Applying to Middle or High School? This List of Questions Will Help
This time last fall, I was sitting by the local indoor pool, hunched over my “school search” spreadsheet while my son finished his swim lesson. I remember feeling overwhelmed, sweating in the always-overheated parent waiting area, as I pondered a list of schools that was at once too long and too short. Too long because I could never possibly make it to all the admissions events on this list; too short because I’d already limited my true wishlist to just a few schools before really doing my homework.
In retrospect, a number of things could have made the school search process easier and much less stressful, including a go-to list of questions to ask when evaluating a school.
This year, more parents than ever are looking to make a school change, so I sat down with Ginger Fay and Lucia Sinovoi, Applerouth colleagues who’ve both been “down that road” themselves as parents, and both have professional backgrounds in guiding parents on their school journeys. Together, we came up with a list of questions designed to help you find schools that fit.
- Is this a school where we can imagine our child thriving?
- Does the school seem like a place where my child can be themself?
- Is this a community where we can imagine our family feeling connected and engaged?
- Is this a place where my partner and I would want to volunteer?
- What kind of volunteer engagement does the school seek (or not) from families?
- Is this a school that values diversity and inclusion in the same way our family does?
- Does the school offer a religious education?
- What is the academic and teaching philosophy of the school? Does it seem like an approach that might work well for my child?
(Note: It’s always good to ask the schools what types of students tend to thrive academically in their environment – the schools want it to be a good fit, too!)
- What variety of courses and subjects are offered? Will my child have a chance to explore a variety of topics/subjects or dive deep into specific subjects that are of high interest?
- What is the average class size? Is there a maximum class size?
- When hiring teachers, what does the school look for in a candidate? What kind of professional development opportunities are offered to the faculty?
- What types of academic opportunities are available to graduates of the school, and how does the school support students in choosing their next step? (E.g., what secondary schools or colleges do they attend after graduating, and what type of outplacement and/or college counseling is available?)
- What is the overall academic culture like? Is it very competitive? More collaborative? Where will my student fit in academically – and will that be a comfortable place for them?
- What is the school’s approach to social-emotional learning?
- What values does the school emphasize and try to instill in students?
- What are the opportunities for extracurricular engagement in sports, arts, and other areas that are of interest to my child? Is participation in extracurricular activities competitive, or are some opportunities open to everyone?
If your kids learn differently (like mine!) here are some additional questions to consider:
- What learning accommodations are offered for students who require them?
- Does the school have any specialized learning support programs and/or staff? How is learning support integrated with the rest of the school day?
- Will the school make exceptions in curricular requirements where appropriate? (e.g., allowing a student with a language-based learning disability to take coding as a foreign language)
- If considering a private school, what is the tuition? Will that be affordable for your family for as many years and as many children as you hope will attend? If not, what financial aid or scholarship opportunities are available?
- Where is the school located relative to home, work, and/or other children’s schools? And what carpool or transportation opportunities are available?
Ginger, Lucia, and I each came at the school search process from very different places. Ginger found herself learning a whole new set of elementary and middle schools options when her family relocated from DC to Atlanta. Lucia recently braved the New York City public middle school application process, and I found myself in an unexpected school search after learning that one of my sons is dyslexic. In spite of our very different journeys, we all agreed on one key point: it is vital to keep an open mind and remember that there is no one “right” school. As Ginger explains, coming from outside Atlanta actually helped in some ways:
When we were moving from DC to Atlanta, we really didn’t have any preconceived notions about the schools and their reputations. The benefit of that lack of knowledge was that we really looked at each school with openness, trying to see if we could imagine our whole family there.
Lucia echoes a similar benefit to the fact that middle school admissions in her particular district of New York City are done through a lottery, “which encourages people to tour schools they might not have considered, and opens families’ eyes to new possibilities.”
Thinking back to my spreadsheet, I know that, if I’d had the right questions as a filter, my list wouldn’t have gotten so overwhelmingly long. Similarly, if I’d had the perspective that Lucia and Ginger shared, maybe I would have started the process without a ‘short list’ already in mind. Maybe I could have actually watched that swim lesson rather than sweating it out in the waiting room.
As you head into the school search process, we wish you a list that provides options and opportunities, but does not overwhelm. Afterall, finding a school is all about fit, not fatigue.
Diana Cohen is Applerouth’s Director of Brand and Content. Guided by the Applerouth credo – when you change students’ self-beliefs, you change their lives – Diana is grateful to have found schools that build academic skill and self-confidence in her neurodiverse children.
Applerouth’s Director of IEC Engagement, Ginger Fay, is a 25-year veteran of the college admissions process – which left her humbly underprepared to find the best fits for her own school-aged children. Thankfully, her children aren’t just good students – they are good teachers as well and showed Ginger and her husband the places where they felt most themselves.
Lucia Sinovoi is the Director of Program Advisement and Management at Applerouth Tutoring Services and is the parent of a 4th grader and a 7th grader in Brooklyn, NY.