As the parent of two children who went all the way through New York City public schools, there are many questions I wish I’d known to ask at the outset. NYC is fortunate to have a fair amount of school choice, which means that families aren’t necessarily tied to their neighborhood school.
We have district public schools, public charters, private schools, and religious schools. Some of these are zoned for particular geographic areas, while others are open to any student by lottery, and still others selectively admit students by using criteria like grades, test scores, or portfolios. The upshot is that we had many options, so I had to think carefully about how to evaluate these choices for each of my children.
My kids, like many siblings, were very different types of students. In light of this fact, I had to assess each school through the lens of each child, even though it would have been far easier to simply send my second child to the same school as my first. That being said, it’s important to strike a balance between the needs of each child and the needs of your family. A “perfect" fit for one child isn’t helpful if it creates so much stress that you feel like you’re constantly scrambling to make things fall into place.
I also had to re-visit these evaluations whenever one of my kids moved to the next stage of education. The questions I needed to ask when they were in elementary school changed as they entered middle and high school. It was also important to include them more directly in these decisions as they got older, so we all had confidence that this was a school where they would thrive. While many families don’t have the range of options that we have in NYC, the questions below are still valuable for understanding how good a fit your local school is for your child and advocating for her when it’s necessary.
If any of the schools you’re considering allow you to tour, take them up on the opportunity. This is your chance to look behind the positive pitch that schools often make and try to imagine your child spending a significant percentage of her time in this setting. Here are some questions to ask and observations to make when you’re on a tour:
What is the school’s approach to learning? Traditional, worksheet, and textbook-based, or progressive, interdisciplinary, and project-based?
Does the school offer arts, technology, or foreign language classes? If so, how often do students take these weekly?
How often do students have recess or gym each week?
What is the school’s approach to classroom management and discipline?
How does the school prepare its students for state assessments?
Who staffs the lunchroom and recess?
What are the school’s extracurricular offerings? Does every student have access to these?
Does the school partner with outside organizations to provide enrichment programming?
What are the opportunities for parent involvement at the school? Can you volunteer in the classroom? Is there an active Parent’s Association?
In higher grades, what is the range of classes offered in core academic subjects?
In high school, does the school offer Advanced Placement classes or an International Baccalaureate program?
How does the school accommodate special needs students?
Does the school have a sibling preference policy?
Which schools do the graduates move to?
What is on the walls of the hallways and classrooms? Is there original student work or commercially-produced material? Is the work high-quality?
How do the teachers and aides speak to the students?
Does the school seem orderly, even if it’s animated?
Do the students seem to be engaged with what they’re learning?
Do students work in teams or individually?
What are the school’s drop-off and dismissal practices? Does it look safe and friendly, or chaotic and dangerous?
There’s no single correct answer to most of these questions. I’ve included them because they may help you decide if the school is a good fit for your child. For example, if you have a child who is self-directed and academically focused, a classroom that allows its students a reasonable amount of freedom may work very well for her. If, on the other hand, you have a child who needs consistent structure, a more directed classroom may be a better fit. Similarly, enrolling a child who is passionate about art in a science and technology school may not be the best match for her.
Although many students attend neighborhood schools and don’t have a range of choices, these questions can still enable you to advocate for your child within your zoned school. There are often teachers or programs within individual schools whose teaching style will be more suitable for your child. Try to take the measure of the school and ask to speak to an administrator if you believe that your child would benefit from a particular approach.
Everyone stands to gain if the family and the school are working together to ensure the student’s success, and starting on this footing can go a long way towards establishing a cooperative relationship between home and school.