Monday, February 10, 2014

How I Shop for a School

Since we've moved recently,  a number of friends and family members have asked how I find a good school for the boys.  Let me start with a disclaimer: My system is far, far from foolproof, as you'll (hopefully) see in a companion blog post I've been itching to write on bullying.  Neverthless, we've been basically satisfied with the school we found for the boys here in Berkeley, particularly because we know that it's temporary: we have a great elementary school to go back to in Salt Lake (Go Oakridge!), and because we have indeed benefitted from participating in our Berkeley public school and seeing new and different approaches to teaching, curriculum choices, homework, recess, afterschool care, and the like.  Also, we've been lucky enough to live in areas of the country in which school choice is a very real and active opportunity.  I'm sure there are many places in which there is no choice: you go to your neighborhood school, and that is that.  I like that system, too -- it certainly saves parents AND districts offices a LOT of headache.  So this post is only for those times when you find as a parent you do have a choice in schools for your children.   I thought I'd put these thoughts on picking schools up here to save myself from having to search through thousands of emails later in case I get asked this question again.

How I find a School

1. Go online to, type in a zipcode, find a listing of public schools in that area.  I use the site to see rankings and reviews of the schools (always of course to be taken with a grain of salt, as different schools work well for different families).  The site is good to use for public schools, but less information is provided for charter and private schools.  Other than Challenger preschool, I don't have any personal experience with private schools so if that information is what you're after, this is probably not the website for you. Perhaps a reader who's in-the-know in this regard can leave a comment pointing to other online resources to use. is a great starting point for your search, but it's just that: a starting point.  I use it to help me make a list of interesting-sounding schools in my area, schools I'd like to visit and treat as serious candidates. 

For each school on my list, I then:

2. Read the school's own website and find out everything I can about the school, special programs (Chess Club? Skiing outings? Alligator husbandry?), after school and before school care (cost? hours?), etc.  I also read the parents' reviews (concerns about bullying, bad teaching, uninvolved administrators, etc.).  I then come up with a list of questions that aren't answered (or raised) by the websites and reviews.

3. Ask the Principal of  each school for an appointment for a tour.  (Not every principal has agreed to meet with me, in fact one notable principal blew off my appointment with her three times, and not every school has allowed me past its office, but I take whatever I can get.). Once I get my foot in the door,  I bring my list of questions to the appointment and knock them off one by one while I have the principal (or other school representative)'s attention.  I try not to bring any children along for this particular scouting visit so that I can put my full attention on the school and not have to be policing my own children at the same time.

4. Ask to meet the relevant grade teacher(s) / sit in for a few minutes on a class. I look for total teacher engagement, and a class that isn't easily disrupted by my visit.  I also look for active involvement of the children but NOT chaos. This is especially important (to me) for kindergarten and younger age groups.

5. Check the school lunch menu, the cleanliness and approachability of the bathrooms, the gym, the playground, and any other common areas.  When I'm touring for a kindergartener, I like to see whether the kindergarteners have their own bathroom facilities (usually adjacent to the KG rooms, or within them) or whether they will eat and play with older kids, and/or use the restrooms that bigger kids use.  This is primarily because a certain child who was once a kindergartener was a certified Space Cadet, and would never have made it from his classroom to the bathroom and back within the three hours of the kindergarten school day had it not been for the fact that the bathrooms were contained within the kindergarten room itself. 

6. Look at the artwork and school work displayed on the walls and compare it to what I know my own children can already do. Will my kids bored or challenged there?  

7. Look for parent involvement in the form of lots of volunteers around and/or a very active PTA.  Healthy parent involvement is always a dead giveaway that the school is going to be a good one.  I don't mean you should feel like you should participate yourself (I've never been a member of the PTA, and I volunteer quite rarely due to my job) BUT the fact that there are parents who do generally means all the kids in the school are better off, with more adult attention provided to all children, whether their own parent volunteers or not.

It all boils down to whether I feel comfortable and happy with the school while I am making the visit.  I've found that if I feel comfortable and happy there, the boys will sense that comfort and adjust quickly as well.

Oh, and also:

Once Suresh and I have decided on a school, but before the kids start there, we've introduced the new school to the boys by bringing them to the school's playground on a weekend or after school hours. We let them play there and in the case of any child who would be starting KG, we told him what a big boy he was going to be to go here, and how he would be going to go to this school and that's why we made this a special day to visit his new school's playground, etc etc.   My kids, at least, loved this and Aditya was so excited to go to kindergarten that  he didn't cry, even on the first day when other children were melting down around him :)  

Actually, I was the one who cried.

For those of you actively looking for preschools or elementary schools who have asked for this post, best of luck, and feel free to call me on your child's first day if you need a Kleenex or an empathetic ear.  ;)

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