March 10, 2011

Getting the Best Info on a Potential New School

By By Andrew J. Rotherham

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Across the country, many parents are anxiously making decisions about where to send their kids to school next year. Unfortunately, it’s still often easier to get information about a car, restaurant or household appliance than a school. Complicating matters further, some schools, including some public schools, have highly restrictive policies about when parents can visit, what they can see, and even who they can talk to inside the school.

My job gives me the privilege of visiting a lot of schools every year, and I’m always leery of any school that doesn’t offer full access. You’re just not going to learn much on a group tour in which you don’t interact with the kids. But schools have an obligation to minimize disruption and keep students safe, so they can’t just fling open their doors in the same way that a state capitol or public library can.

But they can be open to visits without sacrificing learning or safety. Different schools employ different methods, from student-led tours to simply allowing parents to drop in with a little advance notice. For some guidelines about what parents can expect and tips on how to get the most out of a visit, I asked teachers, school administrators and national education leaders — including Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee — about what they consider a reasonable standard of openness and what advice they would give to parents. Above all, keep in mind that even the best teachers and students have bad moments, so allow yourself enough time to get a fair picture of what’s going on in the classroom.

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