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HomeFind a SchoolHow to assess a school

The school visit: what to look for, what to ask

There's no substitute for visiting the schools on your list, so you can get a sense of the school environment and get your questions answered.

By GreatSchools Staff

Be sure to visit all the schools on your list, if you can. A visit is the best way to determine whether a school is right for your child. Even a short visit will help you identify a school's strengths and challenges. It's also the only way to get a feel for a school's climate — intangible but important factors like the dynamism of the teaching, engagement of the students, quality of communication and respect between students, teachers, administrators, and parents, and the overall sense that the school offers a safe and inspiring learning environment.

School visit checklists

Get a printable guide to help you plan your elementary, middle, or high school visit.

Before your visit

  • Do your homework. Read about the schools you'll be visiting. Examine their school profiles on GreatSchools.org. Talk to other parents and check your local newspaper for articles about the schools.
  • Contact the school.  Most schools conduct regular school tours and open houses during the enrollment season — typically in the fall. Call the school or go online to schedule a visit.
  • Ask and observe. Jot down your questions before your visit (the sample questions below will help you create your list).

Key questions to ask

  • Does this school have a particular educational philosophy or mission?
  • Is the school implementing the Common Core State Standards, and if so, what is the procedure and timeline for teacher training and implementation?
  • What is the average class size?
  • What is this school's approach to student discipline and safety?
  • How much homework do students have? What is the school's philosophy/approach to homework?
  • What kind of library resources are available to students?
  • How is technology used to support teaching and learning at this school?
  • How do the arts fit into the curriculum? Is there a school choir, band or orchestra? A drama program? Art classes?
  • What extracurricular opportunities (sports, clubs, community service, competitions) are available for students?
  • How do students get to school? Is free school busing available?
  • Is bullying a problem at the school? Does the school have an anti-bullying policy?
  • Does the school have a program for gifted students?
  • How does this school support students who have academic, social or emotional difficulties?
  • What strategies are used to teach students who are not fluent in English?
  • What professional development opportunities do teachers have? In what ways do teachers collaborate?
  • Does the school offer Physical Education (PE) classes?
  • What are some of the school's greatest accomplishments? What are some of the biggest challenges this school faces?

Features to look for

  • Do classrooms look cheerful? Is student work displayed, and does it seem appropriate for the grade level?
  • Do teachers seem enthusiastic and knowledgeable, asking questions that stimulate students and keep them engaged?
  • Does the principal seem confident and interested in interacting with students, teachers and parents?
  • How do students behave as they move from class to class or play outside?
  • Is there an active Parent Teacher Association (PTA)? What other types of parent involvement take place at this school?
  • How well are the facilities maintained? Are bathrooms clean and well supplied, and do the grounds look safe and inviting?

Especially for elementary schools

  • What are some highlights of this school's curriculum in reading, math, science and social studies?
  • What criteria are used to determine student placement in classes?
  • How does this school keep parents informed of school information and activities?
  • Is quality child care available before and after school?
  • How much outdoor time do kids get each day?

 Especially for middle schools

  • How does the school guide and prepare students for major academic decisions that will define their options in high school and beyond?
  • Does the school offer tutoring or other support if students need extra help?
  • Are world language classes (French, Spanish, etc.) offered to students?
  • If the school is large, does it make an effort to provide activities that create a sense of community?

Especially for high schools

  • Does this school have a particular curriculum focus, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or the arts?
  • What kind of emphasis does the school place on college preparation?
  • Does the school have a good selection of Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes?
  • What percentage of students take the SAT or/and ACT?
  • Where do students go after they graduate? How many attend four-year college? Are graduates prepared for college?
  • Are counselors available to help students make important decisions about classes?
  • Is college counseling and support available?
  • Does the school offer a variety of career planning options for students who are not college bound?
  • Does the school staff set high expectations for all students?
  • Does the school have a tutoring programs so students can get extra help if they need it?
  • How do students get to school? Is there a parking lot, and are buses (public or district-provided) available?
  • Does this school have any school-to-work programs or specialized academies? 
  • What is the school drop-out rate?

Especially for charter schools

  • When and why was this school created?
  • Does the school have a specific focus?
  • Who is the charter holder, or the group that created the school?
  • How does the school select teachers? Are the teachers certificated?
  • Is this the permanent location or facility for the school? If not, will the school be moving to another location in the near future?

