It’s that time of year again: when parents across the country — but particularly parents in major American cities — prepare to schedule a flurry of open houses in a frantic search for the best school for their child.
It happened to me a year ago; between January and March I visited more than 20 schools in search of the best place for my 3-year-old. Even though I’ve been working in schools my whole adult life, it was a daunting, disorienting experience. I can only imagine what it feels like for parents who haven’t stepped foot in a school since their own high school graduation.
To help ease the anxiety of my fellow parents, here are a few essential rules of the road: three questions to ask, and three things to look for.
Questions to Ask
- What is your definition of success — and how do you know if you’re reaching it?
- What aspect of your school are you most proud of — and where do you need the most work?
- What’s the general profile of your faculty — and how long do they stay?
Each of these questions is designed to drill down on how well a school understands what it does — and why it does it. Surprisingly, many schools haven’t thought about this as much as they should. They may have some generalized notion of success in terms of test scores or general statements about a child’s development. They are likely to know what they do well. They have to know how many of their teachers come and go each year. But if they can’t speak really clearly and specifically about what success will look like for your child — and do so in ways that go beyond just academics – and if they can’t identify quickly where they still need work (because all schools, even the best ones, have room for improvement), you have good reason to wonder if they really have a plan worth investing in.
As examples of schools that have taken the time to figure it out, check out Mission Hill, the Blue School, or MC2 — three schools with clearly defined visions of individual- and whole-school success, and three schools with explicit lists of the sorts of skills and habits they want their students to master. Simply put, these schools know where they’re going — and how they’ll get there. Your child’s school should, too.
Things to Look For
- Hallways & Classrooms
- Playgrounds & Playspaces
- Safety & Security
If you visit a school during school hours, peek in the classrooms. Do students look engaged and energetic, or withdrawn and bored? Are the hallways filled with student work — and if so, does the work reflect a real range of skill-levels and ideas, or does it all look the same? Good schools know how to get kids involved — by making the learning as hands-on and relevant as possible — and they recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of each child.
Good schools also have good playspaces for children — or at least a good plan to get them there, if, like many urban charter schools, they do not yet inhabit a building with its own playground. Ideally, your child’s daily opportunities for physical activity and play are frequent and easily accessed. And if they have to travel offsite, be sure to find out the path to the playground, and how long it will take to get a small herd of children there and back every day.
And finally, good schools take the safety and security of your children seriously. Is it easy or difficult to walk into the school without being stopped or questioned by any adult? Does the school have protocols in place in the event of an emergency? And most importantly, does the school’s commitment to safety and security not interfere with the child’s sense of wonder and curiosity? Children should expect maximum security, but that doesn’t mean they should be expected to learn in environments that feel like maximum security prisons. A good school knows the difference.
The best and worst feature of modern K-12 schooling is that there are more choices to weigh and sift through. But the good news is that, as with the schools themselves, the clearer we the parents are on what we want in a school — and why we want it — the more likely we are to find a match in the marketplace.