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How to Interview a School

How to Interview a School

Questions to Ask to Find the Right Fit

By H.M. Cauley

For parents looking for educational options for their children, one of the 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 a 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?

Academics

The first thing to ask about is a school’s academics. Cory Edwards, director for the office of student assignment and records for Atlanta Public Schools (APS), says parents should first do some online research on the schools in their prospective community before buying a home or signing a rental agreement. “After some parents move here, then they want their child to attend a particular school,” he added. Edwards encourages parents to visit not only the school district’s website, but also each individual school’s website to get a feel for each school.

And for parents who decide that they want to transfer their child to another school in the district, whether they’re new to metro Atlanta or not, the state offers a program within each district to allow that move, with each district’s website providing info.

Nicole Evans Jones, an educational consultant with 360 Strategy Consulting, 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.”

Kimbrell Smith, head of school at Atlanta Girls’ School (AGS), agrees. An Atlanta native, she has two daughters: one an eighth-grader at AGS and the other a fifth-grader at The Howard School. Prior to coming to AGS in 2021, Smith spent 12 years as an educational consultant and specialized in helping parents find the bestfitting schools for their child. “I tell parents and follow my own advice, which is to consider your child first,” she says. “What kind of school shares the values for your child? What needs might they have that different schools could provide?”

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 to ask about 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.

Cindy Kinchen, principal at Gwinnett County’s Duluth Middle School, says parents also can get a feel for a school’s culture from visiting its social media pages. She also encourages parents to ask about a school’s non-academic programs such as sports and community service.

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 extracurricular activities, events outside of class or equipment and supplies?

Visiting in Person

“I think spending time in the school is the most important factor in making a good decision. I say that because to me school culture, and the look and feel of the environment, are really what makes the day-to-day experience,” Smith says, adding AGS has a student shadowing program called Hurricane for a Day, named after the school mascot. She says prospective students should go beyond school tours and check out a school’s extracurricular activities. “If they’re a soccer player, go to a soccer game. If they’re into theatre, go to a play.”

A school visit can demonstrate all aspects of the school’s culture, including how open and enthused the staff and faculty are. “How are you welcomed at the front desk?,” Kinchen says. “Do you hear laughter? Do you hear other languages spoken? Do you hear the whole child is being addressed other than just academic achievement?”

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 Smith, referring back to Hurricane for a Day. “We think that is the most important part: to see a mutual fit.”

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