In her quest to obtain the most complete information about a school, one parent dressed in old clothes and chatted up the janitors, reports a former school principal who now heads a state association.
"She must have liked what she heard, because her son enrolled with us," said George McVay, executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education (VCPE).
For parents who don't want to prowl around furnace rooms, other ways exist to ensure a private or parochial school is the best possible fit for your child — and vice versa. All, however, require face-to-face time.
Timothy McNiff, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Arlington, said that he feels open houses and other visits can help parents get a good sense of the school culture. "You can always look at empirical data, such as test scores, and that's all important, but I think if you'd really like to know about the culture of the school, that requires interaction with people," he said.
Almost 50 parochial schools are within the diocese. While all use the same curriculum, the schools' internal culture varies in ways it takes a visit to detect, McNiff said. For example, Paul VI High School in Fairfax has a small special program for students with such developmental disabilities as Down syndrome, and the 240-child student body of St. Charles Borromeo School in Arlington represents 65 different nationalities.
BEFORE GOING to an open house, parents might prepare by visiting the school's Web site and calling to obtain the school's viewbook (a brochure containing all pertinent information) and a curriculum guide. "If you've done your homework really well, you may not have that many questions to ask" at an open house, said Pamela Tedeschi, an educational consultant with Georgia K. Irvin & Associates, Chevy Chase, Md.
If questions remain, Tedeschi recommends they be important to all in the group, such as the availability of foreign language classes or musical programs.
"Personal questions, such as if your child has learning difficulties or is an advanced reader," should be asked in private to allow for the most honesty from parents and school staff, she said.
Open houses also allow parents to meet and mingle with parents of other children in the school, which can help gauge how a school's culture will fit with a family's, she said.
If it's not possible to meet other parents in person, talking to them may help parents get a sense of whether their family fits with the school's culture. While school administrators will often pass on phone numbers for school parents, it may be a better idea to obtain a class list and then choose parents at random to get a less-biased point of view, McVay said. The parent in the janitor's rags was just taking that concept one step further.
OTHER QUESTIONS to ask include:
* "What high schools and colleges do graduates go to?" For a middle school, this would be high schools; for high schools, it would be colleges.
* "Is the school accredited?" In Virginia, the Virginia Council for Private Education (VCPE) acts as an accrediting clearinghouse, monitoring accrediting agencies (with separate ones for Catholic, Lutheran, Christian and nonsectarian schools, among others) and reporting what schools have been accredited to the state.
About 300 private and parochial schools in the state are accredited, said McVay. "You could have a good school that's not accredited, but there's no guarantee," he said.
* "What is your expectation of me, the parent, if I have a child enrolled?" This can provide an opening for the school to discuss any volunteering or academic expectations, McNiff said. If a child has had difficulties in school in the past, the parent may use this opening to discuss working with the school should the difficulties resurface, he said.
* "Can I have a copy of the student handbook?" "In private and parochial education, the handbook becomes a contract," McNiff said. "It states what the expectations are, and you want to make sure that everyone has a meeting of the minds on the dress code, for example."
SCHOOL VISITS should not stop at the open house. Tedeschi pointed out that a tour while school is in session can be more useful than an evening or weekend open house. "You can't tell if the children are engaged [during an open house] ... during the school day, you can see whether the children seem respectful to each other and what the teaching style is like," she said.
Similarly, McNiff reminds parents they can ask to sit and audit a class, to get a sense of what their child's daily routine might be like.