I wish that I had thought to talk to and tour our neighborhood elementary school years ago. Rather than spending time researching private and specialty schools in case the public elementary school wasn’t good, I could have found out all I needed to know when I was pregnant, or when my son was two, or whenever. For some reason, I felt like I needed to wait until the spring before kindergarten so I needlessly spent years worrying and wondering about something that would have been easy to learn. I knew this, somewhere in me, because I’ve been an educational advocate for many students. Somehow, I didn’t apply what I knew to my own child. I’m realizing I can take my educational expertise and use it to benefit my son and my readers. If you’re considering school options, you’ll want to get information about schools. Here’s how to research public schools. Some of these questions will apply to any school.
- Go to your district website and find out what school your child would attend based on your address. There are likely links here for campus facts, school ratings based on state tests, calendars, etc.
- Go to the school’s website. Is there a virtual tour? A PTA newsletter? Volunteer opportunities?
- Call the school. Don’t call first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, or as school is letting out because those are busy front office times. Call mid-morning or early afternoon.
- Did the phone ring many times before it was answered? Were you put on hold? The front office administrator is someone you’ll be dealing with over the years. Is s/he nice, helpful, forthcoming?
- Tell him/her that your child may be attending the school and you’d like to get some information. Who should you speak to? The administrator can quite likely give you basic info like whether or not there is a parent tour, who would give it, and may be able to schedule it for you or put you on a group tour list.
- You may also ask to speak to the guidance counselor. S/he should be able to talk about your child with you. This is a conversation that is best had the spring before your child enters school since speaking much earlier will not allow for social/emotional/cognitive development that might change the content of this conversation significantly. If your child is introverted, has a hard time sitting still, has a new sibling, divorced parents, has never been to school before or only gone to part-time or small school, you may want to share this information and ask what you can do to help prepare your child for transition to school. Ask what the guidance counselor can do once your child is in school.
- Arrange a time to tour the school. I have a host of questions below that you’ll want to get answered by website, over the phone, or during tour. Besides getting answers to those, you’ll want to make other observations as well.
- What are the facilities like? (Ask to see classrooms–both main and specialty, cafeteria, library, computer lab, playground).
- Where do kids get dropped off and picked up? How does it work?
- Is the school clean? Light? Does it smell like bleach or cafeteria food or…? Is art displayed? Awards? What kinds of posters and materials do teachers have in classrooms?
- Does it feel crowded or open?
- How are teachers, counselors, and other school staff speaking to the children?
- Do the students look happy, worried, rowdy?
- How are the kids interacting with each other?
Besides making physical and emotional observations, you’ll want lots of information. Here are some things to look up or ask:
- Is it traditional schedule or year-round?
- What time do the kids have to be dropped off and picked up? (These may not necessarily be school hours. They may ask that kids get there 15-30 minutes before school starts so everyone’s in class on time).
- Can parents tour the school? When? Who will be giving tour? Is there an opportunity to speak to the principal? To the teachers?
- Can children visit school, meet teachers, principle, and/or guidance counselor before school starts? Is it possible to have private tour? (Not all kids need this, but some kids who are more introverted, who haven’t been in large preschool, or who do better with transitions if they have more information might benefit).
- Is there an orientation day before school starts? (In the Austin Independent School District, for instance, there is a kinder round-up all students can attend in May before they start school that fall).
- When do I need to register my child? What do I need to bring to registration?
Class Size and Selection:
- What are the student:teacher ratios? What is the maximum number of kids in class and what is the minimum?
- How many classes are there at your child’s grade level?
- When are teachers assigned?
- How are teachers assigned? Is there a way to give the school information about your child to help with this assignment? (During registration, you may be given an info sheet asking about food preferences/allergies, favorite things, nicknames, what scares them, etc. You might also be able to type a Getting to Know Your Child letter to attach to that info sheet).
- What if your child and the teacher don’t do well together? Is it possible to change classrooms during the year? How would that process work?
- Are kids with same teacher all day or do they have teachers for special subjects (like art, music, PE)?
- How will teacher(s) communicate with me? How do I communicate with teacher(s)?
- Can parents volunteer at the school? In what capacity? Could I volunteer in my child’s classroom?
- What should my child know upon entering school? How to write and spell name, letters, how to wipe own bottom, etc
- What curriculum is taught for math, reading, and science?
- Will child be bringing home books so I can see what s/he’s doing? If not, is there a way I could see a copy (visit classroom, borrow a copy, buy a home copy from bookstore, etc)?
- Will s/he take state tests at this grade level?
- What levels is s/he expected to be at by end of year? (You can either ask to see example of book that will be at that reading level or for examples of what skills those levels correlate to, or you can look the levels up on the internet i.e. What is DRA 6?) What if s/he’s above or below levels?
- Will kids be using computers? If so, what software will they use?
- Are there special services at the school: Gifted & Talented program, speech therapy, etc.? How is need for them determined? Can parents recommend/request these services?
Here’s the thing, you may not like all of the answers. Maybe you wish kids had more outside time or that the classes were smaller. Maybe the school’s mission looks fabulous but what you observe isn’t consistent with this. Or maybe the school just gets average test ratings but you’re not worried about how your child will test and the art displays and staff interaction make you feel comfortable with trusting these people with your child. Trust your gut. You know your kid better than anyone. Getting the facts about a school and observing it will give you the information about whether you need to look other places. Take your child to the school and see how s/he feels about it. The decision here is not so much about whether this is a good or bad school for everyone, but whether it’s a good fit for your child and your family.
And remember, you don’t have to make an irrevocable decision. The school may look okay and your kid may be miserable there. It might not be a good fit or maybe s/he needs a different teacher, etc. Or it may look so-so and your child could be thrilled to be there. School selection is not an irrevocable choice. Within public schools, you may have the option to request a transfer to another school in district, or there may be charter, magnet, or other specialty schools. Find out when you’d have to put in these applications and what your child’s chances are of getting into a school other than your assigned school. Maybe you’ll decide to homeschool or transfer to a private school. In most cases, I’d recommend making those changes for a new school year, not in the middle–unless it’s totally miserable and more damaging to wait than to attempt that major a transition mid-semester or mid-year.
As always, if there are other questions or considerations you would add, please share! Good luck!