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by Stephen K. Smuin, Founder of Odyssey School

The days when ”thinking about school” meant planning for college are long gone. Today the search for the proper pre-kindergarten often begins before pregnancy. As the founding Head of two middle schools, I have seen numerous parents and students who have gone through our programs looking for the perfect school. There is no perfect school, but there is a quality process which will facilitate finding the appropriate school for your child. This information has been modified from Odyssey’s publications as well as the material from a recent Newsweek magazine edition on quality schools.

This process will help you find the right middle school for your child:

Determine some basic parameters for your search - geographical limitations, religious affiliation, boarding school, grade configuration, specialty school (gifted/talented, arts school, learning disability focus), cost, or whatever may limit your examining all the schools.

There are a number of books out on choosing schools, the local parenting newspapers are stocked with ads, the phone book will have lists, the County Office of Education will have a pamphlet on schools in the county, the California Association of Independent Schools publishes a directory of schools, and most religious schools are connected to a church affiliated association of schools.


A. Make the Call - Junk Mail to Follow
Call the school and request their packet of information. Keep in mind it is like a new car brochure...you'll never read a mission statement you don't support. The real question is: Is the school living it? You'll discover that later in the process. For now, note how you were treated during your call- did a person answer the phone or was it a computer system (do they treat kids the same way)? Was the person polite, friendly, helpful or did you feel like you were interrupting their work? Staff reflects a school's culture.

B. Open House Night-Tag Team Selling?
Open House is a time for the school to make their best impression. What they choose to feature is what they value. Did students speak? Did alums present? Did parents address you? Are they selling their facility or their academics? Are they selling their soccer championship, their academic program or both? Was there, open and candid communication during the question period?

C. Entering the Process - Was College This Tough?

Keep in mind you are not choosing an admissions director. Once your child is in the school you will rarely interact with them again. You are choosing teachers and programs keep that in the forefront of your thinking.

Don't seek a private school unless your child, and you, can accept rejection. About 66% of applicants are not accepted to any given private school.
Fill out your application - be straightforward - you want a school that appreciates who your child really is, not whom you would like her to be.

D. The Visit - Will my child pass muster?
One of the major reasons for rejection is the quality of your child's school visit. So ask yourself, "Is my child socially and emotionally mature? Does he demonstrate appropriate manners? What is the school's moral climate? What is our family's?" An overly prepped student can be suspect to an admissions director. Encourage your child to be natural. Find out if the school really wants who they are - nothing wrong, however, with good manners.

Was the visit well organized? Did you hear from the school about the exact day and time? Was it clear the admissions office was prepared for your child to visit? Did the host call your child before the visit? How did your child get along with whoever hosted her on the visit? What was the nature of their conversations (dig deeply)? What was the follow up? Did you receive a note? Did the host call or write?
All things being equal, trust your child. How your child feels about the visit to the school is a solid indicator to consider. A child needs to feel comfortable in a school in order to excel academically.


A. Going Back to School
Arrange to revisit any school which is a serious contender. Plan to spend at least all morning.

Walk the halls - Be there as classes change. What is the atmosphere? Do you see kids interacting positively with each other? Are teachers in evidence? What do the halls look like after the bell rings - kids still lingering to class, teachers arriving after the bell?

Visit the school and classrooms - What is on the walls; what is in the trophy cases; what kinds of announcements are up for students? Is it too clean or too dirty - both tell you something about the school culture. While visiting three classes for 15 minutes is good, visiting an entire class period will reveal much more. Does the class start on time; is the teacher in charge; is there free and open interaction among teachers and students, students and students? Do kids pay attention and even take notes when students talk or is it only what the teacher says that is important? Is there a clear ending point to the class, is the day summarized, are the next class objectives laid out and homework assigned? Is there a sense of joy and freedom in the air?

Library visit - Is the library wired for internet access and are computers available for student use - is the technology up-to-date? Is there a set of encyclopedias from the 1990's? Is the library quiet, but active? Have students chosen to go to the library, or is it only for class use? Is the library so neat that it looks like students are discouraged from checking out books? Is there lots of freereading material like magazines, newspapers, kids' stuff? Are librarians actively helping students or just checking out books. What is the quality of their volumes, rather than the ntimber of their volumes?

