By Elena McPeak

The holiday season also means the end of the fall semester. And for many parents, that brings on the school admission season. Whether you have a rising preschooler, think your child’s current school is no longer the right fit, or you’re moving to the area and are looking for the right school, the process of selecting the best school for your child can be daunting.

The reality is signing a contract for a private school for your child is a huge commitment. Once your child begins school there, you want them to be there until they graduate. That’s why making sure you have all your questions answered and feel that the school will be a good fit for your child’s unique needs is so critical. 

Luckily, a school visit can go a long way to helping you determine if the school is right for your child (and family) — if you know what to look for. Here are three things to look out for on a school visit and one red flag to avoid.

A Tour Tailored to Your Child’s Unique Interests and Strengths

Before you even step foot on the campus, the admissions director should take the time to get to know your child and your family. They should understand your values and your child’s interests and explore your child’s strengths and unique needs so they can understand what learning experiences would be particularly meaningful to them. This allows the school to tailor the tour to their interests. 

For example, if your child is a budding artist or loves robotics, the tour should include exploring the facilities for those activities and connect children with the teachers who will help naturally inspire enthusiasm about attending the school. If a child who loves theater and performing visits St. James, for example, we make sure they tour our broadcast studio and learn all about our weekly news show Bayou St. James produced entirely by our students.

Great learning should be happening at all times on a campus, so an admissions director should also be able to show you any part of the campus you’d like to see.  

A Real Connection Between Teachers and Students

Education at its heart is about building connections between teachers and students. Beautiful facilities and a top-notch curriculum matter, but it’s that genuine connection with students that really creates an exceptional learning environment. 

So when you’re walking through campus on a tour, look for authentic engagement of students by the faculty and staff, especially in those critical early education years of elementary schools. Are teachers really engaged with their students? Are students having meaningful fun and connecting with their peers as they learn? Would you describe the teachers and staff as open and warm? Are they willing to answer your questions and can they explain the thinking behind the learning activities you see? Do the upper elementary students embody strong interpersonal skills modeled by the faculty and staff?  Do they speak authentically and fondly about their classes, teachers, and peers?

This doesn’t just apply to what you see in the classroom they’ve hand selected for you to tour, though. As you walk around campus, observe how teachers, staff and administration interact with the students everywhere you go — in the office, on the playground, in the cafeteria, and everywhere students are. Do you see authentic relationships and real connections between the students in all areas of the campus?

An Enriching, Vibrant Learning Environment 

When it comes down to it, though, you want to ensure that the school offers a rich, engaging learning environment where your child will thrive. Pay attention to the student-teacher ratio, not just in the classroom selected for you to tour but in any learning spaces you see. Class size has been found to be one of the most reliable indicators of student achievement, and smaller class sizes have been shown to increase student achievement significantly. Scan the classroom to see if the children physically fit comfortably in the space. Is there room to move around? In a play-based classroom, is there room for learning centers, art, and reading? Does the classroom include all of the resources students need to learn? 

Notice the kinds of learning activities you witness. Are they stimulating and designed to engage students in learning? How does the teacher respond to students who don’t seem engaged? Does the teacher notice and help bring them back into the fold of the classroom? If students are engaged in project-based learning or centers, does the teacher actively facilitate their learning in an engaging and positive way? 

But that learning environment doesn’t just span the inside of the campus. What lies beyond it? Do students have access to other spaces that would enrich their learning, such as green spaces or cultural sites? For example, St. James is located right in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge. Students experience everything our historic capital has to offer through walking field trips, cultural excursions and visits to historic sites. In fact, the school is located within a few blocks of over twenty museums and cultural sites. Because of this, students at St. James enjoy walking field trips to the post office to learn about our postal system or the Old State Capitol building to learn about Louisiana history. They can visit the River Center Branch Library or the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. Louisiana’s rich history and culture are right at their fingertips.

…But Watch Out for Mismatches Between What You’ve Been Told and What You See

Often, school visits are about assessing whether the school is the right fit for your child. A school may be great, but it may not be what your child needs. Your child may need a small school environment or excellent sports facilities or specific learning supports or any number of things. 

But one red flag that can be a warning sign is if you’re told something about the school (or you’ve read it on their website or in their marketing materials) and you witness something else when you tour. 

For example, if the school stresses its developmentally appropriate, play-based curriculum for their Pre-K classes but you see mainly workbooks and seatwork when you visit the classroom, that could reflect a disconnect between the school’s philosophy and its actual teaching practices.

You should also watch out for a general atmosphere of stress and hectic activity. While all schools have busy times, harried, stressed teachers and staff indicate that the school may lack the adequate resources needed to provide the right care for your child.

Choosing the right school for your child can be overwhelming. But going into a school visit with these tips in mind can help you identify the best learning environment for your child and help ease your mind.