The new normal: five questions to ask in today’s school search

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?

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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?

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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?

orig_photo403590_3945024As 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?

orig_photo351621_3607062A 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?

orig_photo452448_4463283A 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

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