 

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/15/2012:
"Thank goodness for this site. All your tips and comments are so helpful. Thank you all. I have a special needs child who is speech delayed and going into kindergarten. Our school district has recommended her placement school in a 6:1:1 class. We were given a list of available schools by the District. We were told that the school they find is ultimately where my child will be placed in September. My question is, what is a variance, and on what grounds/ "valid reasons" can I reject the District's recommended school choice? "
04/23/2012:
"What to look for and what to ask are particularly helpful, as I am going to visit a few schools on my list. "
02/9/2012:
"very well done for getting an overview of any school you are contemplating on attending, as a parent of a student or as a older student going back to school. "
11/14/2011:
"Hi,I'm an Indian ,relocated to St Peter ,Missouri ,USA on job transfer .My son would be completing grade 6 in Februray 12. By March12 they would be here with me Seraching for the very best school for him; "
09/12/2011:
"This site was very useful for me. It helped me with a step to publishing my article for my schools newspaper. Im in 9th grade Journalism. I hope other students and parents can use this site to their advantage just as i did "
02/28/2011:
"We are moving back to the US next year and I am worried that my kids will feel out of place since they attend schools abroad. Also I am worried about choosing the right public High school. My 9th grader needs academic and emotional assistance, and this is my main worry."
02/24/2011:
"We are moving back to the US next year and I am worried that my kids will feel out of place since they attend schools abroad. Also I am worried about choosing the right public High school. My 9th grader needs academic and emotional assistance, and this is my main worry."
01/10/2011:
"I'd suggest that it may help you understand a school better if you ask (regardless of your children's abilities) how the school supports students who are gifted and talented or advanced in particular subjects, as well as how it supports those who have difficulty. Does the school separate students into different classes depending on their abilities or do they mix them up? Does this vary by subject? Are teachers expected/encouraged to differentiate their teaching to interest and challenge students of widely differing levels of ability? How do they do that?"
08/30/2010:
"We are moving back to the US next year and I am worried that my kids will feel out of place since they attend schools abroad. Also I am worried about choosing the right public High school. My 9th grader needs academic and emotional assistance, and this is my main worry. Where can I take her for assessment? I need to know what exactly is wrong with her to help me choose the right school with the right programs. She is basically lost with numbers and time telling. Otherwise she is ok with art subjects. "
07/19/2010:
"W0W...glad i found this i need some help...have2 High schoolers 1 middle schooler and 2 Elementry stgudent that will be going to new schools pretty nerve racking for all of us but we must move (husband is transferring) so thank you for the great tips!!!"
07/19/2010:
"I love this article! The family and I are transferring to the D.C./Maryland area and this article made me fill alot more confident in finding my kids new schools when we move to the area. I would have never thought to ask some of the question that was suggested in the article and I think that the 'Find a great school checklist' is a fantastic idea. Thank you for such a great article."
04/9/2010:
"This is the first time I've been on this website and it seems WONDERFUL! My husband is a Sergeant in the Army and we are currently living on Fort Hood in TX and we are being re stationed to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in MD. Luckily we don't have to leave TX until this school year is over in June but my soon to be 1st grader is as calm as a cucumber but myself is a whole other story. I grew up about 30 miles from where we are headed and I'm worried about the school system in that area. I hope I can find the right school. Wish me luck:)"
08/18/2009:
"Great article!! I will definately share this article with others."
06/9/2009:
"We are moving to Houston, Texas have two children 6 and 7. Our 7 year old has Down Syndrome and is in an inclusive classroom. Our daughter is in advanced reading and math. Where are the best schools and inclusive classrooms.? I have been doing so much research. Looked at Katy schools, Friendswood, Spring Branch, Houston. So many schools, UGH Any help would be great."
05/18/2009:
"public schools are alot more better then private schools they save you money and the teachers are still very nice and i do homebound a teacher comes to my house 2 times a week to teach me and gives me work for when shes not there private schools don't care about kids with special needs and you also got to spend to much money public school rules"
05/15/2009:
"its a great web site .please help me selecting a good school in tampa florida as we are moving there from skokie il school district 73.5.we want good school district with top test scores. please help"
04/23/2009:
"Please email me and tell me when the school year starts. Austin Texas and I have a girl who will be going into the third grade and a son going into the seventh grade. Schools please Thank you"
04/20/2009:
"Hi! great article!!!! I'm moving to florida/Miami, from NY, the area, am not sure yet but I'll like to choose the area base on an great school for a pre-k. I'm moving late this spring it doesn't matter the area, as long the school assure good programs and the area is safe, as a single mom this is my first prioty. I you could help, any help it will be gladly appreciated. thanks, Millie Glas "
