How do you go about investigating whether a particular day school is best for your kids? I am most interested in the behavior and attitude of the students and the professionalism of the teachers and staff. I realize that it's possible to get some sense of these by visiting, but the feel one gets from a single visit is skewed by the halo effect induced by the presence of the visitor. It seems that it would be difficult to get a good sense of these things by asking around because anyone who knows about the school is likely to present a biased perspective based on their own experience, and because frank talk on these topics veers uncomfortably close to lashon hara.
There are some objective questions that can be asked that may help.
BEHAVIOR/ATTITUDE OF STUDENTS
- How much of the school day/year is devoted to teaching of midot?
Does the school arrange activities outside of the school that would encourage good character like field trips to nursing homes for "Bikur Cholim"?
A subjective but perhaps more easily observed without getting into lashon harah areas: Look at the youth groups in your local shul: Is there any correlation between the kids who are respectful and those who are not and the schools they attend?
PROFESSIONALISM OF TEACHERS AND STAFF
- What kind of continuing education does the school provide?
- Do the school administrators attend professional conferences to stay on top of the latest methods in Jewish/secular education?
- Has the school brought in professional consultants in the development of it's curriculum or other programs?
- Also look at the board: What kind of professional development have they had? It's not uncommon in Jewsih schools to have the board try to micromanage the principal and other school adminsitrators. The board should not be discussing individual classroom situations and parent complaints. Hopefully they have vetted and hired a trusted administrator and should only be doing periodic evaluations, not trying to run the day to day operations of the school themselves. Overseeing the school financial stability should be their primary role. When you have parents on the baord with their own adgenda who are not educators, and allowing their own issues to supercede the big picture, the school's overall professional conduct suffers.
Hopefully there are a couple useful ideas in there.
Any question that serves a useful purpose- not just out of curiosity- would be considered l'toelet- for a purpose and likely does not fall under the category of lashon hara. All of that assumes that one is really considering sending a child to the school, and one would need to let the person you are asking know that that is the reason you are asking. (As always ask your Rabbi for a definitive halachic answer.)
Just to add onto the previous excellent answers: Don't forget to check the educational level of the school. It is undeniable that the quality of the teachers and the emphasis on middos and character is important. At the same time, the academic level is also critical. The best way to check the educational level of the elementary school is by finding out what high schools the children go to. Are they generally accepted to the high schools of their choice? Are they accepted to high schools that are on par with your hopes for your child?
Additionally, it is important to check the attitudes in the school. Are the teachers happy to be Jewish? Do they believe in the importance of teaching Torah? Keeping mitzvos? Exhibiting good character? Acting kindly and respectfully? Most important, are they able to pass on these positive attitudes to the students?
A wise person once told me to always measure a school by its product. What do the children who graduate the school look like? How do they act when they grow into adults? That is likely how your child will turn out if you send him/her there.