How to Interview a New School
Questions to Ask to Find the Right Fit
By H.M. Cauley
For parents looking for educational options for their children, one ofthe best developments in education is the availability of a wider range of school choices than ever before. At the same time, this abundance of choice can be the source of stress when searching for a school, as parents work to weigh a greater number of alternatives objectively.
When searching for the right school for your child, there’s no more important part of the process than asking questions of the faculty and staff. From a school’s educational philosophy to its test scores and what it serves for lunch, it’s crucial to get as much information as possible to help you make the right decision. But what questions should you ask?
The first thing to ask about is a school’s academics. Nicole Evans Jones, engagement specialist at Young Middle School and founding former principal at Purpose Built Schools, an Atlanta nonprofit charter school management group, encourages parents to consider just what they want their children to learn. “The course offerings and the extracurriculars may not fit your child’s needs,” she says. “Look at the course of study and talk about what the kids are learning.” Ideally, the program should enrich your child’s academic strengths and interests while also being able to support improvement where needed.
Ayanna Hill-Gill, head of school at Atlanta Girls’ School, agrees. After relocating to Atlanta from New Jersey in 2014, Hill-Gill visited local institutions to find the right fit for her own two children. When interviewing schools, Hill-Gill made sure to focus on the curriculum. “Coming from out of town, we wanted to make sure the curriculum was what my kids were accustomed to, so there would be a smooth transition,” she says. “For instance, I wasn’t familiar with what one school used for math, so I asked to see some lessons to get a sense of the objectives,” she says.
For both students and schools, standardized test performance is only a snapshot of academic achievement, but it should be considered. Look at a school’s average test scores, and compare them to results for the past three to five years to determine if they are trending upward or downward. If a test area is weak, determine if there’s an underlying cause. A science and technology magnet school may score slightly lower than average in English, for example. What’s as important as the score is what’s being done to address any deficiencies and to keep improving.
For parents of middle and high school students, college preparation is of critical importance. Asking about the percentage of students at a school that go on to college—and which colleges—can help you learn about not just a school’s academic rigor, but also how well it supports a commitment to learning in its students.
Other topics about which to ask regarding academics include: How often is homework assigned and how much time does it require? Are tutoring and study assistance available? What programs and support are available for special needs or academically gifted students? What extracurricular activities are offered?
It’s also important to ask about teachers. Review the educational background and qualifications for individual teachers and note how these relate to the subjects they teach. While class size and student-teacher ratio are good indicators of how much individual attention can be expected, especially in the lower grades, how it’s computed can make a difference. For a clear picture, ask if the school includes staff such as librarians in its teacher count when determining its published ratio.
Community, Culture and Cost
Every school has a unique culture and its own concept of involving the family in its approach to learning. The answers to questions about a school’s recent accomplishments and outstanding features can speak volumes about a school’s mission and values, and how it might make decisions affecting your child going forward.
Whether you’re investigating a public or independent school, Kari Schrock, principal of Laurel Ridge Elementary School, suggests asking just what it means to be a part of the school’s learning community. “I encourage parents to dig deeper to know what the school represents,” she says. Schrock notes that it’s important for parents to know exactly what their expected level of involvement is, if any, and to make sure they’re able to make the required commitment. Parents may also want to verify the frequency and method of teacher-to-family communication.
Other questions relating to a school’s culture include: Are uniforms required? Is transportation available for students who live at a distance? What are the behavior and discipline policies?
One important topic, whether you’re interviewing a traditional public, charter or independent school, is funding. Are there booster clubs, foundations or stakeholders that support the school? Also, find out about tuition: what does it cover? Are there added fees for extra-curricular activities, events outside of class or for equipment and supplies?
Visiting in Person
“When you step foot on a campus, you can get a sense of the school’s mission and you can find out what makes them different,” says Hill-Gill. “I look at how people address each other, what the vibe is when people are walking in the halls. Do they welcome you when you visit the classroom?” And if possible, bring your child along when you visit, she adds. “I think it’s important to have them involved in the process.”
A school visit can demonstrate all aspects of the school’s culture, from its safety and security procedures to how open and enthused the staff and faculty are. “It’s how you are greeted, not just in the office but in the halls,” says Jones. “Do the kids and teachers seem happy? Are they excited to talk about their school? You should see some visible evidence of parental involvement, from volunteers in the classrooms to PTA sign-up sheets on the walls.”
After discovering as much as possible about a school, the final decision about whether or not to enroll a child there comes down to one thing, says Hill-Gill. “It’s all about fit; you want the best fit, and only you know what works best for your child.”
10 Questions To Ask
1. What is the school’s educational philosophy or mission?
2. What are its safety and security procedures?
3. How does the school help students meet grade-level standards?
4. How is technology used at the school?
5. Does it offer strong arts or extracurricular programs?
6. How do students fare on the SAT and other standardized tests?
7. How does it work with students with learning difficulties or other challenges?
8. Does it have gifted/talented or other programs for exceptional students?
9. How do students get to school?
10. Is the school accredited, and if so, by which organizations?