School Open House Season: What to Look For

school doorsBy this point in the school year, most parents and kids have just recently hit a groove with this year's routine. Seems a little early to already start thinking about next year, but if you live in a district with high school choice or are going the private or parochial school route, it's open house time right now.

I live in a city that has some of the worst public schools in the country, so it was private or Catholic school for us when our daughter started kindergarten last year. As pointless as these dog and pony shows might seem, we avoided making a very expensive mistake by attending some open houses last year.


There was one school we'd been targeting since I was pregnant with my daughter: it's creative and groovy and yet academically rigorous, and the kids I know who went there are generally ringing endorsements for the place. It's insanely expensive, but I figured with a little financial aid and the freelance gods smiling upon me, we just might make it.

However, when you ask a kindergarten teacher, "So what is their day like?" and she mentions, (in the most bored tone of voice ever) worksheets, more worksheets, "and then they go outside for 15 minutes, or longer if they are really working my nerves" -- well, we decided to save our $8,000, because if that's how the teacher presents herself to prospective parents, I can only imagine what she's like with the kids day-to-day.

Meanwhile, a few weeks before, we'd gone to a somewhat shabby Catholic school open house in a really cool neighborhood of the city I have always loved, and had been really impressed with that teacher and the staff and kids we met there. After much deliberation, we signed her up, and she thrived ... for about a third of what we would have paid for the other school, I might add.

Obviously, a good vibe from the teacher your child would have is crucial at the elementary level. For high school open houses, you'll want to check out the following things to avoid making an even more expensive mistake (and one that could threaten their chances at getting into college):

  • The kids leading the open house tours: Most schools ask students to do this. These are generally National Honor Society members or on student council. If those kids are rude, socially backward or seem like little robots, the general student population is likely to be even worse.
  • The textbooks and course materials on display: If the history books end with President Reagan or the chemistry lab has Bunsen burners older than you, the tuition's going somewhere and the classroom isn't it.
  • The teachers: I understand they're probably pissed about being there on a Sunday. If it shows a little too much, move on.
  • The general school culture: Does there seem to be a huge emphasis on athletics (which can be good or bad, depending on your kid)? Do they show off the drama department as much as they do the football team? Do the other parents there seem similar to you educationally and economically, or will your kid ask you to drop them off a block away so no one sees your Honda Civic?
  • Student work on display: If there are misspelled words or obvious mistakes there, or if the work doesn't seem to be up to the grade level, something is amiss. On the other hand, if kids are writing master's thesis-level papers in ninth grade, the academic environment might be a wee bit high-pressure.

What it comes down to is how well you think your child is going to fit at any particular school, and of course, what they think. Pay attention to your gut feelings and stay open to surprises, and you'll both make the right choice.

How are you choosing your child's school?


Image via ell brown/Flickr

Read More >