A Cautionary Tale
The year my daughter turned two, I waited in line with dozens of other parents outside a highly-desired preschool to ensure she got a spot. The school came highly recommended by a few acquaintances and we were impressed by the school tour. I knew the line formed around midnight the night before registration opened. Showing up at 5am landed me the second to last spot in the two’s class. My husband and I were so relieved…
Fast forward a few weeks into the school year and we realized that while the school was great, it wasn’t the right fit for our daughter. We ended up switching schools mid-year. She thrived at her new school – she was happier, learning more, and truly looked forward to going to school each day. This was a slap-in-the-face lesson about choosing what’s best for our daughter, not necessarily what’s popular. Ironically, this is a lesson we remind our daughter about all the time: “Do what’s right for you.”
We toured a handful of preschools before deciding on our original pick, and frankly, they all seemed wonderful. If you like magicians, you know that part of the magic is the art of distraction. While schools aren’t trying to trick you, they will definitely highlight their best features. If you aren’t paying attention, it can be easy for each school to sound the same.
Time to Cut Through the Fluff
When thoughts of kindergarten rolled around, we knew it was time to be a lot more discerning in our school-tour observations. There are hundreds of websites with lists of questions to ask during a school tour. These are great for getting you to think about schools and classrooms more critically.
BUT…school presentations are carefully crafted to highlight everything wonderful about a school. Your school tour guide has probably heard all the usual questions before and has carefully prepared answers to anything you might ask.
So how can you dig deeper to really find out if the school you’re touring is right for your child?
- Consider YOUR child. Notice I didn’t say “find out if the school you’re touring is….the best in the state…the most rigorous in Scottsdale…etc.” The key is what kind of learning environment would benefit your child. Are you looking for something a little slower paced, but very nurturing? Would your child do better in a more traditional setting where the teacher lectures and your child takes notes? Would uniforms eliminate some of the distraction that may sway your child off course? Is your child linguistically inclined and would thrive in a dual language immersion classroom?
- Look inside the classrooms. Try to schedule a school tour when the kids are actually there. Then, see what a day in the classroom might look like. Are the students engaged? Whether the teacher is lecturing, the class is in the middle of an activity, or something else, it’s important the kids are actually learning. If you can’t get to the school during the day, try to connect with parents who have children enrolled there. Bonus if their student has a similar personality type and style of learning as your child.
- Look at the actual classROOM. We toured one school that had the same color-coded behavior chart in every classroom from preschool through fifth grade. While I’m not huge fan of this type of public behavior monitoring, I can appreciate that there’s consistency throughout the years. A different classroom we observed was piled from counter to ceiling with stuff – projects, lesson materials, etc. My hyper-organized self wouldn’t have been able to focus in that room, and actually I don’t remember anything that was said during that portion of the tour. However, I don’t think the clutter would have an impact on my daughter’s focus.
- Consider the teachers. The teachers know they’re being judged during a tour. Are they engaging? Enthusiastic? Most importantly, does it seem real? Anyone can be bubbly for two minutes while a group of parents is watching.
- Listen to the principal. They’re the leader of the school. What kind of tone do they set? Would you be inspired by them if you were a teacher? Do you feel confident that they would handle issues like bullying, etc well?
- Watch the principal. While you’re with the principal, see how other people interact with them. Do the teachers seem comfortable around them? Does the principal interact with the students you pass in the hallway?
- Observe the students outside the classroom. If you can schedule a tour when the students are actually at school, do it! Are the kids playing and laughing on the playground? Are the calm and orderly in the hallway? Is the lunchroom hectic and chaotic? Do the students look happy to be there or are they just passing the time until they can go home?
- Inspect the school. You probably want your child in a clean and inviting school, but look deeper than tidiness and clean floors. Are the drinking fountains in working condition? Do the cabinets fully shut? Does the playground look maintained? IS there a playground? Is everything safe and in working order?
- Consider any special needs your family may have. Do you have a child with an allergy that would need special attention? Do you have a child with specific developmental or learning needs? Do you wonder if your child is gifted? Is the school willing to work with you on these needs?
Finding the perfect school for your family may feel like it requires a detective. While asking questions is very important, at the end of the day, the deeper stuff will come out during your careful observation.
Living in an open enrollment district has so many benefits, but it can also put a lot of pressure on parents to make the right choice. At the end of the day, a lot of your child’s school experience will fall on the shoulders of their classroom teacher. Some years, they’ll be a perfect match, other years may be a different story. If you enroll your child in a school that matches your overall beliefs and goals, you should be happy most of the time.
What are your criteria for finding the perfect school? What do you look for when touring schools?