Tis the season for school shopping – that is, shopping for a new school.

Parents are gearing up for the next school year and starting the process of looking at potential middle and high schools for their child.

As a school counselor, I receive lots of phone calls and meet with prospective parents several times before the end of the school year. Most districts have an application process if you want your child to attend a school outside of the attendance area you live in; others a lottery system. Regardless, you need to do your research and visit the school before you make any decisions.

Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to make sure their child has the best education, often listening to the opinions of those around them rather than trusting their own judgement. This is a very personal decision; one that only involves the needs of your child.

It’s important to start asking yourself questions such as: what are the most important things you want in a school? What kind of learner is your child? Do they need specialized instruction? Do they thrive on interaction with staff and students? Is it important for you and your child to have access to staff? What is the schools core beliefs and mission and do they match with your own?

In order to make the most out of the school interview process, use the following tips to ensure a successful visit.

1 | Research their websites.

Take notes about courses offered, class size, standardized test scores, programs for students with special needs, state and national ranking, sports and extracurricular activities offered, and opportunities for enrichment.

2 | Call and ask for a tour.

This initial visit should just be a tour; do not meet with anyone until you have a good feel for the environment. Ask to see classes your child might be interested in, talk to students, visit the lunchroom during lunch time, and walk the hallways during passing time.

3 | Go home and reflect on your first impression.

Here’s the thing, you can print out detailed check-lists, take copious notes, talk to all your friends, and see what is being said on social media, but the bottom line is how does the school feel to you and your child? After 15 years as a counselor, I truly believe that the climate of the school is the #1 factor in determining student success both academically and socially for many students.

Once you have a feel for the environment of the school, begin writing your list of questions. Take a look at the original list you made before the visit and add questions based on how you felt about the climate of the school. Make note of any impressions you had, things you noticed or need clarification on, and concerns you may have.

4 | Sit down with your child and make a list of the things that excited you about the school.

  • What felt good?
  • What part of the building did you like the best?
  • What are you most excited to learn more about when you do your official visit?
  • Were there any activities or classes you observed that you are interested in trying?
  • Who did you like meeting?

5 | Call and make an appointment with the school counselor.

Most counselors will schedule 30-60 minutes for an initial meeting about the school. Make sure your list of questions has a short and long list. The short list contains the essential questions you need answered and the long list adds the other topics you would like to cover if there is time.

  • Tip: don’t waste your time asking questions that are answered on the website and school profile. Facts are facts. Test scores, number of AP courses offered etc.  are already available to you; instead ask about how the staff advises students on selecting their courses and planning their overall academic education plan. Are they all about numbers and pushing their advanced programs at the detriment of the students overall health or do they take a holistic approach and consider your entire child and how those courses may fit in to their life? The sign of a good school is their level of involvement in helping your child design a program that fits their individual needs with consideration of outside interests, family life, church and volunteer activities, extracurricular/sports commitments, and time just to be a kid.

6 | Ask the most important questions and take notes.

The questions that often don’t get asked and counselors will tell you are the deal breakers in making a decision. I like to call these the feeling questions; the ones that you can’t find answers to on the school website, profile, or google search.

  • Does it feel like it offers a safe and inspiring environment?
  • Does the school feel like a community?
  • Do the students seem engaged?
  • Do the teachers look like they are enjoying what they are doing?
  • During passing time, are staff out in the hallway talking with students and also keeping an eye on what is going on?
  • What is the atmosphere of the lunchroom? Does it seem like the right environment for your child? People discount the importance of the lunchroom to teenagers. Often times it is the scariest part of the day for kids.

A hot topic right now is school security. You might want to spend some time asking questions such as: does the school have security personnel on staff? How do they keep students safe from potential intruders or students who may become violent? Does the school practice safety drills so the students know how to respond in this situation?

At this point, it is absolutely normal to feel very overwhelmed! Now it’s time to sit down with your child and take a look at the notes you took. I would recommend sitting at the computer and typing (bullet style) the key points you learned, including: academics, extracurricular/sports/clubs, and overall climate and atmosphere. Send this list to the counselor you met with and ask them to check for any mistakes in the information you learned. Ask if they have anything they would like to add in order to help you make this decision. This is a great way to reconnect with them and make sure your information is correct.

I truly believe there is a school for every student and every school has something important to offer. The most important thing to keep in mind during this entire process is that teenagers need to feel like they belong to the community, have a purpose and that they can find success no matter what their academic level is.