- December: Which winter holidays are acknowledged and/or celebrated? How are they represented?
- January: How do students and teachers acknowledge and/or celebrate the life of Martin Luther King?
- February: Is Black History Month acknowledged? If so, how? Who is represented?
- March: Is Women’s History Month acknowledged? If so, how? Who is represented?