First, watch InsideSchools wonderful 5 min. video a couple of times (and send this amazing 'not for profit' a check for the invaluable work they do before the end of the year - you are going to need them for years to come).
Next, ask yourself this question: If I am attracted to schools that are focused on real learning instead of test prep and opting out of the test is something that I could see myself doing (to protect my child from the stress or as a political act), how much importance do I place on the test scores at any school I am considering? Just asking.
What do I look for? I want a principal who is a strong educational and fiscal leader. I want her to be smart and energetic to take advantage of funding opportunities and to fight to develop and support her staff. It is pretty common for a principal to do a small talk at the tour (they are sometimes unavoidably called away for meetings- it can't be helped when a school is doing lots of tours). My litmus test: if I would quit my job and happily work for them, talented teachers will too.
I am looking for a collegial and happy staff who is all pulling together for the same goal. I want the teachers to get lots of staff development and grade wide meetings to support each other. Look up the school surveys on the DoE's page for an individual school's statistics. The anonymous School Surveys will be there. I like at least 70% of teachers responding because, sometimes, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Sometimes the teachers will be pretty happy and give the school a generally good review and a mixed review for the principal. How do you feel about your boss and how well are you able to do your job?
I am looking for a parent body that considers education their number one priority, that wants to be involved, but will give talented professionals their space to do their jobs. What parent involvement means to parents and to schools is sometimes very different. What it means to schools: make sure your child gets enough sleep, eats properly, read to them every night, get them to school on time, help them develop good habits (managing age appropriate homework), and a little fund raiser once in a while is a nice thing. Parent involvement doesn't mean face time in class. It is hard to understand why an understaffed school wouldn't find some way to use parents in the classroom, but think of it from a teacher's point of view: an untrained adult in the class is a handicap, not an asset. You are welcome to help at lunch or recess and on special trips or to pass out glue for the special project, but not other than that... Some schools have trained "Learning Leaders" - you will be trained and vetted (there is a safety aspect) and you will be counted on to be in school on a regular schedule - really only the most dedicated stay at home parent can manage that. You want a school that will welcome you and respect your role, but you have to know the boundaries and trust the professionals as well.
One big factor in determining the family culture in a school is the percentage of kids who are chronically absent. This mundane aspect of school success is getting attention lately in the press. The citywide average for chronically absent kids is 23% (that is actually not a lot - I regularly see schools with 30-40% chronically absent kids). The high numbers are usually in schools that are serving a poorer population. The struggles of poverty are no joke (chronic asthma, inadequate winter clothing, childcare, transportation, fear of leaving your home...) When the numbers climb to more that a quarter of the class having trouble attending on a regular basis, it will affect the experience of all the kids attending. I take the number of "Free and Reduced Price Lunch" kids (families in poverty) with a grain of salt - more about that in my next blog. I want socio-economic diversity, but that is not my point here. That number is a real non event for me because I believe that it is sometimes wildly inaccurate in many schools AND just because you are poor doesn't mean that you don't really care about education and if your chronic absenteeism numbers are low, the test scores are often high (you have to come to school to learn). When there is a culture of achievement in the school and all parents are going all in to help each other - that poverty number is not helpful to me. Also, school wide numbers are not always class wide numbers (for racial diversity, chronic absenteeism or test scores). If you are in a G&T program or Dual Lanugage program or your school is quickly gentrifying, the subset of your classroom may be WAY different than the school as a whole.
And in the end, while there is great teaching going on at multitudes of schools in the city, the test scores almost always just tell me where the rich people are. Test scores generally come from affluence even though there are plenty of dumb rich people (Donald Trump). If your child is safe, and surrounded by educators of integrity and you are attending a school where the parents, rich or poor, are all placing a high priority on education- you can't go wrong.
If you attend a tour that a students leads - you can learn a lot! Read more about that here.