Late fall and early winter is school tour season in Colorado. It’s a time for families to check out the schools their students may be attending the following year — and if they’re considering applying to multiple schools through a school choice lottery, to get a feel for their options.
But what exactly should parents look for on a school tour? What should they ask? Those questions came up at a recent Chalkbeat listening event, at which parents shared what they want to know about school choice. This story attempts to answer some of those questions.
To do it, we interviewed parents who’ve gone on school tours and parents who’ve given them, school principals, and school choice specialists who work for the district, private businesses, and local organizations. Everyone we spoke with is in Denver, but their tips are applicable to other districts, too.
Here’s what they said.
Start with your neighborhood school.
Tours are not required, but many experts agree they’re a good idea. Families should start with the school closest to them, said Laurie Premer, the director of choice and enrollment services for Denver Public Schools. That’s often the student’s “boundary school,” meaning the student is guaranteed a seat there regardless of whether they fill out a choice form.
If you’re interested in a school outside your neighborhood, set up a tour during rush hour.
The district doesn’t provide school bus service to most students who choose to attend a school outside their boundary. So it’s up to families to get them there.
Setting up a tour during rush hour allows parents to gauge the length of the commute — and see whether the drive or public transportation route is tenable, said Keely Buchanan, who owns a company called Preparing for Denver Kindergarten that helps families navigate school choice.
Do some research ahead of time.
Before going on a tour, spend some time on the school’s website. Answers to basic questions such as, “What time does the school day start and end?” and “Do you offer after-school care?” can often be found there. Most schools have an online staff directory, so it’s possible to see how many kindergarten teachers a school has or whether there’s a school nurse on staff.
“This way, you aren’t asking questions that you could already have the answers to,” said Kurt Dennis, principal at McAuliffe International School, a popular Denver middle school. “Instead, your questions should ideally be targeted to what you are observing on the tour.”
Some schools allow parents to sign up online for an in-person tour. At other schools, you’ll have to call the school’s front office. Pro tip: Call between the hours of 10 and 11 a.m., or 1 and 2 p.m., when the front office tends to be less busy.
While on a tour, ask to see a variety of classrooms in action.
Seeing the gymnasium and cafeteria are important, but your student is going to spend most of their time in the classroom. Ask if you can visit classrooms at different grade levels. Pay attention not only to what the students are learning but how they are learning: Do they seem engaged? Does the teacher seem passionate? Is the atmosphere calm? Or is it chaotic?
“During a tour parents should ask to see classrooms in action so that they can get a sense of the engagement level of the learners,” said Beth Vinson, principal of Denver’s Barnum Elementary. “Do students appear to be inspired, challenged, and interested in what they’re learning?”
Take note of the unofficial sights on the tour, too. Is the bathroom in working order? How are students moving through the hallways? Is the front office staff pleasant and helpful? Ariel Smith, co-founder of the group Transform Education Now, which helps parents navigate the choice system for free, suggested paying attention to what’s hanging on the walls.
“What kind of student work is on the walls?” she said. “Does it look challenging enough for your student? Does it look like something your student would be interested in?”
Those observations are likely to form the basis of what many people we spoke with said is an important impression: How does the school make you feel?
A tour is a good opportunity to ask questions. Think about what’s important to you and your student, and center your questions around those things.
If your child loves singing, ask about the school’s music program. If you’re concerned about too much (or too little) exposure to technology, ask how the school uses computers. If your child has particular strengths or needs, ask how the school would approach meeting them.
Laura Harney, director of enrollment and community engagement for Rocky Mountain Prep charter schools, suggested asking for real-life examples: “My child struggles with reading. Can you tell me about the experience of a student who is similar?”
If a parent knows or suspects their child needs special programming — such as special education, gifted and talented, or English-as-a-second-language services — Smith said she encourages parents to meet with the staff who coordinate those services to ask what kind of programming and support the school provides.
Also, don’t shy away from questions that might feel uncomfortable — such as why a school’s rating went down, or whether rumors about bullying problems are true — because not asking the hard questions could leave you with incorrect assumptions, Buchanan said.
She said that in her experience, school leaders “want to address the rumor. …The more candid and honest questions you ask, the more candid and honest answers you get.”
Other good things to ask about include the school’s mission, its discipline system, and the ways in which parents contribute to school decision-making.
“Look for systems that allow parent voice to have influence in the school: PTA, governance committees, etc.,” said Denver parent Andrew Lefkowits. He recommended asking the school leader how he or she values the input of parents, and whether or not the makeup of the school’s parent committees reflects the racial and economic diversity of the school.
Camilla Modesitt, who is in charge of tours for the popular Denver Language School charter school, suggested an easy way to ask about a school’s mission. Her suggestion — “Why do you do what you do?” — cuts through the jargon to get at the heart of a school’s philosophy.
“Depending on the answer, you would get a really good sense of the school’s mission and vision, the school culture, and the purpose,” Modesitt said.
Harney, of Rocky Mountain Prep, said parents should ask about a school’s discipline model and consider whether it aligns with the type of discipline the family uses at home.
Pro tip: Ask for the names and numbers of two or three current parents who wouldn’t mind candidly talking about their experiences at the school.
Conversations with parents are likely to offer a different perspective, and parents may feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions about a school’s culture or climate to a fellow parent. Neighborhood Facebook groups are another great place to connect with current parents.
If the school has an open house or a big soccer game or concert, attend with your student.
While tours allow you to see a school in action, sports games or performances provide a sense of the school’s community. They’re also a good place to meet current families.
Similarly, open houses offer an opportunity to talk to teachers (who are likely to be teaching during a tour). Ask teachers why they like working there, and what they would change. Ask them to tell you about a student they’re proud of, or about a time they felt supported or challenged.
“Happy teachers supported in their work result in happy students,” Harney said.