Visiting Out of District Schools? These are some things to look for. Part One: School Leadership

The School Leadership Team


In this series, we examine five critical areas, or "look for's," for parents who are exploring the possibility of an out of district placement for a child with a disability.

Going out of district is a big decision, and not one to be taken lightly.  Oftentimes public school districts have rigorous, well-funded, sustainable programs with expert teachers and access to a wide variety of professional development and other resources that are appropriate for most students with special needs.  For those students, remaining in public schools with specific IEP accommodations is usually the best option.

However, a growing number of students require intensive services that are best delivered by private schools with expert knowledge and practices in special education.

For some parents, even considering going out of district can be difficult.  There is a lot of emotion tied up in raising an exceptional child, and it can be an daunting to learn all of the new vocabulary and to get a sense of the inner workings of school districts and special services programs.

But if you have gotten to the point where you think that your child's needs will be best and most appropriately met by an out of district program, you must conduct these out of district school visits with a critical eye.

Before you go see these school visits, you must prepare.  It is absolutely necessary to come up with a series of questions about the school, its teachers, philosophy of education, special services and programs, school culture, and parent involvement. There will also be other questions specific to your child and their possible placement in the school that you will create based on the needs of your child and your family.

If you don't have it all written down, you will forget.  And the first visit to a school may be your only visit and your only chance to ask these questions and to get clear, specific answers.

So, create a scripted series of questions.  Create a checklist.  Bring a notebook.  Write down everything, even if you think it may be inconsequential.  It may turn out to be an important piece of the puzzle and something you are glad that you learned about.

Creating a Shared Vision of Success 

In Part One of this series we will consider the role of the school leadership team.  They are the first - and possibly the only - staff members at the out of district school that you will interact with, and will likely be the ones giving you the tour of the facility and to conduct informal interviews with you and a formal intake for your child should things progress that far.

If you do not have a lot of experience with school leaders, here are some things you need to know - and hopefully the information will help you to generate some points of discussion and specific questions for when you begin your out of district visits.

It is the job of the school leadership team, the principal and assistant principals, to set the conditions for learning.  Effective school leaders need to be experts in setting these conditions and institutionalizing systems to tie the operations of their schools to improved student achievement.

Indeed, leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all of the factors that effect student learning in schools.

As a parent, you need to have a sense that the school leadership team you will meet can do two things:

  • Articulate their high expectations for student achievement
  • Demonstrate that their staff is being shaped by, and can talk plainly about, a clear plan for academic success for all students.

The stakes could not be higher.  There is an increasing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.   For students in special education who require the intense services that typically only an out of district placement can provide, the disadvantages are even greater.

Those disadvantages play out, as students with disabilities who are not given every possible advantage, spearheaded by knowledgable parents and an effective school leadership team, over the course of a lifetime leaving children unprepared to function as capable adults.  This means low paying, low skilled jobs in an increasingly competitive and automated job market, and limited potential for a living a fulfilling life.

This gap must decrease - and for children with disabilities, the time to start decreasing that gap to the greatest extent possible is now!

In schools, that means a leadership team must be able to spell out their high standards and rigorous social and academic learning goals, according to a Vanderbilt University research team.

"The research literature over the last quarter century has consistently supported the notion that having high expectations for all, including clear and public standards, is one key to closing the achievement gap between advantaged less advantaged students and for raising the overall achievement of students," they note.

In summary, when you begin your out of district visits, make sure that your questions are clearly and deliberately answered.  Ask, specifically, about goals and the shared vision for success.  Ask as many staff as you can what school goals are, what their personal goals are, and what expectations they have for student achievement.

The results will be telling, and will help you to find a fit for your child.

Good luck, and please comment below regarding your out of district experiences.

Continue on to Part II here.


Porter A., Murphy J. et. al. Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education: Technical Manual, Version 1.0, Vanderbilt University, 2008, 13.  

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