Every School Tells A Story

Before too long you’ll be touring private schools and filling out applications and caught up in the admissions whirlwind. If you’ve tried to keep thoughts about all things private school off your mind because its summer, but your mind keeps wandering back to the topic, here are a few things to think about before you tour schools. If you pay close attention and talk to other parents, you’ll learn things about a school that probably won’t be discussed on a tour. They aren’t good or bad, but they’re some of the most subjective things about each school that may (or may not) appeal to you.

Of course, schools want to impress prospective parents with highlights of excellent programs, outstanding teachers and brand new facilities. But, when you’re looking at schools, think about how a school reveals itself in a more subtle or informal way. Pay attention to what the school says in the official publications of course, but also look for the less obvious things about a school you might otherwise overlook.  And, give some thought to what the school doesn’t mention on the tour.
Every school tells its own story. If you look closely as you tour a school, certain things will stand out for one reason or another. There will be things about the school that give you information about its culture, its educational philosophy and other factors the school administrators may or (may not) discuss.
Consider the following:
·     Location. We’ve written about location on this blog before because it matters and the location of your kid’s elementary school might impact your quality of life if there’s a geographic problem. Geography can become a challenge for playdates, drive-time (is it really 3 hours a day?), friendships, ethnic diversity, mandatory carpools and volunteering. If you’re thinking about a school’s location in terms of its accessibility to your house, that’s a good idea. But, you may also want to think about whether a school’s location will prevent it from having a diverse student population. Is it too remote for families who live outside the immediate neighborhood to attend? Does it offer a bus? Would it be possible for families with one car to get their kids there and back? Where do most of the families at the school live? A general answer about “we have families from everywhere” should make you look more closely at where the families really live, especially if you think you may live outside the area the school draws from.
·     Feeder preschools. Most elementary schools will tell you they accept students from a wide range of preschools. But, a quick check will tell you there are “feeder” schools to many of the top private elementary schools in L.A. If you have a sense of the community at the “feeder” preschool, that will give you insight into the culture of the elementary school which accepts the preschool’s students. If the “feeder” preschool to an elementary school that interests you is known to be insular and pretentious, it’s safe to assume those elements won’t magically disappear once the parents arrive at elementary school. Even the location of the “feeder” preschool(s) can give you insight into where the elementary school families live.
·     Cars in carpool. Does this sound funny? Silly? Maybe, but the cars in a school’s carpool lane can give away a lot about the school! If you get a chance, look at the cars in a school’s carpool. Are they super-fancy? Are they a mix of car types? Are nannies picking up kids in Range Rovers? Do kids have drivers? Or do you see a lot of common SUVs, Toyotas and Volvos? Are there Limos? Minivans?
·     Plaques on the wall. Ah, yes, the “must-see” plaques. Some schools adorn their walls with plaques naming big fundraising donors or even buildings. Would this bother you if you had to see it daily? Would a school that named every empty space after a family at the school annoy you? It might suggest a strong emphasis on fundraising and a “who’s-who” at the school.
·     School events. The type of events a school hosts gives you loads of information about the school’s culture and parent-body. If a school hosts an elaborate, over-the-top annual auction at a country club and you despise the notion of membership only clubs, maybe this isn’t the school for you. Does the school host an annual camping trip and you hate to camp? Maybe the school is too crunchy for your family. Once you’re at the school, it’s hard to avoid these events, even if they don’t appeal to you. Once you’re a parent at the school, complaints about an event being too fancy or too crunch will go unheard or just make you unpopular. Or, you may be handed the entire file and told, “If you think you can do a better job, you do it!” And, you’ll be expected to attend the event, fancy or not, crunchy or not.
·       Current parents. Talk to other parents at the school. Don’t be shy, talk, talk, talk, ask as many questions as you can. This is a frequently mentioned tactic for gathering information about a school. That’s because it’s effective. When you talk to parents at the school, don’t be afraid to ask about the other parents, kids’ activities, school events and anything else you can think of. A simple, “what are the other parents like?” is a great question, without bias. The question, “I hear that parents at the school are snobbish,” will just make the person you’re talking to defensive. Another good question is, “Are most of the moms stay-at-home or do they work outside the home?”. Any answers you get will ultimately provide you with valuable insight as to whether your child and your family will fit with that school.
These are just a few of the ways a school tells a story. There are definitely other clues that reveal more about a school than what is talked about on a tour. More to come on this topic!

