It’s important to visit a school to get a sense of its atmosphere, tone and philosophy. Call the parent coordinator to find out when there are tours. For a quick video on navigating elementary school tours, check out our video
Close to home or far away?
Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school may be difficult, particularly in the winter. If they get sick during the day, who will take them home? What about playdates after school, or on the weekend? That said, many parents are willing to trade a short commute for a superior education. For information about transportation, see the Department of Education Office of Pupil Transportation.
Are the children happy?
You want a school where children love to spend their days. The nicest schools make you slightly envious of your child. You'll wish you were 5 years old again so you could start kindergarten. The physical look of the classroom will tell you a lot. And so will the sounds.
Culture and tone
You don’t want anarchy, and you don’t want a police state. You don’t want total silence, and you don’t want an incessant din. Look for classrooms in which kids are engaged in their work—not staring out the window or wandering aimlessly.
The principal is the most important person in the building. The philosophy may be traditional, progressive, or a mixture of the two, but the best schools have teachers and a principal with similar goals and a common vision of how to reach them. Avoid schools with warring factions, or a mishmash of ideologies where teachers shift for themselves. What good principals have in common is an abiding respect for the pupils in their care.
Good schools don’t rely exclusively on textbooks to teach reading, math, history and science. They use “real” books you might read for pleasure including picture books, novels, books about historical events, biographies and science discovery books. In the classrooms, each child may well be reading a different book, depending on his or her ability and interest. If everyone in a class spends most of the day reading the same textbook, a lot of kids may be bored.
You should see examples of children’s writing in the very youngest grades. Good schools ask children to keep journals and to write their own stories using their experiences and their imagination. Watch out for schools where most of the writing is material copied from the blackboard, or where every child’s essay is almost exactly the same.
Little kids have trouble with the abstract concepts of mathematics. They need something concrete they can see and hold. Good schools provide children with small objects to count with, called manipulatives, such as specially designed small blocks or rods. Little kids use them to learn how to add and subtract; older kids use them to calculate decimals or multiply fractions.
History, geography and science
Look for evidence of history, geography and science. It may include classrooms with live animals, plants, fish tanks, and materials such as magnets and electric motors. Look for globes, maps and atlases; timelines with dates in history; and projects such as a study of the Brooklyn Bridge that may combine lessons in engineering and history.
Concerts, museums, the zoo, the beach—all can be incorporated into what children are studying in the classroom. Trips expand children’s general knowledge of the world, build their vocabularies by showing them new things, and indirectly improve their reading skills.
Playground and cafeteria
Many schools that are good in other respects give up the cafeteria and playground as lost causes. The cafeteria food is terrible, the din is deafening and the playground is chaotic. Some schools manage to rein in the bedlam. They have children eat family-style in their classrooms, or recess can be a time for organized games. Very few schools manage this, so don’t get frazzled trying to find one. And perhaps noisy lunchrooms are preferable to the gloomy silent lunches that a few schools insist upon. But we wish more schools would let children out to play in cold weather—rather than having them watch videos in the auditorium.