I have now been on almost a dozen school open houses in the last eight weeks. (Yikes!) Some made my head spin, some schools met my expectations, some did not. Some were after school hours, some were during the school day. All of them were run differently. I have been given tours by school principals, PTA volunteers, admissions officers, and teachers. I have visited private schools and public schools (no charter schools yet).
There are three big things that I have learned.
- One school visit is not enough, ideally. To really know a school, you need to see classes in action, meet teachers and administrators, meet parents, and get a chance to absorb what you are seeing. That is very hard to do in one visit. Open houses where you step into a classroom for a moment doesn’t tell you much at all except for how many students are in the class, how big the room is, and what the students have hung up on the walls and are working on in that moment. On the other hand, visiting a school during school hours doesn’t give you a chance to speak to teachers.
- Private schools have admissions officers who will bristle at this description, but they are professional salespeople. Their job is to make the school look good, no different than the salesperson at the car dealership. On the one hand, having a professional describe the school to you makes it easy to navigate the process and learn a lot about the school in one place. But realistically, the admissions officer has the least impact on your child’s actual school experience of anyone at the school. Make sure that you speak to educators and parents. In contrast, one of the school visits that I took was from a parent who couldn’t answer some of what I would consider to be the most basic questions. Don’t get put off by who you draw as a tour guide at any particular school. Because public schools do not have admissions officers, there are few people who are centrally trained in school philosophy, curriculum, and other details. A parent of a third grader just doesn’t know everything about the kindergarten class. Don’t assume that the kindergarten program is weak, just follow-up and get the answers to your questions from someone who does know.
- When you do speak to someone at a public school, don’t judge them by their presentation style. Private school admissions folks are paid to sell their school. Teachers at public schools are paid to teach. Parents at public schools aren’t paid at all. I care much more about how someone will be with a room full of kids than they are answering pointed questions from me. That being said, I did appreciate meeting the principals when that occurred.