If you are shopping around for a school for your child, you may be looking back on the open houses you've attended or ahead to coming school visits. Either way, a little expert advice might help you process the experience.
Here are some tips from Liz Perelstein, who runs School Choice International, which consults with parents on school placement.
According to its Web site, School Choice International's staff is "trained to look beyond the superficial aspects of a school -- the pretty campus, the brand new gym, or how popular the school is -- and instead strive to understand a school’s culture, atmosphere, values and educational environment." And that's just what Ms. Perelstein suggests to families when touring schools.
What advice do you give parents about school tours?
I tell them to go when they're not expected. And to do many things to see the school in as many different contexts as possible, like drop-off and pick-up, to look for things like limos, working parents versus stay-at-home parents. Notice: Who greets the kids at the door, and how are they greeted? In some schools it’s the principal, some it's an aide, some it's a teacher.
Schools work best when they echo your lifestyle. You don't want your child to be uncomfortable by being the outlier.
What's the balance between pushing your children's boundaries and just making them comfortable?
You do want to expose your kids to different kinds of people and even to different values, different income levels, people who come from different backgrounds.
All schools pay lip service to diversity. How it's embraced is really varied.
Most important is your educational goals. Are you looking for multiplication table drilling or a play-based approach?
The bottom line is, how is it going to affect your child? Think of the working parent who can't attend assemblies or go on trips, while all the other moms are stay-at-home. How would your child feel in that school? It's not only about getting in, but about the experience your child is going to have.
What should parents pay close attention to during an open house or tour?
Try to pick up on style and nuances. Is the person who gives the tour welcome to go into classrooms? Does the principal walk into the classrooms, or do they have to watch through the windows? And if they do walk in, what's the response to them? Notice interactions between adults and between the adults and children.
One of my pet things is facility. Parents are often impressed -- or depressed -- by facility. Remind parents they are picking a school for their child, not for themselves, so they should think about facility in terms of the impact on their child's experience. Don't look at the facility for its own sake, but as it pertains to your child's dreams and passions. If your child is into science, for example, look at the labs.
Do you advise mostly just observing, or do you suggest trying to engage people in the school community in conversation?
Absolutely, though it can be hard to strike up a conversation with parents. One caution that I give families is that a particular family's experience is that family's experience, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience your child will have. Talk to multiple families.
Should parents try to impress the school staff during a tour?
Parents are always thinking about how to impress the school. Shift the focus away from that and to 'What can I learn from the experience?' There are many pushy parents. Schools are so happy to have parents who genuinely seem to care about their child.
How can parents get beyond what they see on a planned school tour?
Schools put their best foot forward on tours -- the foot they want to show. Still, schools are surprisingly true to their mission and their culture.
Go to athletic events when possible. I've had parents really shocked by the way coaches talk to kids.
I think it's really important for families to get to know the leadership style of the head of school. I think the head sets the tone. So I think it's really important to pay attention to that. I heard about one head of school who doesn't bother to show up for back-to-school night.
How do you help parents use what they observed on several tours to make decisions?
We debrief visits with families. We start out with an intake -- a verbal and written questionnaire. And we talk with parents about their children -- their aspirations, goals, what will make them happy, successful placement. Then we prepare them for their tours. Interviews are chances for them to get to know the school. Then we go over the feedback and information they get, coming back to what they said was important (which can change).
It helps to be reflective and to have conversations with colleagues and friends. These conversations are among the many sources of information that parents use to form opinions. Parents should be reflective about these conversations to be sure that they apply to their own child.
There are families who really just want to get in, and there are families who want to understand their child. The families we enjoy working with most are those who really want to learn from our consultants and from the process -- who want to understand their children and get in to a school that suits them.