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

A Look at School Climate


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.

Look for a Climate Hospitable to Education

In the first article in this series, we took a look at how effective leadership teams prioritize student learning and achievement.

But right behind that is the emphasis on the school environment.  When we look at a school, we want to look for signs of a healthy school environment for both teachers and students.

First, it is important to take note of the overall cleanliness and orderliness of the school.  During one of our school visits, one school stood out immediately because of its physical condition.  I noticed dirty floors, paint that had not been refreshed in many years, and disorganized and shabby classrooms.

Although we spoke to school leaders, observed classes, and spoke to staff, the physical condition of the school was such a turn off that I immediately crossed it off my list in my mind.  As it turned out, my interactions with various stakeholders in the school only confirmed my initial feelings.

I will not send my child to a school where it appears that the staff take no pride in their workplace. How would they possibly invest their energy in my child when they don't invest it in themselves first? The condition and climate of the building was an immediate red flag.

After taking note of the physical condition of the schools you visit, be on the lookout for other basics such as safety and good order.

Some questions that you may want to consider looking for (or explicitly asking) regarding school safety and order include:

  • Is the building locked?  
  • How do you gain entry?  
  • Who greets you, and what are check-in procedures like?  
  • How are emergency drills conducted?  
  • What accommodations and supervision procedures are in place to ensure the safety of my child with a disability throughout the day?

Throughout your school visits, there are other indicators of schools with healthy environments and good culture.  While less tangible than orderliness and safety, they are equally important.

How do the staff that you come into contact with interact with one another.  

If you see many closed doors, this can point to a sense of teacher isolation.  This isolation can indicate a culture of negativity, resistance to change, and a general lack of internal supports.

Look for a school that screams "We!" versus "Me!"

Open doors, large meeting spaces, teacher teams, and scheduled team meetings foster a collaborative culture where the focus is always on the improvement of instruction across content areas and throughout the school.

These teams are referred to in many cases as PLCs - Professional Learning Communities - and they exist in the best schools.  

They can be formal or informal, but they allow teachers to constantly communicate with one another in a student-centered, ongoing dialogue that is the real driving force for student achievement and school-wide innovation.

Look at how staff interact with one another.  Even the snapshot that you get on your visit can be quite telling.

Do people appear to be upbeat?  Are they welcoming to you and to one another?  Do they eagerly engage you and one another in discussions about current lessons and programs in their classrooms?

Most importantly, how do they treat the children?  What qualities are important to you, and how are they reflected in teacher - student interactions?

Finally, take time to look for evidence of parent involvement, or to ask about it directly.

The best schools make it a priority to engage families as equal partners within the larger school community.  

Is there a Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO)?  Is it active?  How often does it meet, and what variety of activities do they participate in?

In what other ways are parents and families involved in the life of the school?

Some PTSOs will host fundraisers, variety shows, or even go so far as to rent out a movie theater once per month - with tickets free to all family members - so that families can enjoy a day out in a sensory friendly and nonjudgemental environment.  


In the schools that you visit, many of the things discussed in this post will be easy to observe.  Some, less so.  The best thing to do it ask - do not go home feeling that you missed an opportunity to have something addressed.  

The best of the schools will welcome your questions and take the time to have an open discussion about all of them.

Sometimes, what you see and hear related to the climate of the school will be the "make-or-break" when it comes to your decision.  Consider all of the elements very carefully, and then use that information to help guide your selection.

Good luck, and please feel free to comment or ask questions in the field below.


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