You’ve cleared your calendar for two hours on Tuesday morning. Several other such appointments have been inked in. It’s school tour season.
What can you expect? With public school tours, groups can range from 15 to 250 people; in an independent school, there may be 3 to 70. Public school tours are often organized by the PTA; in some cases only once or twice in the fall. In others, school tours are held monthly or even weekly for a short period. Parents are strongly encouraged (or required) to sign up in advance. Call each individual school for specific details. If you are looking at grades other than kindergarten, make sure you mention that when you call to inquire about tours. Elementary school tours are geared toward entry year classes. For public schools with specific admissions criteria, there can be a requirement to attend an evening open house prior, to apply, or tour during the day when the school is in session.
Tours will cover the following:
• Meet the principal, possibly president of PTA, a teacher.
• Information on different programs housed in the building; special facilities; collaborations; and educational philosophy, if there is one.
• Information on any specific application or testing procedures, variances or registration processes.
• Dividing into manageable groups with PTA members or administrators.
? You will visit the kindergartens, spending a few minutes in a couple of classrooms, but most of the time will be spent in the hallway asking questions and listening to other parents' questions.
• Look closely at work in the halls.
• Listen to the sounds of teacher-student interaction. Even from the hallway you can tell if the voices are respectful, responsive, inviting, warning, droning, boisterous, etc.
• You may be shown the computers, gym, cafeteria, labs or art studios if there are such facilities; you might only walk by and peek inside. Ask to see these if they aren't on your tour. Find out how often the children use these facilities.
• Attend to the ease of movement within the building as you tour.
• Ask to see other grades and try to get into the classroom to observe actively working groups of older students. Early childhood classrooms and expectations will be quite different from those of the 9- and 10-year-olds. You can find out a great deal about the consistency, management and goals of a school program by learning about the ambience and level of engagement in the older grade classrooms.
On your tour, you will:
• Meet the admissions director, possibly head of school or elementary division.
• Find out about general admissions procedures, timing and application requirements. Some will have required application prior to the tour.
• Receive packets of materials (sometimes available after tour, often mailed before).
• Hear the philosophy of the school, and get a sense of the school community.
Sometimes the role of the PTA is discussed, specifically expectations of fundraising or community events run by parents.
• Question-and-answer period (this may be postponed until after the tour).
• Tour the facilities either in small or large groups. (Some schools only offer tours to individual applicant families. This would be specified in application materials).
• You will spend 10 or so minutes quietly inside one or two kindergarten classes, and probably a first-grade class.
• Take particular notice of the variety of work in the rooms, what kind of work is up on the walls around the children, and whether the work is teacher-directed or child-generated. You can often deduce this from the range of efforts exhibited for each assignment and how much flexibility there has been in meeting the goals of the assignment, as well as the uniformity (or lack thereof) in the results.
• You will be ushered past many of the other grades in the elementary school and may be offered a few minutes to observe them.
• It is not customary for kindergarten applicants to spend much time in the older classes, It is important, though, to get a good sense of a classroom of an older group, say 4th or 5th grade, even if you have to ask specifically for that.
• Schools with several divisions may include a general overview; others will not and may require separate tours for the middle school or high school.
• You will likely observe a selection of computer rooms, art rooms, dance studios, playgrounds, cafeterias, science facilities, music rooms, etc. Be sure you find out how much these facilities are actually used by the grade levels you are investigating.
• You may be invited to ask questions of faculty or students. Some schools ask for silence in the classroom; others will invite parents to interact.
• Sometimes you will be informed about the transition from elementary to middle school. If the school is ongoing, you may even have a quick view of middle school; otherwise it is common for admissions personnel to give a sampling of where their children have gone on to middle schools.
On any school tour, you will find many of your initial questions answered, and some of the more personal, individual questions left unaddressed. Before you leave the premises, be sure you have the name and phone number of the school administrator or parent representative you can call with follow-up questions.
SARAH MEREDITH, educational consultant, is founder of Schools & You. She works
with families seeking preK-8th grade public and independent schools in
Manhattan and Brooklyn. www.schoolsandyou.com; (718) 230-8971.