It is the season for open houses and consideration for new schools. Whether looking to start at the entry-level grade or to transfer midway, there is much to consider when making this important decision.
Each mode of communication from schools to prospective families about its day-to-day operations or foundational principles has its own opportunities and limitations. Whether via informational literature, open house presentations or private school visits, there are essential guiding questions to be mindful of to help organize the knowledge gained and decide which school is the best match for you. While navigating the information gathering process, think about “listening in’’ and remembering the “aha moments” you may have experienced in your child’s day during distance learning, but ultimately, make well-informed choices that feel right for your family, regardless of popular opinions or trends.
I was once tasked with a research assignment to analyze and compare mission statements from different schools. One thing that became quickly apparent was how similar they were to each other. There were only very subtle points of differentiation between them. While a mission statement is intended to articulate the core values of a school, they often necessarily include descriptive words and terms that are categorical and relatable to a wide array of people. How can any institution truly define itself in a matter of paragraphs? All that is possible is to align with ideologies that are readily identified by prospective families and that will appeal to the specific families they would like to attract.
Visits to different schools with strikingly similar sounding mission statements can reveal unique expressions of what those values mean to them. That nuanced expression will be an important determining factor in deciding whether a school is right for you. The unspoken language of a school’s mission, projecting what a daily manifestation of stated goals and intentions will look and sound like, is what families need to be on the lookout to see.
Open houses offer a chance to glimpse between the lines of a school mission statement. While every school will try to put its best foot forward in an open house, different delivery approaches and varied experiences will help shape your sense of connection with a respective school. There are some that are information heavy, others more experiential, but each with their own attempts at making a good impression. A good impression goes beyond marveling at the impressiveness of an institution or even nit-picking about things that may come across as less than stellar. The key guiding questions are whether that school offers the appropriate academic, social and emotional environment for the prospective student. Talking to other school families can be very helpful in this regard, and while they will likely have positive things to share, it can also be beneficial to challenge them and see what obstacles may have risen and how they were handled. Open houses give a taste of what day-to-day life at school will be like and an idea of which other families are considering it. Still, there is more to know in addressing the question about suitability of a school for you or your child than an open house can generally answer.
Private school visits are another means of getting to know a school, learning its culture and developing a relationship with the school community. Many schools offer this opportunity as a standard step in the application process and depending on the age and grade of the student, the visit will either be for students only or together with their parents. Sometimes, depending on how the day is spent, a family may feel an additional visit is needed, either for their child, themselves or for both of them.
There is a difference between reading or hearing about what a science curriculum will be like, for example, and sitting in on that class yourself. There are important differences between being told about an educational modality or syllabus and experiencing it for yourself. Hearing the teacher’s voice and noting student involvement in the class discussion can be very telling as to how engaging the lessons truly are, and if and how they would appeal to you or to your child. In the process, you may also pick up on the kinds of announcements that are made, student-teacher interactions, classroom aesthetics and peer collaboration. The downtime moments between classes can be as revelatory, if not more, so than formal class time. While even a school visit experience has its own limitations, it can be another very helpful step in making an informed decision.
While there is a significant time investment involved in getting to know a school, I would like to suggest that it is time well spent. It is important to avail yourself of any informational opportunities a school has to offer, and to request anything additional you feel is needed for personal clarity purposes. How a school responds to such a request can be another important indicator of how the school operates and whether it is the right place for you or your family.
Having good options is a blessing and with that comes a great deal of personal responsibility in making good choices. Being mindful of guiding questions that are uniquely personal for yourself or your child can help you to intuit which is the right place for you. The clarity and confidence gained from investing yourself in the experience will shed light and optimism on whatever your choice will be and positively influence the educational experience you have, in whichever school you choose.
Aviva Edelstein is an educational consultant living in Teaneck. She has experience in both formal and informal education as well as homeschool curriculum design and instruction.