It’s Elementary Open Schools Week in Providence! Many parents are taking time to visit schools this week, either for the first time or for a repeat visit to confirm their choices for Providence Public Schools’ registration process, which is happening now.
Whether you’re still in the process of figuring out your school choices for an incoming kindergartener, have younger kids and are starting to plan for the future, or have older kids for whom you’re looking for a new school, there is no substitute for spending a significant amount of time at prospective schools. There are lots of other ways to gather information about schools, some of which I’ll be writing about in future Kidoinfo posts. But today, we’re going to focus on using your time effectively when you visit schools.
The tips here come from parents who have recently been through the process of choosing schools for their kids (and I’m one of them, with a student in second grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary and another child who will enter King in the fall as a kindergartener). While these ideas apply most meaningfully to the process of visiting public and charter schools, it’s likely that a lot of the ideas here will work well for visits to independent and parochial schools.
First of all, try to put your own experience of elementary school aside. One of the trickiest things about being a parent is the temptation to over-rely on your own experience as a child to guide you to do what’s best for your own kids. That experience is significant, of course, but even more useful is knowing your kids well and what’s best for them now, in this place and time, and looking clearly and without nostalgia at the options available to you.
Get in touch with the schools you want to visit. Each school has discretion about how they coordinate visits, and some schools are more flexible than others. In general, look for a school that is transparent about what it does and welcomes visitors. At the same time, be patient and work with the school to find days that work well for all concerned, and find out about open houses for prospective families.
Ideally, you should visit with a very open mind, and take mental (or actual!) notes. What do you see, and what makes an impression on you? Karina Wood, parent of a kindergartener and a second grader at Vartan Gregorian Elementary, says, ”When I visited schools the positive signs for me were happy, actively-engaged children in the classrooms with doors open to the hallways or with clear windows in the doors; art work and a variety of class work up on the walls of classrooms and hallways and common areas; a clean, orderly building with a welcoming atmosphere and friendly, warm staff, principals and teachers.”
Often, school visits are a great opportunity to connect with parents of current students — in many cases, parents will give tours or be available for information sessions. If they are not available when you visit, be bold and ask for parent contact information so you can learn more about the school from them. Christine Wilford, parent of a kindergarten student at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, says, “I knew that King was the right choice for us when I visited and saw the amount of parental involvement. I was amazed at the number of parents I met throughout the school doing various activities, from volunteering in the classrooms, to the mosaic project in the halls. It just had a great family feel to it.”
In addition to noting what’s positive, note to yourself if anything feels “off” or negative. Ask the principal, students, or parents who are leading the tour about what you see. And if you’re able to visit an additional time, look for more or different evidence of what the school is like. And check in with yourself about what might be described as “false negatives.” For example, while some school buildings are new, others have been around long enough to have educated the grandparents or great grandparents of current students. Unless it’s vitally important to you, put your first impression of the building aside for a moment and ask yourself about the condition of the building. Is it clean? And is it safe? Kim Rohm, parent of a second grader and an incoming kindergartener at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, says that safety was particularly important to her. “We checked everything from the cafeteria tables to the nurse’s office to ‘public’ access,” recalls Rohm.
In your initial and return visits, try to observe kids in the classroom and elsewhere. King parent Kim Rohm recommends “I certainly would advise any parents looking at schools to go when school is in session, to attend a family event (such as a PTO spaghetti supper) and to visit the classrooms with their child. We visited nearly every room in the building including the gym, nurse’s office, library, art room, and music room. I took my daughter to visit classrooms with me, and we participated in the morning routine. I saw first hand how the teachers interacted with my daughter and what their classroom routines were like. It was terrific for our daughter to participate and made her feel more confident on her first day. You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, right?”
Should you bring your kids? If it is possible for you to visit a school for the first time without your kids, you may have a better experience. I know some parents have no option, but I also see that their attention is fragmented, that they don’t always have the opportunity to stay as long as they would like or get all of their questions answered. If you can, try visiting a school without your kids, and perhaps bringing them back to get their impressions another time, like Kim Rohm did.
And what should you ask, or expect that other parents might ask if you’re on a group tour? It pays to sit down for a few minutes before you visit the school and figure out what you want to learn more about, and to refine your questions if you are able to go back for a repeat visit. Vartan Gregorian parent Karina Wood shares her list. “I ask about the ability for school site-based decision-making versus district decision-making, including teacher hiring; is there an active School Improvement Team; how often are faculty and grade level meetings; can I see the report from the last SALT visit; is there an active PTO; what is the mission statement for the school; and I ask the principal and teachers what they think the school’s strengths and weaknesses are, and what does their school do better than any other school/what are they most proud of.”
MLK parent Kim Rohm remembers, “We spent nearly three hours with the school principal and a member of the PTO Board. We asked, ‘How do we communicate an issue or concern with you? Would you send your child to MLK? Is the school always open to parents?”
Other questions that tell you a lot about the school are:
– What’s the curriculum like? What do students learn about in math, science, social students, and literacy?
– What kind of field trips, assemblies, special events, and other enrichment events happen during the year?
– What is the approach to supporting good behavior among students (a nice way of saying discipline!)?
– What professional development is available for teachers? How are they supported to help all students learn and thrive?
– What’s the role of technology, the arts, and physical activity at this school?
Many of you probably have your own questions geared toward finding information that will tell you if the school is a good one for your child. Share them, and your own experiences of visiting schools, in the comments below!
Finally, trust yourself. You need the authentic experience of visiting a school and gathering evidence of what the day is like there for children. There is no other way for you to assess whether the school is a good fit for your child and your family. You will hear a lot, positive and negative, about the schools in our community. Those conversations are irresistible — we all get drawn into them. But remember to take what others say about a school with a grain of salt. Be open minded, visit as many schools as you can, and form your own impressions.
Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is the president of the MLK Parent-Teacher Organization, serves on the Providence Public Schools’ Nathan Bishop Middle School Steering Committee, and works on education issues nationally as the publications director of the Coalition of Essential Schools.