Most schools offer tours in the fall. Some districts offer middle school choice fairs in the evening or on a weekend where you can meet the principals and students of a number of schools. Here’s what to look for:
Quality of teaching
Try to look beyond the school's physical space to the quality of teaching. Look at the kids' faces. Are they interested and engaged? Bored? Staring off vacantly into space? Are you interested in what the teacher is saying?
Do the kids' books look interesting? Look for rich classroom libraries: novels and biographies, science discovery books, colorful atlases and original source materials such as diaries and historical documents. The more books the better—in the classroom as well as in the school library. Schools that rely too heavily on textbooks are dull.
Quality of students' work
Are the walls bare, or are there lots of bulletin boards with kids' work? Look for examples of children's writing. Is the quality of work good? Are the art projects imaginative?
What's the noise level in the school? Chaos, of course, is bad news, but so is total silence. Kids should be talking to other kids and to grown-ups. Even more important, grown-ups should be talking to one another. In a good middle school, teachers meet regularly to discuss everything from curriculum to individual students' progress and problems.
The Q&A period after the tour is a good time to get a feel for the philosophy and atmosphere of a school. You'll get a more revealing answer if you ask open-ended questions such as "How do you approach behavior?" rather than "Is your school safe?" Ask whether parents may visit the school and classes during the year. A school that welcomes parents is not afraid of what you might see on an impromptu visit.
- Make sure your child is eligible to apply. Some schools limit admissions to children living in their district. Many gifted programs and selective middle schools will not accept applications from children who do not meet cut-off scores on standardized 4th-grade tests.
- Involve your child. If there's a tour, consider taking your child out of school to accompany you. After all, the child will have to live with the final decision.
- Brace for the tests and interviews. Some schools require a test or audition. Some interview kids. Essays and auditions can be nerve-wracking, but some kids view them as a chance to show off.