You must watch this video before you tour. That is your homework.
Once you have an idea about what you might want to be looking for you can contact the school; call the school's parent coordinator or front office, or check their website for a tour date. Take notes in the introductory talk about the school's programs, partnerships, educational focus, after school etc. Then you will all probably break up into groups to travel around the building and peek into the classrooms. Usually there will be a school administrator or parent who is leading the tours and sometime if you are lucky there will be a collection of 5th graders who will be there to answer questions as well.
It is not uncommon for the tours to be fairly free form (some would say disorganized) especially if more prospective parents show up than expected. Many newly popular schools are caught totally unaware when multitudes of parents show up unexpectedly. The schools are in the business of teaching not touring. Even though a less than stellar tour isn't ideal and has a tendency to imply that the school is not run well I don't give the school a big black mark because of it. The principal may hand the tour off to the PTA and it is hard to run a smooth program with a staff of volunteers who is usually doing a "one off".
I feel very lucky when I see that a school has arranged for students to accompany or lead the tours. You need to reassess the information that you will get from them, because it will be very different from a tour given by a parent. Really, the nuts and bolts information about the school that you will get from the adults is very easy to find. What you get from the kids is much different and invaluable if you make use of it. These students take their responsibility very seriously and they don't have the filters that the grownups have. They want you to like their school but they are shockingly honest as well.
- Ask questions about what they like most and least about their school,
- what does their teacher do when they have a problem student in the class,
- how do they feel about their uniforms or lack of uniforms,
- do most kids get school lunch,
- how often do they get to run around and do they feel cramped in their classroom,
- do they get the attention that they need or want,
- are there bullies or cliques,
- do they play with their school friends on the weekends,
- what teacher do they like the most and what subjects,
- where do they want to go to middle school
You will come away with a much better sense of the real school experience, as well as how poised, funny, thoughtful and mature the school's "best and brightest" are. I have the luxury of being able to linger at the tours (I know that most of you must run to jobs and child care). What happens at the end when the kids are trying to eek the last couple of minutes out of the tour before they go back to class is that they show me everything and anything that I want to see, and they are happy to explain and debate about whatever minutiae I care to inquire about. So if you see me at the end, following a dozen 5th graders down the hall, join us. You might love what you find.
I posted this last year, but you parents of 2009 children need to read it.