How to make the most of a school visit

School visits and open houses can be exciting—and a little overwhelming. To help you get the most out of your time at a school, those in the know at some of Chicago’s top schools share some great tips you can use for any grade level.

Do learn from current students

“See if students feel comfortable and seem excited,” says Karen Fisher, director of enrollment and financial aid at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. She encourages parents to talk with current students if possible, paying particular attention to how they talk about their peers and teachers.

Anique Seldon, director of admissions, marketing and communications at the British International School of Chicago South Loop, agrees. She recommends that parents ask current students how they feel and focus on what they’re learning, rather than the teaching, “The teaching could be incredible, but if the children are not taking anything away from it, it’s not a successful program,” she explains.

Seldon says that parents can often learn the most by visiting the grade that their child is currently in. “Often parents are looking at the next step, but they will better understand the overall program when they can make a direct comparison,” she says.

Don’t forget the “other” parts of the school

Parents focus on classrooms, as they should, but miss the opportunity to see other parts of the school. Lisa Zimmer, head of early childhood at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, encourages parents to check out the library and make sure that it “reveals a love of reading.”

Hallways can also be important places. She recommends looking for classwork proudly displayed.

Fisher suggests making a point to see the art and music classrooms and as much of the school campus as possible to get a sense of a school.

Do make the most of the admissions staff

Many parents don’t always share their questions or concerns with the school admissions staff, and that means they could be missing out on valuable information.

“If there are any doubts, that’s when families should feel comfortable talking with admissions,” Seldon says. “That’s when I can help by putting them in touch with another family who felt the same way or were looking at similar schools, and I can help talk through those issues.”

Don’t focus solely on academics

While academics are obviously essential, when visiting “it’s also very important to ask about what happens outside of the classroom, from residence life to athletics to spiritual/character development to extracurricular activities to campus safety,” says Paul Borens of St. John’s Northwestern Leadership Academies.

“Extracurriculars are important,” agrees Seldon, who notes that students are still exploring and discovering what their passions will be.

Do include your child in the visit and talk before you go

“Involving the child in the visit is very important,” Borens says. “Having an open discussion about why the visit is being scheduled and getting agreement from both sides goes a long way to a successful visit and potential enrollment.”

How a child reacts to a school environment can give parents valuable insight into whether a school is the right fit. Fisher advises parents listen to their child’s take on a school and to try to get below the surface reaction.

Don’t ignore your gut

Trust your instincts. While your gut shouldn’t be your sole source of information about a school, don’t be afraid to trust it, either.

“You’ll know you’ve found the right school when you get ‘that feeling,’” Zimmer says.

Tips on finding the best fit for your child

The school experts agree on these tips.

  • You know your child best. Use their unique learning style and personality traits as guides on your school search.
  • Remember that schools are not one size fits all. What is a perfect fit for one child may not be for another.
  • Be clear on your family values and ideals. Pay attention to the mission statements of the schools you visit. Which ones match best? Which schools are clearly putting those values into action?
  • Ask current parents at the school what they love most about the school community.

This story appeared in the November 2019 special school advertising section. Read the rest of the issue.

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