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What to look for: some tips for taking a tour

A school tour is part of many parents' testimony about finding the right school. But taking a tour is more than just following a guide. Seasoned tourists know what to look for and what questions to ask. Here are some things that you should consider.

CURRICULUM: Administrators may throw classroom lingo and fast figures at you when explaining the curriculum. It is okay to ask for explanations in layman's terms. If each classroom has five computers, that's good. But inquire as to how they are used _ for business or pleasure? If a private school doesn't go through 12th grade, are there plans to add grade levels? Find out whether the curriculum will change and if the school has a plan for helping students who have difficulties with the lessons. Ask about progress reports or other ways that the school monitors students' progress. Find out what services are available to help your child succeed.

CLASS SIZE: No matter the number of students, it is most important to observe how a teacher handles the class. How much attention does the teacher give to students? Is there an aide to help? Does the class get disruptive while the teacher works with one or a group of students?

DISCIPLINE: Asking for the suspension rate is fine. But it is more important to investigate the school's procedure for solving problems. Besides reviewing the school's discipline policies, probe further. Find out if the guidance counselors or assistant principals actually help students work through problems before something serious happens.

TEACHERS: Instructors have varying levels of education and specialties. It's okay to ask about their experience. Also, talk to administrators and instructors about courses they take to renew their certification. It is a good idea, too, to find out how they keep abreast of current education issues.

HOMEWORK: Will your child get too much or too little? Find out. Ask about the teacher's homework assignment philosophy. Do you want your child to have homework for the sake of having homework? Or do you want your child to have homework that is challenging? Some homework assignments may enlist parents' help.

SECURITY: Look for signs of safety. Look at the accessibility of the campus. Are staff members alert? Does the school keep a record of all visitors and contractors? Are they given identification to wear? Is there an officer at the school? Are students allowed to walk around unsupervised?

FACILITIES: Students deserve a comfortable learning environment. Although no building is flawless, the facilities should be well-maintained. Is the paint peeling badly? Are pipes exposed? Are the curtains about to fall down? Is there soap in the bathroom? Are there rails along the stairwells? Do the water fountains work? It is important to keep an eye out for maintenance on your tour.

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT: You need to know what your role would be. Is there a mandatory volunteer policy? Does the school contact you on a regular basis or is it up to you to contact them? Is there a PTA or a school advisory council?

THE FEEL: How does the school "feel" to you? Trust yourself. It may not be something you can put your finger on, but the school may feel just right _ or not right at all.