On an initial visit, the parent will probably meet with the director of admissions at a private school, or a principal or guidance counselor at a public school. Most of the latter aren't accustomed to the concept of school shopping, and parents may need to push harder to get the information they want. Private schools are more likely to roll out the red carpet because of a little thing called tuition. (You pay it to them.) Price tags range from $1,000 to $2,000 for a Catholic or evangelical Christian academy and to $20,000 a year or more for the most highfalutin college-prep boarding school. As parents make their rounds, they should seek answers to these questions:
Who runs the school?: Most private schools are nonprofit organizations that have a chief executive who reports to a board of trustees. You should be sure to ask who is on that board. Is it made up of parents? Community leaders? Public schools often have an elected board that hires a superintendent, who in turn oversees the principals of each building. It pays to ask about that school's leadership stability, too. It could be a bad sign if the superintendent's office has a revolving door.
What is the school profile?: Most private schools and many public ones produce a document that includes test-score data and a description of what students do in the next phase of life. High school profile sheets generally include information on college placement.
How structured is the learning environment?: Some schools have exacting standards in everything from curriculum to dress. Others encourage individuality. Some teach the old-fashioned way; others promote collaborative learning and hands-on experience.
What about communication with parents?: Are there policies that require teachers to initiate contact when a student is having academic difficulty? A good school will communicate often about academic progress, upcoming events and opportunities for parents to get involved.
What are the placement policies?: If the school has a great honors program, it won't do your child any good if he's stuck in the slow track. How does the school handle varying ability levels? Before you sign on the dotted line, get a clear idea of where your child will be placed.
If everything checks out, try to arrange for your child to spend a day shadowing a student. Most private schools and some public ones can accommodate.
One thing is sure, school choice in public education is growing fast. At the beginning of 1996, 252 charter schools were operating in ten states. By the end of that year, 15 other states and the District of Columbia had plans for charter schools. A year later, 428 charter schools are operating, and their numbers are likely to grow substantially over the next few years. Parents need to keep their ears to the ground to find out what is available in their community, as the offerings vary greatly from state to state.