Pit stop - Be sure to visit the student restroom. Are there kids hanging out there? Does it appear smokey? Is it clean - are there graffiti and signs of vandalism? How do kids react to an adult in their presence?

Time for lunch -

Have lunch on campus. Sit down and listen to kids talk - what appear to be the kids' values?

For additional helpful publications, contact the National Middle School Association:

Are they talking about events, other kids, or ideas? Engage them in conversation - as much as time allows. What is the cultural diversity of the school? And is that diversity interacting or are all the Lithuanian boys eating in one cluster while all the Lapp girls are in an other?


Make sure you make an appointment to talk with the Head. Only the Head can provide you with certain kinds of information and vary from the "company line." In fifteen minutes you can address six major areas:

What is the school's mission and how does the Head articulate it?
Do teachers or administrators create the curriculum plan? Are decisions at the school made by the Head or through a collaborative shared decision-making process?
Does the Head know how to get what the school needs: grants, mentors, volunteers, new computers, the hall painted?
What kind of teaching styles exist at the school? Lecture/discussion, cooperative learning, hands- projects - there is no right answer - what style would help your child flourish?
Ask what keeps the Head awake at night? What is a priority objective not yet in place? What do they see as their school's weaknesses?
What is their proudest accomplishment? If it is winning the volleyball championship - probe. Would their accomplishments be your desired accomplishments? What makes the school unique?

Be concerned if a Head doesn't want you to follow these steps - is there an issue?


Now you have done your research, attended the open houses, flied your applications and your child has gone on visits. You have revisited the primary contenders, and talked to the school Heads. Once you get your acceptances there are some primary points to consider in making your final choice.

A. Statistically Speaking....

School size is an issue, but big is not necessarily bad, and small is not necessarily good. What is the teacher-student ratio (don't be confused by staff-student ratio, or adult-student ratio - what you want to know is typical class size). Ask how many students a single teacher teaches in a day. Do they team teach, and how is it organized? Do they have an advisory system and how many advisees is typical?

Determine how money is allocated. Does it reflect the written goals? What percent of the budget, or dollars per student, does the school spend on students directly?

What are the rules? For what does someone get sent to the office, suspended, expelled? Are there any "zero tolerance" issues?

Technology must be plugged in. On average there are 7.8 students per computer in schools; one in three has Web access in the classrooms; nine out of 10 schools have one or more Internet connections. But more importantly, is technology integrated into the learning plan in all classes, or is it pretty much a word processing lab (fancy typewriters)?

What is the teacher-turnover rate? How many students leave the school per year? What are the average scores on the standardized testing that they do? How diverse is the faculty in terms of ethnicity, gender, and other styles of diversity such as economic, learning/teaching styles?

What is the high school placement record - specifically, not generally. Which high schools are their graduates attending - how many of their graduates are at each of these schools? If they don't have this information - why not? If they don't know, do they value it?

Besides your visit and your child's visit, attend a special event at the school - a play, a concert, an athletic event, a fundraiser, an art show. It is important to observe the school during non-recruiting activities. This will tell you the most about the school and its culture.


Primarily keep in mind that there is no "best school" - anywhere. There is only a great match for your child. A school cannot be all things to all students. What does your child need? What does each school do best? Is it a match? A good match will help your child be passionate about learning, a risk taker who anticipates consequences, as well as socially and emotionally adept.

Components of a Quality Middle School

Experienced, Qualified and well-Trained Teachers
High Academic Standards and Expectations
Challenging Core Curriculum
High Attendance Rate
Strong Principal
Inspired Students
Community Service
Mentors for Students
Parent-School Partnership
Experienced Mentors for New Teachers
Administrators and Teachers Who Know Each Child

Sources: Newsweek Magazine and the National Middle School Association.

Odyssey School is a member of:


Odyssey School, 201 Polhemus Road, San Mateo, CA 94402
(650) 548-1500