For expert advice on a wide range of questions related to choosing a school, read our comprehensive choosing guide. You can also read our parent interviews on choosing a school, as well as our in-depth advice guide on getting into a private school.
On learning about schools
“It’s important to visit schools before making the decision. And don’t just visit during open houses where everything is really canned and students are handpicked to give tours. Sit in the office, ask for a private tour, look in the classrooms. Peek in the window and see how many kids are engaged. See what’s happening in the actual environment.
While different learning environments suit different kids, there are certain universal markers for success, such as a vibrant and engaging classroom. Would you want to learn there? Are you inspired to learn there? Does it feel like a place you could come to every day and feel good about learning?”
—Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services
“I recommend to families to go to a school several times for different reasons. First, you’ve got to go there once to check it out, either at an open house or on a private tour. Then, you should go back for one of their evenings. Say you’re interested in theatre and the school says ‘We’re putting on a play, why don’t you come back?’ Go.
Drop off your application materials on a regular school day. This will give you a sense of what’s around and what the school feels like. Try to have your child go with you. You’ll want to get her impressions of the school as well. While you won’t have the time to visit each school you’re interested in multiple times, ideally, you’ll do this with schools you’ve shortlisted.”
—Elaine Danson, Education Consultant, Danson and Associates
“I want kids doing the hustle and bustle when classes are changing, when announcements are on, and when students are going through the corridors. So I always encourage families to visit during the school year, so they get that visceral reaction when they walk in the front door. Does it feel like home to me or could I really belong here? Can I imagine myself here? Is it too uptight or stressful?”
—Jane Kristoffy, Education Consultant, Right Track Educational Services
“Sometimes parent-to-parent connections can be really helpful, because it gives you another place to bounce ideas and questions off of. It’s important to tap into your network, since parents often have plenty of information about different schools and educational environments. You can also go to school events, such as a holiday concert, to meet with parents who have kids at the school. This can give you special insights into the culture and feel of the school community.”
—Una Malcolm, Director, Bright Light learners
“Ultimately, parents have to actually do some on the ground walking in the schools and getting a feel for the school, and seeing what's in the foyer, is it sports trophies or is it arts trophies or is it academic trophies? What's the climate of the school? What's the feel? Are kids smiling? Are they alone? What's the dynamic within the school? I think parents have to do that. I can't do that for them. They know their child.”
—Joanne Foster, Education Consultant and Award-Winning Author
“A school should be able to answer three key questions: Who are you? What do you do? What do you do well and differently? Vague, motherhood answers aren’t helpful here—‘we want to bring out the best in every child,’ ‘we’ll help your child reach her potential,’ and the like. A school should provide a clear and specific description of what they offer (and what they don’t). For example, ‘our school is geared to children with general but not specific learning disabilities.’
—Janyce Lastman, Education Consultant, The Tutor Group
“I think looking at the level of academics is important. Some students really thrive in high academic pressure situations like an IB program where they're really being pushed to move forward, and they thrive in that environment. Other students need more time to get acclimatized, or they have certain strengths, but not strengths all around in the academic field.
I think proximity to your home is also important. Is this a kid who's willing to travel for an hour to get to school or not? Is this a kid who gets really tired really easily? So a school that's close by is going to be easier for them to manage. Do you want to be inside your community or outside your community? That's a big deal. When you can walk to school it makes a big difference because you will have friends in the neighborhood, it certainly saves time over the day.”
—Ruth Rumack, Director, Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space