8 Years ago, we were just starting to think about schools for our daughter and what we would want to to do, so I came up with a bunch of questions for parents looking at the school for their children.
We have lived in 4 different communities, with great Public, Private, Community Jewish, Orthodox Jewish, and Schechter Schools. When you live in a community that has many options, it is often hard to choose what is best for you. We have 4 children and they all different and have different needs for their learning. The one thing I have learned is no school is perfect. There are things that are great and things that are not great about every school.
It could be that an orthodox school or a yeshiva might not be the right fit for an orthodox family, a community day school might not offer the religious experience you are looking for, but public school and a tutor might be a perfect fit. It could be that the orthodox school has the right feel, but is missing a lot of what you want and the community school doesn’t have the religious components you are looking for and it will be difficult. There are so many choices and what works for one child might not work for all of your children. I also think it’s important to re-evaluate continuously. If there are real issues, you should re-evaluate that year. If not, the best times to re-evaluate are at transition points like Middle or High School. If there is a change in the structure of learning, like starting in 4th grade they separate girls and boys for learning, then that is a good transition point that might not be typical, but is just as important. It’s important to look at the last grade that is at the school in case you stay the entire time, but the makeup by the time you hit that grade will be very different, so really focus on now and the amount of years your child will be in that division.
Before you even meet with the school or call parents you know with kids currently enrolled. Make a list of what is important for you and then use that to figure out the questions to ask. What is it that you want to get out of the school? Do you want small class sizes? Are stem courses really important? Is daily Tefillah (prayer) important? How long do you want them to provide for davening (praying)? Is it important for them to have strong Jewish text skills? Do you want to have a community of other religious families? Is the school’s stance on politics and Israel align with your stances? Once you have your priorities in order, it will be much easier to evaluate whether the school meets those needs.
I have updated the list I started and added questions that friends of mine have suggested or that I felt would have been good to ask. Some of these won’t be appropriate to ask, but give you a starting point. Some of these are based upon my experiences and how parents have reacted:
What is your handwriting program?
What reading program are you using?
What is your science program like?
Besides smart boards, how is technology integrated into the curriculum in each grade?
What kinds of project-based learning occurs in the elementary school?
What kinds of blended-learning opportunities are there and for what ages?
What kinds of real world skills are offered to a student?
At the end of 5th grade, what skills does a student have?
If the school goes until 12, ask what skills they have at the end of each school (MS & HS)?
What is the estimated class size for each grade?
What is the maximum class size?
How many teachers & assistants are assigned to a classroom for each grade?
What kinds of music does a student learn throughout elementary school?
What kinds of art does the school offer?
How much time does the average student spend on homework?
Does the school assign homework?
Do you teach about evolution?
What is a typical school day like?
What are the hours of school?
Sometimes schools encourage certain behaviors early on even in general studies and it might not even be something that they think about. I would ask two questions:
- For younger girls, I would also ask about how you support building toys or other toys that girls might not typically play with?
- For younger boys, I might ask about imaginative play and whether boys are allowed to dress up?
What subjects are done entirely in Hebrew for each grade?
What are the Hebrew language programs?
What is Tefillah like in the Elementary school?
If you have a daughter and are looking at an orthodox school and want them to have opportunities, you might want to simply ask if they pass the Torah to the women’s side of the Mehitza?
Is there an opportunity for Women’s Tefillah?
How do you deal with theology questions like Does God exist? Or who wrote the Bible?
Is Talmud taught at the school and if so, is it taught differently to girls and boys?
Do your 5th/8th/12th graders finish the year wanting more Jewish experiences or tired/resistant to of all of it?
What level of Jewish knowledge do you expect from the parents?
How do you convey Jewish values?
How does the school teach about Israel?
What kinds of enrichment programs do you offer?
Are there any extended day programs or early drop-off?
Are there any sports offered in the elementary school and if so, what grade do they begin in?
Any differences based upon gender?
How do you deal with same sex parents, is the school inclusive?
What kinds of opportunities does the school offer for families from different areas to interact with one another?
How does the school handle birthday parties held on Shabbat or that have non-kosher food?
What’s the dress code like? Is is focused just on girls and their skirt length and sleeves?
Is there a uniform?
How do they engage the parent body?
When is in-school presentations (when we can go back to those)? Are they all during the day?
Does the school deal with gender identity and how does it do this?
How are the faculty and staff treated?
Does the school practice social promotion (advance to the next grade no matter what) and grade inflation?
What kind of community would you describe the school as? Do you feel like you have a community where people of all different Jewish knowledge levels and religious backgrounds interact? Do you see it as a community looking out for one another for deaths in family, births of children, etc.?
What supports are offered?
Are there supports for those struggling with a dual-language curriculum?
Is there a change between how support is offered between grade levels?
What kinds of support do you provide for the inevitable fighting that goes on between groups of friends?
How do you handle bullying?
For older kids, I found it a very important part of the process to get my daughter involved in looking at Middle School. We went to several open houses before my diagnosis and she definitely noticed things at some of the schools that I did not. We noticed that the local public middle school had computers in the lunch room. The all girls school we looked at had really short skirts and they were singing Christian songs as part of the introduction. While the Stem and music programs looked amazing, she was uncomfortable with the lack of openness by everyone to us as an observant family.
COVID-19 Specific Questions & Hybrid Learning
This year is very different when looking for school. We are looking for our daughter who is going into pre-K and our daughter who will be going into middle school. And have 6 months of online learning, my kids current teachers have really done a fantastic job innovating. I can’t speak to the High School, but both my daughter’s middle school teachers and my son and daughter’s lower school teachers have really gone above and beyond to help support executive functioning, innovative teaching, and really supporting the kids. I noticed that my son was writing his Hebrew backwards and I emailed the teacher and she met with him to help him sort it out. My daughter’s English teacher sends out weekly agenda’s with everything they are working on for the week and when everything is due. He also follows up to check in if anything is missed. But they will remain mostly online for now and I am not sure hybrid learning will work yet for the kids. Decide what the priority is for you kid and then ask those questions. I hope that next year we won’t still be virtual, but you should plan that many schools will not be fully back in person by next fall and even if they are there will be the possibility that at some point that they will need to quickly transition part or all of the school to online learning.
- If you do not want your child to be in a classroom, how will the school give your child a good experience at home? What technology have they invested in to give the same experience to both students in the classroom and those at home?
- Will the school support families who choose not to send their kids to school?
- What kinds of changes have teachers/administrators made to adapt to online learning?
- How does the school deal with zoom fatigue?
- Even if schools aren’t ready to return, you might need to return to work full-time, will the school’s schedule work for you if you have to return full time?
- Which students are prioritized for returning at the school?
- Have any general school policies or school cultures changed? And does the school plan to implement them back in the future? This could be school plays, graduations, siyyums, field trips, or even home work.
- What ways are you building community during COVID?
I’d love to hear if you have any other questions to add to this. Hopefully this gets you started on your evaluation.