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On touring high schools

Because my child is rather unbelievably already in grade 8, in the past couple of months we’ve seen, I think, twelve high schools, both public and private. The tours (and the schools) have varied from appalling to excellent. During the appalling ones I spent my time thinking about what makes a tour (and a school) good.

Things that are promising

  • The principal/admissions person/greeter at the door breezes past parents to greet the child first. Correct — it’s her schooling and her ultimate decision. We’re just along for the ride.
  • A minimum of adults speak — they trust the kids (of all ages) and let them do their thing. Bonus points if the female student president is clearly gay, ESL, beloved by all students, and intending a career as an engineer. And is followed by a grade 9 who’s been at the school for perhaps six weeks and might say anything at all about her experience.
  • Show me what you do instead of telling me.
  • Talk about what you do with kids while they are there instead of telling me all the things they do after they leave you. High school is not just a waiting room for university.
  • Talk about your teaching in terms of the kids’ accomplishments (“last year the kids won x robotics competition” or “we have three IB Biology classes because so many kids signed up”), not in terms of your own accomplishments and ego (“we win so many teaching awards!”).
  • Sell the experience your school offers. Tell me what you’re good at and which niche you fill. Don’t spend all your time talking about how hard it is to get in. Show me the stats and move on.
  • Talk about fit. Your school may be a great school for somebody else but not for my kid, and that’s fine, and we should all be clear about that and comfortable with it. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Stick to the niche you (hopefully) told me about.
  • Demonstrate your culture, don’t just talk about it. If you say you’re inclusive, let me see and talk to kids of all different kinds.
  • Show me that your student supports are proactive and not just reactive. Do you wait until kids are in trouble to offer help? Yeah, not good enough — why did you let them get into that state in the first place if your supports are so excellent and you know your kids so well?
  • Provide a program for the tour to tell me what will happen when (and, ideally, where, and even more ideally, in advance of my arrival) and who will speak.

Things that are not promising

  • You get the day wrong on your website so we miss your tour, and you do nothing but post a “sorry!” note on the door.
  • You’re very expensive but only ~80% of parents think you’re providing “good or excellent” education. Yet you trumpet this rather low figure.
  • Nobody is at the front door to welcome and guide visitors. If it’s a tour day, let me know I’m in the right place and at the right door by posting someone there.
  • There is nobody anywhere to guide visitors. Having one person inside who points vaguely down the hallway when the room I need to find is in fact upstairs, around the corner and down another long hallway isn’t helpful.
  • Your PowerPoint is a big series of “how not to use PowerPoint” examples. During one such horrorshow I leaned over to M and said “soon he’ll say ‘I know this is too small to read, but…'” and it was the very next slide.
  • Nobody seems to know who should be speaking and what they should be saying. They repeat some things and leave other important things out and argue about who is going to talk next or forget people entirely. Don’t waste my time or my kid’s.
  • Principal fails to introduce herself. Who is that mysterious person talking?
  • No students speak OR students who speak are obviously not reading their own words. I don’t want to hear schmaltzy prepared statements, I want to hear kids talk about their real experiences.
  • How do you teach programming? “Oh, we have separate groups for boys and girls”.
  • All you can find to hype about your school comes down to “we have nice grounds and are really into nepotism”.
  • Students all look the same (white, thin, able-bodied). I don’t care if your diversity is multi-ethnic, involving various forms of ability/disability, or more of an international-student thing, but it’s not healthy to have none at all.
  • Endless talk about hard, hard work, with regular all-nighters being required (in high school?! WTF) and university-level work — but only an OSSD at the end. What’s the point of pushing kids that hard if they don’t even get any advance university credit for it? Bizarre.
  • You do all kinds of advanced science — but hey, you’re balanced because you go to the opera once! Yeah, no. Those kids aren’t going to have the writing and textual interpretation skills they’ll need later. Trust me on this; I’ve TA’d for science classes.
  • “This is our pool and our fitness room, but we never get to use it really”. Fancy facilities are lovely (although utterly unnecessary), but not if they’re only there for show.
  • The student band is really, really bad. Sharp, flat and off time all at once. Don’t make me want to cover my ears and run away!

Fundamentally, it comes down to culture: how you treat people who take your tour tells me quite a bit about your attitude towards the kids. You’re demonstrating for me — and more importantly, for my daughter — what her next four years might be like. Don’t hedge, apologize or weasel — show us what you’ve got!

One Response to “On touring high schools”

Kaerynne says:

why can I not like specific points MULTIPLE times. Loving this post.