Note: Ginger Spickler is the founder of the Memphis School Guide, memphisschoolguide.org.
The holidays are over and I know you’re looking forward to some downtime during the cold winter evenings. But if you have a child who will need to be in a new school in the fall, don’t curl up on the couch for a Scandal marathon just yet. January is a crucial month in the local school-choosing season, as public schools begin open enrollment periods and private schools continue accepting applications. One of the best ways to determine which schools should be on your short list is to pay them a visit.
Before you go
Before you set up tours or attend open houses, you’ll want to do a little prep work. First, spend some time thinking about what you’re really looking for in a school for your child. Knowing that you want an environment that will nurture her vocal talents, for example, will save you from wasting time at a school that doesn’t have a choir. Make a list of the attributes you’re looking for — a real list, not just a mental one — so that you won’t forget to ask about them when you visit.
Once you have a school profile in mind, begin your search online. On MemphisSchoolGuide.org, you can filter the huge list of local schools into a manageable set of your favorites. From there, dig into each school’s website or social media presence a little more. A school that puts some effort into keeping its online presence up-to-date is demonstrating that it cares what families know about it. Also, keep an eye out for parent- or student-created websites — those can give you insight into the larger school community.
Finally, talk to other parents to get a sense for the school’s strengths and weaknesses. But not just any parents, rather those who have had recent personal experience. Things can change quickly, and you want to make sure the feedback you get from other parents is relevant to what’s going on in the school right now, not what they heard from a neighbor five years ago.
When to go
Now it’s time to follow up, to see if reality lives up to what you’ve read and heard. Many schools hold open houses this month, and while attending these can be a good way to learn about a school’s highlights, Lischa Brooks, principal of Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a public middle school in Midtown, cautions, “An open house is really the school’s opportunity to put forth the very best it has to offer. You’re not necessarily going to hear about its challenges in that setting.”
To get a more balanced look, Brooks recommends scheduling a visit and sitting in on classes on a regular school day. She and her staff will even try to accommodate parents who drop by unannounced, but regular school business must take priority over curious prospective parents. With a little advance notice, however, staff should be willing to set up a time for you to visit, including time with the principal. Your kid can even get in on the action by shadowing a student for a day. Some schools advertise this opportunity, but it’s worth asking about anywhere.
What to listen and look for
Remember your checklist? Bring it and make notes of what you see and hear. Don’t be afraid to ask pointed questions that go beyond the school’s prepared slideshow, such as:
- What supports are in place if you see a student struggling?
- How do you help students set and meet high expectations?
- How do you encourage parent and community involvement in the school?
- How do teachers communicate with parents about student progress?
- Are there formal policies about homework or recess?
- What are your biggest challenges and how are you working to address them?
If you get vague or incomplete answers to any of these questions, consider that a red flag — a good school will be able to give specific examples to illustrate what they have done in practice, not just recite the generic platitudes they think you want to hear.
You’re sure to hear a lot of positive spin from your tour guide, but use your eyes and ears. Do all students seem engaged? Do teachers seem happy? If you’re there after kids have gone home for the day, check out student work on the walls — does it look like the kind of assignment your child would enjoy doing and be challenged (but not frustrated) by?
Trust your gut
You may not be an education expert, but you are an expert on at least one thing — your child. Spending even just a little time inside a school will give you a much better sense of whether it will be a good fit for him and your family. So, do the legwork now — February’s a better month for couch surfing anyway.
For information on opportunities to visit specific schools or details on enrollment procedures, visit MemphisSchoolGuide.org.
What Should I Look For In A School?
Read: Picky Parent Guide, by Bryan and Emily Ayscue Hassel.
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