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The questions that follow, developed with the help of local and national education experts, are designed to guide you in the process of evaluating schools.

First, ask yourself some questions:

  • What do you want?
  • What do you think a school should provide?
  • Is the school close enough to home?
  • What are your goals for your student?
  • What are your student’s goals?
  • Consider your own school experiences and views of education. Do they apply to your child?
  • What activities and subject areas are important to your student?
  • What are your student’s special talents, strengths, weaknesses and needs? Some students fare well in traditional classrooms with close instruction from teachers. Others who thrive on exploration and responsibility may flourish in an alternative school.
  • Have your child’s needs been met so far in his/her school experience? What has worked or not worked?
  • How does your child do in small and large groups? Some kids will thrive in a large student population. Others may feel lost.
  • Do your values mesh with what the school teaches?
  • Bear in mind no school is perfect. What are tradeoffs you’d be willing to make? What would you give up in order to get something more important?

    The visit: What do you see?

    Next, print out the checklist below and take it with you when you investigate schools. It’s about 10 printed pages.

    Make an appointment to visit during school hours. Perhaps schedule your visit at lunchtime to get a sense of the atmosphere outside of class.

    General impressions

    Do you feel comfortable walking into the school?

    How do adults treat students? Are they friendly or harsh?

    How do students treat adults? And one another?

    Does the tour guide avoid some areas of the school? Why?

    Does the school display examples of excellent work?

    Is the building tidy and well-maintained?

    Does the library appear well-stocked and well-used? Are there computers in the library, or an up-do-date computer lab elsewhere?

    If you see any discipline rules being enforced, is it done fairly?

    Do special programs that interest you seem to be working well?

    Does the school seem to live up to its philosophy or mission? (See questions below for learning about school missions.)

    Does the atmosphere seem competitive? Nurturing?

    Do students appear happy and relaxed?

    In the classroom

    Are the students interested in what they are doing? Is the teacher?

    How large are the classes?

    How much instruction do you see taking place?

    How are the desks arranged: in rows or small groups?

    Do the rooms have a sense of organization?

    Would you feel comfortable in the rooms?

    Do the materials seem up-to-date?

    Do there seem to be high expectations for all students?

    Can teachers provide a course outline or clear expectations for the class?

    Building and grounds

    What is the level of supervision?

    Is the campus open or closed?

    Are the buildings clean and organized?

    Are the restrooms clean and neat?

    Are there doors on the bathroom stalls?

    Are there security guards on campus?

    Questions to ask

    Goals and philosophies

    What is the school’s philosophy or mission? What does the school do to achieve it?

    If the school doesn’t have a written philosophy, how do the principal and teachers describe its goals?

    What are the school’s short- and long-term objectives for educational improvement? How are those objectives decided?

    Is there an emphasis on a particular approach to teaching and learning? A special focus or theme to the curriculum?

    Does the school’s program suit your child’s needs?

    What do school staff expect all students to achieve?

    In class and out

    What classes are offered?

    Does the school offer any special programs?

    What are the school’s requirements for completing grade levels?

    Does the school require community service?

    What does the school offer in athletics, drama, music, art or other activities?

    How does the school help prepare students to live in a culturally and ethnically diverse society?

    What does a school do to foster development of sound character, democratic values, ethical judgment and good behavior?

    What is the policy on grouping students by ability?

    Are the most able students challenged?

    How do students who are struggling get help? In a large school, what is done to prevent students from being lost in the crowd?

    Discipline and security

    Are there clear rules for discipline that are enforced fairly and consistently? What are those rules? How often are they enforced?

    What are the standards for student behavior?

    What are the school’s security policy and practices?

    Are drugs a problem?

    Tests and other measures of performance

    How is student achievement measured?

    How do students get feedback on their work? How are parents kept informed?

    Over a period of years, are test scores going up? Down? Staying the same? Why?

    What homework is required? Do teachers check and grade it regularly?

    Has the school received any recognition or honors?

    Is the school accredited? By whom? What does that mean?

    Who is in charge?

    How long has the principal worked at the school? What was his/her previous job?

    How many principals has the school had in the past 10 years?

    What other administrators work at the school? What are their roles?

    Are faculty, staff, parents and/or students involved in school planning and decisions? How?

    Are important decisions about the school made by school personnel or by district staff?

    Do the teachers have a background in the subject they are teaching? What are their backgrounds and qualifications?

    How many teachers are teaching outside the field in which they are certified or hold a degree?

    What is the turnover rate for teachers?

    What opportunities do teachers have for professional development?

    How do new teachers receive support to enhance their skills? How does the school recognize and reward excellent teacher performance?

    Other resources

    How often are textbooks and curriculum reviewed?

    How are computers used for instruction?

    Is there an auditorium or other meeting room?

    Are there physical-education facilities?

    Parent and community support

    Does school staff welcome and encourage parent involvement?

    What is expected and/or required of parents?

    What do parent volunteers do? Ask for names and talk to some of them.

    In what ways does the school communicate with families?

    Are other community members involved in the school?

    Does the school have partnerships with businesses or other institutions?

    Are parents involved in decisions about the education of their children? When and how?

    Does the school have a parent advisory or policy group such as a site council?

    Do all the ethnic groups in your community have a representative voice in school policy-making?

    How and when can a parent meet or talk with teachers?

    Private schools

    What’s the tuition? Other fees?

    Are there scholarships and/or loans available? Who is eligible for them?

    Is there a dress code? What is it?

    What religious instruction and activities, if any, are part of the program?

    Does the school have an endowment? What is it used for?

    Who sets policy for the school?

    What kinds of students does the school admit and why?

    What sort of student does the school feel it serves best?

    Sources: Educational Referral Services; National Association of Secondary School Principals; “Choosing the Right School: A Family Guide,” National Association of Independent Schools; “Questions about Independent Schools,” Northeast Association of Schools and Colleges; “The Keys to Successful Change,” National Education Association; “Choosing a School in Washington State,” by Gordon Ensign, director of assessment, Commission on Student Learning; “Choosing a School for Your Child,” Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education;

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