Written by Porter’s Head of School Katherine G. Windsor, ED.D
Having served as head of Miss Porter’s School since 2008, I am often asked for my insights on school leadership and school selection by parents who are seeking the best schools for their children. When I counsel friends and colleagues, I encourage them to ask the same five questions of every school they are considering, along with any others specific to their child, to provide a consistent meter for assessment.
These five questions provide a guide to understanding the history, financial health, and priorities of an institution and thereby the foundation upon which the student experience will be built. A modern evolution of traditional questions often posed during school searches will shed light on the values and standards of the school.
TRADITIONAL QUESTION: How many students are in the student body?
TODAY’S QUESTION: What is your optimal enrollment?
Every school should be able to articulate their optimal enrollment – the number of students that is the sweet spot for the execution of their program at its highest level without impacting class size, connection or availability of resources. Look for schools that know and understand this num ber and its implications. This question can also be phrased as “What is your maximum enrollment?” in order to determine if a school is struggling to reach or plans to exceed their optimal enrollment, as both scenarios can prove challenging.
TRADITIONAL QUESTION: How many of your faculty members hold advanced degrees?
TODAY’S QUESTION: How are you able to hire and retain a superior faculty?
Today’s classroom should look very different than the ones parents experienced whenthey were students. Independent schools strive to hire exceptional teachers who exhibit high professional standards in their respective subject areas, but how does the school encourage ongoing learning by teachers? What resources are teachers able to access for technology training and integration, professional development or advanced studies? Look for a school that is not afraid to invest in its teachers, but is afraid not to!
TRADITIONAL QUESTION: Is your school diverse?
TODAY’S QUESTION: How do you define diversity?
As head of a New England school with 27 American states and 28 countries represented by citizenship, dual citizenship, and students living abroad in our student body, I can assure you that a school’s location should not compete with its ability to offer a wide variety of viewpoints and experiences. The many voices that make up our conversations inside and outside of the classroom offer daily exposure to global issues in a way that mere textbooks and lesson plans cannot. Students should be encouraged to appreciate their own uniqueness and that of others. Ideally, schools will understand that diversity encompasses a spectrum of racial and ethnic ancestry, culture, socioeconomics, religion, primary language, sexual orientation, country of origin, interests, talents and abilities. A diverse and inclusive community strengthens a school and all who are part of it (students, faculty, staff, administrators, and board of trustees).
TRADITIONAL QUESTION: What is your endowment?
TODAY’S QUESTION: What is your endowment per student?
A school with a robust endowment offers confidence to prospective families, but the endowment per student is what truly identifies the potential resources available to impact the student experience. For example, a $50 million endowment offers more to a school with 200 students than 400, as the amount the school accesses in its annual draw from endowment will be dispersed within a smaller population. The best gift a school can give its students, and the best thank you they can give to donors, is to use endowment dollars to ensure the work of their school in perpetuity, so note that the careful stewardship and upward trajectory of a school’s endowment over the years speaks to responsible administration of resources.
TRADITIONAL QUESTION: What is your matriculation list? What is your college placement list?
TODAY’S QUESTION: What will it mean to be a graduate of your school?
A school’s mission defines the goals the institution has for its student body and thereby their graduates. In your school visits, inquire as to how the school’s mission resonates with the community and how it is implemented in instructional and extracurricular offerings. The true measure of a school’s worth is not only found on its matriculation list, but rather in the essential skills learned by students while attending that will shape their personal, professional and academic experiences going forward. Graduates are able to express their confidence in the work of the school through their philanthropy, with strong alumni giving indicating graduates support the school’s value proposition.
Today’s questions differ only slightly from their more traditional counterparts but they can offer more specific insights as you consider the educational landscape. While these questions are useful to gather information and data, all school visits should include a review of fit and feeling as well. Will your artist child be a match for a school that prioritizes athletics as a way to build community? Will your service-oriented child be able to give back to a community that is more remote in its location? Does your child feel welcomed, comfortable, and wanted during the school visit? Is he or she appreciated as is and for whom he or she may become? Do all students have equal access and opportunity to earn or run for leadership positions?
Mere data cannot guarantee your child’s happiness or success, but a reliance on comfort may limit your understanding of the school’s offerings and overall health. Ready your successful school search by heading into it with a resolution to trust your instincts…and verify the facts. With your final list of potential schools now narrowed, you will be able to then land on your ultimate selection once acceptances are in hand by considering the question that will continue to endure: What is the school’s mission and how does it influence the experience of an individual student? You can feel confident in your final decision by selecting the school whose answer resonates most meaningfully with you and your child.
Originally published in Independent School Guide 2015-2016