Guest Blogger Gina: Finding The Perfect Fit School

My neurotic tendency toward organization and over-preparation, while sometimes annoying to my husband, has served me well on many occasions. Most recently, I put this “skill” into use when it came time to think about elementary schools for our twin son and daughter.


I grew up in New York and, although my husband grew up in Los Angeles, he really wasn’t much help in figuring out the complex school system in L.A., so I was left to my own devices. My default operating system is to get rather methodical when I am dealing with something I am unfamiliar with, and figuring out the best school for our family was no different.


Once we realized that our local public school wasn’t a viable option, we knew we were looking at private elementary schools for our children. Although I would much rather have the “free” education that public school offers, I am not comfortable pinning my hopes on a charter school lottery system that might leave us with no school to attend when the time comes.


Thus I began, as many people do, by asking friends about the private schools they knew about, using books like Beyond The Brochure and researching online, using various sites like GreatSchools.net and TheSchoolBoards.com. This allowed me to at least get a list together of names and locations. We narrowed the list down by crossing off schools that didn’t present themselves as Progressive or Developmental and weren’t in a comfortable radius to where we lived. Simple enough.


And then the worries set in. Should we consider schools that are on the West Side even though we live an hour East? Should we look at a school where we have good connections even if the school doesn’t really appeal to us? Will our connections be insulted if we don’t apply there? How many schools should we look at? How many should we apply to? What about those schools that make you apply before you tour? Do we bother applying to schools that are so popular you need to be married to Brad Pitt in order to be accepted? And the list went on and on. I knew I just had to start or my over-thinking would get the best of me.


We began touring when our children were a little more than 3 years old, a year and a half before we would actually apply to any of these schools. Our first tour was at The Willows Community School and we were really excited about it. From the inspired artwork on the walls, to the enthusiastic teachers to the way the director thoughtfully answered every question the parents had; we could picture our family being a part of this school. A few months later we took our children to the Fall Book Fair on their campus and were again impressed by community spirit and genuine friendliness of all the families we met. Our kids were equally enchanted and, a few weeks later when I told them I was touring another school, cried out “No! But we want to go to The Willows!” It seems we were all in agreement.


Well, if the first school we looked at was such a hit, we were excited to see what else LA private elementary schools had in store for us. This fall we toured 4 other schools and only at one, Oakwood, did we feel as enthusiastic as we did at The Willows. Oakwood isn’t as close to where we live, but there are enough great things about it that will make us consider applying there.


We still have 4 schools on our list to tour this spring and we will then have our “short list” of schools to re-tour in the fall of 2011, which is the year we will submit applications for the class of 2012. I am glad we decided to begin our touring early. I wanted to be able to see as many schools as I could so I could get a sense of what I really liked and what I definitely didn’t like. My sense is that the Fall before your child starts Kindergarten many parents are stressed about interviews and applications; I didn’t want to compound that with having to research and tour 10 or 15 schools. I feel good knowing that my husband and I can focus in on the 4 or 5 schools we really love and feel are the best fit for our family.


I’m feeling calm now. Check in with me again come September when interviews begin!

Gina Osher is a former Holistic Healer turned SAHM to boy/girl twins, a twin parenting coach and the author of the popular blog, The Twin Coach. There she writes on topics ranging from how Halloween candy helped her discover the meaning of life, to how to handle bed rest and premature babies. Gina describes herself and her blog as “one part friend who’s been through it all, one part mom of twins trying to figure it out, one part mentor willing to share”. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.