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Asking the Right Questions

How to Interview Potential Schools for Your Child

By H.M. Cauley

After accepting a position as head of school at Atlanta Girls School last spring, Ayanna Hill-Gill found herself on the opposite side of the educational visit. This time, she was the one visiting local institutions to find the right fit for her own two children. And the questions she asked were the same ones she’d heard so many times as head of the Purnell School in New Jersey.

“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.

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?

Asking About Academics

Nicole Evans Jones, principal of Toomer Elementary, encourages parents to take the time 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.”

“The biggest factor to consider in any school decision should be student interest,” says Kari Schrock, principal of the International Academy of Smyrna, an International Baccalaureate charter school. “It’s important to know your child’s strengths and areas of growth, especially as they get older, so they have the opportunity to explore courses they might not have in other locations.”

One of the first things parents often ask about is a school’s academics. When interviewing schools for her kids, Hill-Gill made sure to focus on the curriculum. “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.

“It also helps to ask about profiles of graduates—stories about successful alums and what they’re doing can give parents an idea of what their child might look forward to.”

Questions about college are often on the minds of parents visiting Killian Hill Christian School in Lilburn.

“Some parents want to know the percentage of kids who go on to college, and the colleges they choose,” says Headmaster Paul Williams.

It’s also important to ask about teachers, says Hill-Gill, who inquired about class size and the balance of full-time and part-time teachers during her search.

“The teachers’ experience levels are very important, too,” says Williams. “Ask how much they’ve taught and find out about their qualifications. In the private schools in particular, there can be a broad spectrum of experience. And ask about student/teacher ratio as well. That’s very important.”

Community And Cost

Even today’s public schools offer a range of choices and a level of involvement that parents should be aware of.

“The greatest change I’ve seen in 21 years in education is that, today, parents do have a choice,” says Kari Schrock. “There are charter schools where there didn’t used to be, and there are many magnet programs that allow children choice, so it can be confusing.”

Whether you’re investigating a public or independent school, Schrock suggests and if so, by which organizations?

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. “As a charter school, we have a charter, and I urge them to read it.”

Other questions relating to a school’s community include: Are uniforms required? Is there transportation for students who live some distance from the school? And what, if anything, is required of parents?

“For instance, we require a minimum number of volunteer hours for the parents,” says Schrock. “Some families have no interest in doing that, so it makes a difference in their choice of school.”

One important topic, whether you’re interviewing a traditional public, charter or independent school, is funding. “Are there boosters, foundations or stakeholders who support the school?” asks Jones. “You can learn a lot about a school by how well it welcomes that kind of support.”

“Tuition is one of the distinguishing features of a school,” says Williams of Killian Hill. “Some have added-on fees for any activity outside the classroom; others, like ours, have all those costs built in. But many parents don’t ask about the fees.”

Visiting In Person

The very first thing parents should consider when selecting a school, says Jones with Toomer Elementary, is the feel. This is best evaluated by a school visit, which 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,” she says. “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.”

“It’s hard to tell a school’s culture just from its website,” says Hill-Gill. “When you step foot on a campus, you can get a sense of the mission and you can find out what makes them different. 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.”

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, she says. “It’s all about fit; you want the best fit, and only you know what works best for your child.”

Ten 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?

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