KIds in the classroomRhode Island families with elementary school children–especially kindergarteners–are already deep into school-shopping mode. Providence Public Schools is inviting families into its elementary schools next week for Open Schools Week ahead of kindergarten registration, which starts on February 22 and runs through April 1 (a similar process for first grade registration runs from March 1 to April 1). I’ll be back next week with a post offering tips and suggestions for Providence families.

Many parents–from Providence and beyond–found Kidoinfo’s 2008 post “How to Visit Elementary Schools”  helpful; check it out if you’re in the process of visiting schools as you weigh the options and decide what’s best for your child. Even if you don’t check it out, visit schools! There’s no substitute for evaluating a school based on your own experience. For many working families with young kids, it can be hard to make the elementary school rounds, but if you can, the information you’ll get is invaluable.

For this year, here are some additional suggestions about how to talk with other parents about their experience as members of a particular school community–and how to assess whether their experience might (or might not) apply to your child and family.

In addition to having two sons in elementary school, I have a son in preschool. When I spend time with his classmates’ families at birthday parties and preschool drop-off , I notice a familiar dynamic that I’ve come to think of as the Playground Magnet Effect (hard to imagine now, but spring is coming, and we’ll all be hanging out at the playground without risk of frostbite). Here’s how it goes: Two or three parents of 3- to 5-year-olds start chatting about schools–what the options are for their soon-to-be-kindergarteners, what they’re considering, what they’ve heard. Inevitably, this conversation draws other parents and caregivers like a tractor beam. It’s impossible to resist, and for good reason: Friends and neighbors are a powerful and valuable source of information about school options. In a neighborhood preschool or playground setting, it’s likely (though of course not necessary) that parents will share with others who are demographically similar, thus providing basic familiarity that encourages us to extrapolate from each other’s experience.

It’s likely that parents are considering a wide range of options: public school, independent school, religious/parochial school, even homeschooling. Listening to people talk about their ideas and preferences–and asking polite and pointed questions–can reveal information about schools that we may not know much about and want to research. (For lists of and information about all schools in Rhode Island and beyond, visit GreatSchools, which offers useful resources for choosing schools.)

But also remember to find out more about what you’re hearing. When you hear, “Oh, no, there’s no way we could send Olivia there. It’s too loud/expensive/far away/sheltered/dangerous/unchallenging/precious,” it’s very hard to resist the urge to downgrade that school on your own mental top five list. Or it can be very easy to dismiss the dismisser, assuming you may not share values or priorities. Instead, try asking questions to learn about the source of the information. Has your playground acquaintance visited the school? Is the opinion based on hearsay? What’s the source? If you find out that he’s visited the school, that’s a segue to a much more meaningful and powerful conversation than if you find out that the source is his kid’s babysitter’s mother’s sister, who used to teach there.

Seek out families whose kids attend the school now; clearly, they tend to be sources of relevant and current information. At the same time, don’t make assumptions about their children or their family values. Instead, ask questions. What does their child love about school? What would the child–and the parent–wish to change? What kinds of challenge and support does the school offer to different kinds of learners? What you ask is up to you–but you must ask, rather than assuming that what you’re hearing may or may not apply to you and your family’s situation. Try to find parents who have been in the school community for several years. It’s great to get the scoop on who might be your kid’s kindergarten teacher next year. But you should also get a sense of school culture and how the school runs year in and year out.

And if you’re hunkered down, waiting out the cold, and don’t find yourself in situations in which the Playground Magnet Effect is in force, pick up the phone. Most schools have some sort of parent association or set of volunteers who are available to answer questions. Or post questions here in the comments section; the Kidoinfo community will help you find the information that you need. No matter which way you go about it, get brave and ask a thousand and one questions, and as with any other major decision, consider the source and make the best decision for your own kids.

Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is the co-president of Providence’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and works on education issues nationally as the publications director of the Coalition of Essential Schools.