School NavigationWhen it comes to choosing a high school, there are many ways to research your options. Prospective families can look at test scores, course offerings, and the quality of teaching and leadership. While curriculum and instruction are key elements of a high school’s fit for your child, they are not the only aspects to consider: students can’t learn in places that they don’t feel safe. In addition to researching a high school’s academic prowess, make sure to also assess its school climate.

The term “school climate” describes how a school feels. Does it feel safe, welcoming, inclusive? Is it a place where bullying is not tolerated? Where differences are embraced? Where students and teachers have positive relationships no matter what the students’ level of achievement? The following are some issues to consider when assessing school climate.

School Diversity

Are students racially and economically diverse? Are faculty? Does the school clearly embrace LGBTQIA+ students? Are there students of different gender identities and sexualities? Are classrooms inclusive of students with special needs, or are typically developing students separated from others? Not only will diverse environments prepare your child for the real world, they will also be more likely to support your child’s identity development, whatever direction that may take.

The school’s anti-bullying policy

Understanding a school’s bullying policy can be more effective than actually looking at the number of bullying cases. This is because schools with strong anti-bullying policies often make reporting easier and safer, meaning that they have more reported cases than schools who may have a higher rate of bullying but weaker standards. Ask about the school’s responses to specific types of bullying, like sexual harassment, racism, homophobia and transphobia. If possible, ask other students and parents about their experiences as well.

Available support structures

Does the school have an advisory period that gives students a chance to bond with a teacher and a small group of peers? Does the school have a reasonable ratio of counselors to students? Is there a Gay-Straight Alliance, or are there clubs for different ethnic and racial groups? Are there special ed services for students who need them? Ask about how schools support students’ mental health.

Friends who will also be attending

For young people, middle school can feel like a seismic shift in their relationships. Having to start over with a whole new group of friends in high school could be a relief, or it could be a source of anxiety. Find out if at least one or two students from your child’s middle school are also going to your family’s high school of choice. See if your child sees these students as potential friends and allies. Having support in the first days of high school is a huge advantage that should not be overlooked.

Parent organizations

What support structures are available for parents? Are there opportunities to participate in school governance? Is the PTA a fundraising body, or does it have a voice in school affairs? What informal groups of parents support each other? Ask school leaders about how parents form community. Remember, your child is the one attending the school, but you are the one who will help them navigate the ups and downs of these years. Your support system is important too.

Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.