01/28/2009:
"For middle and high school an important question is the type of scheduling. There are ample statistics that show that students who take music classes score higher on math standardized tests, and are more likely to go to college. For middle schools are kids penalized for taking a music class by not being able to take exploratories. For high schools, is the scheduling 4 by 4 block (which makes success in music next-to-impossible) even-odd block (which works well) or a standard 7 or 8 period day. Four By Four block scheduling is also counterproductive for foreign language classes. "
01/20/2009:
"Great info! Last time l moved l did not do my survey well.. l focused more on diversity, school population and ISTEP.... l have gained alot by going thru your article.. this will help me now that am in the process of moving again..., keep up the good work!!"
11/18/2008:
"mmm... este tambien se ve interesante, por lo menos da algunas ideas."
11/17/2008:
"This is a great article! 'Responding to the question about Friends/Montesorri vs. public schools. Our children have attended Friends preschool and kindergarten and feel that this experience has been invaluable in their preparation for a larger school. It has been worth every penny. Our son has Sensory issues and through his time at Friends, he has gained coping skills that will serve him throughout his life. If you have the money, send your child to a Friends school as long as you can.' "
07/22/2008:
"Don't believe everything you hear. The private schools talk a lot of trash about the public schools, in order to scare people away and make more money. Look for yourself and talk to parents of children in school - not panicked preschool parents. In San Francisco, where the public schools are way better than the private, this is a huge problem. I have one child in each now, and swear the public is a million times better. It amazes me that people do not question someone asking them for $20,000 per year. Get a clue."
06/20/2008:
"We have a three year old who will be four in October. Because of his birthday we are told he will start school later. For this reason he will go to 3k classes this fall. The public schools in our county do not have a very good reputation and everyone that we have talked to says to put our son in private or home school. He is an only child so we would much prefer private. We are told that our son will have a better chance of getting into a private school if he starts in the PreK program. Can I visit schools in the summer? If so, how do we determine the best one for our child?"
06/11/2008:
"I would like to see more advice on choosing a pre-school. In my state, pre-schools vary greatly. Pre-school teachers are not licensed so they may not have even a minimal level of education. With such little state regulation, the burden falls on parents to ask questions about the faculty's education, experience, and length of tenure."
06/9/2008:
"Thanks for this article. We are moving back to the USA with our child that is just finishing 1st grade. Greatschools.org & schoolmatters.com lead us to a great district. Another suggestion I have is ask the people who live there. Talk to the waiters & store clerks when you are in the districts you are interested in searching. These people are there everyday & really know what is a great school. They have children that are there in these schools. They will tell you if they are happy with their choice & where they would rather have their children. It will also be an 'unsensored' conversation."
05/29/2008:
"I think taht these questions are helpful btu I strongly agree that you should give questions about behavior in school and how to stop that"
04/2/2008:
"Responding to the question about Friends/Montesorri vs. public schools. Our children have attended Friends preschool and kindergarten and feel that this experience has been invaluable in their preparation for a larger school. It has been worth every penny. Our son has Sensory issues and through his time at Friends, he has gained coping skills that will serve him throughout his life. If you have the money, send your child to a Friends school as long as you can."
03/24/2008:
"What a great and very helpful article. We are in the midst of deciding between two schools and this list is a great place to start, thank you!!"
03/5/2008:
"Does anyone have any experience of Montessori or Friends grade school over public school? I am trying to make a very tough decision. Montessori and Friends is alot of money, but I would be willing to pay it if it is worth it in the long run. Any feedback?"
02/25/2008:
"Thanks for some of the advice. I just got accepted into the boarding school I applied to, but I am worried about funding. Thanks for some of the great articles"
02/22/2008:
"I am just starting this process and came to this website first. It is so helpful!"
02/21/2008:
"I would add, when looking at private schools, review the weekly newletter/communication sent home to parents. Is it informative and descriptive? Does it include social events that foster a sense of community? Are they highlighting types of things you would like to see at your child's school? Does it feel like you would like it to? This is a valuable piece of information to look at when considering a school."
02/5/2008:
"I really don't know how to thank you for all these informations that you provided in your website. For me as a parent moving from state to state, that helped me a lot. It even gave me an open idea of the questions that i suppose to ask. Thank you again and please consider me always for any help i can do."
01/28/2008:
"what happens if the school i am interested in has a policy of not letting visitors look at the classrooms or talk to the teachers? "
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