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Insights from the Intersection of Childhood and Education

Friday, November 9, 2012

10 Tips for Choosing a Day School

by Mindy Schiller
Director of Marketing, English and History teacher

Photo by Matt Dinerstein

So you've decided to send your child to a Jewish day school. Mazel tov! However, that decision was the easy part. Choosing which day school is the hard part. Following are tips on how to look beyond each school's PR speak and determine which one is the best fit for your child and your family.

Spend a day at the school from drop off to dismissal. Pay special attention to "down" times: recess, homeroom, lunch, grace after meals, and hallway traffic between classes. These unstructured times will give you a flavor for a school's culture and values, and a sense of what it would feel like to be a student there. Stop in on a Hebrew language class. Are the students learning modern Hebrew or the more old-fashioned, Ashkenazi Hebrew? Is the school Zionist? No matter what your child's age, sit in on an 8th grade class, particularly in the Humanities. Eighth graders are the final product of the school and the best barometer of what your child will look like when he finishes. Is the average 8th grader a mensch, respectful of peers, capable of speaking in a mature way with adults?

Attend a graduation. No one likes sitting through speeches, but a school's 8th grade graduation does say a great deal about the school. This is especially true if the students give a speech. What are they grateful for? Are they sad or relieved to be leaving? Both emotions are normal, but which one stands out more? Many a parent has been sold on a school because of witnessing a touching graduation ceremony.

Meet with the Head of School. Admissions officers give you a plethora of information, but the heads of school are the true captains of the ship. Their personalities speak volumes about the school. How do you feel after meeting with them? Do they seem genuine? Do they share your philosophy and values? Would you trust them with your child's education?

Look at financials and demographics. With an uncertain economy, a school's financial stability is important, especially you have more than one child. Ask to see the school's enrollment numbers for last five years, as well as any budget numbers you think important. For instance, what percentage of the student body receives financial aid? How heavily does the school rely on fundraising ? How do the numbers in Kindergarten and first grade compare to those in eighth? Some numbers are confidential, but most are not, and transparency is a plus. Also, ask about the demographics of the student body. Do families span income brackets? The religious spectrum? Do they come from a variety of neighborhoods? Parents differ on what peer groups they want for their children, but this will allow you to make an informed decision.

Ask about alumni. What happens to alumni after they graduate, in the short and long run? Most schools are proud to tell you about their graduates' many achievements, and often include information about this on their websites.

Read the mission statement. What topics come first? Excellence in academics? Commitment to mitzvot? Menschlechkeit? Is anything glaringly missing? Long range planning committees, writers and PR professionals put a lot of thought into a mission statement. As with the Torah, every word counts.

Do the five-second test. Open up a school's website, look at it for five seconds, and then close it. What do you remember? This test is often conducted by marketing professionals to help organizations hone their websites because the average time people spend on a webpage is 5.23 seconds. What you remember about a site says a great deal about it. Was it up to date? Were photos mostly of younger children? Was there a sense of joy and vibrancy? Does this school seem prestigious and academic, or loving and nurturing? Trust your gut; a website is a school's "shingle." If the administration doesn't take the time to work at it, then that, too, says something about their overall savvy--or lack thereof.

Listen to word of mouth. This is the most authentic way to find out about a school, and it's usually the strongest tool for recruitment--or attrition. Ask for the names of current parents you might contact and make those phone calls.

Check a school’s social media. Look Internet outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, or a blog. Social media incorporates not only the school’s official posts, but those of their greater web community. Scan through the photos and conversations to get a more unfiltered feel for the atmosphere and culture of the school.

Talk to students. If you follow only one tip from this list, let it be this: Talk to the students you pass in the hallways. Stop them when they're not running late to a class or are surrounded by a posse, and tell them you're considering sending your child to this school. Then ask, "How do you like [insert school name]?" Most of them will be thrilled to talk to you, and what they say on the spur of the moment is usually more telling than anything else you could find out on a school tour or website. If they like school, that will show through.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the July 2012 issue of The Jewish Advocate of Boston. Reprinted with permission.

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