Choosing A High School for Your Daughter
'Tis the season when my phones ring off the hook with parents asking for recommendations about high schools for their children, particularly girls. (Apparently parents feel more knowledgeable about boys' Yeshivas than they do about Bais Yaakovs.) The four years of high school are the most important and influential in guiding your daughter towards a Torah lifestyle. Choosing the right one is too consequential a decision to be made lightly.
Do not rely solely on a school's reputation. Go down to the school, speak to the principals, ask questions, get information. There are a number of reasons reputations can serve you wrong:
Firstly, Chinuch is not exclusively educational, but rather consumer-oriented as well. The schools must satisfy the parent body in order to survive. This is sometimes accomplished at the expense of sound education. For example, a 9th grade teacher in a certain school was instructed to finish two seforim in Tanach - Yehoshua and Melachim Bais - in the course of his 4-day-a-week Navi class, an exorbitant amount of material for 14 and 15 year old girls to absorb. When the teacher asked the principal if this was the best thing for the girls, he was told "Maybe not, but in 'the other school' [the main competitor of the school in the story] they finish two seforim in the 9th grade. If we don't, parents will say in the 'other school' they learn more."
Not all parents are knowledgeable Mechanchim, but the school must satisfy them with their approach to Chinuch nonetheless. Since it the parents who create the schools' reputations, and the parents may not be basing their opinions on what is most educationally sound, the reputation of a school can not always be counted on as an accurate gauge of the educational quality.
Another way a reputation may be misleading in where a small but conspicuous number of problem girls impart the misimpression that the entire school is comprised of problems. This phenomenon often causes schools to jettison girls who do not adversely effect others, and would improve greatly if allowed to continue in the school, but are causing undeserved damage to the school's reputation.
Parents must look past a school's "name" and examine the issues objectively. Pay no attention to "fads" and "brand names" when it comes to schools. Think, "if there were no other schools around, would I be happy with this school, or would I change it?" Do not blindly follow the crowd. Ignore phrases such as "up and coming" (by the time the school "ups and comes", your daughter will probably be on the way home from seminary). I know schools with good names that I would not let my children touch with a ten foot pole. Other schools have more modest reputations, but they are doing what is right rather than what is fashionable. When it comes to Yeshivas, a satisfied customer is not necessarily the best educated.
This is why I have found that Mechachim are less likely to send their daughters to so-called "up and coming" schools, or schools with the best name, than the average parent. Mechachim, who may be making compromises themselves where they teach, are better able to recognize the detrimental but popular trends being adopted by their peers. Therefore, when seeking information about a school, make sure to inquire among those parents who are educators themselves. They will be able to provide a perspective on the school that other parents may not. (Of course, just because a school has a good reputation and is popular does not necessarily mean that they are pandering to the whims of the public. With schools, as with anything else, popularity does not necessarily mean quality, but it may.)
Finally, a reputation is determined by the public in general. What is called the "best school" may not be the best for your particular needs. The main question parents must ask when seeking a school for their daughter is: "Is this school good for MY DAUGHTER?" Not "is this a 'better school', or 'does it have a better name' or 'is this school most popular'. In fact, when people say a school is good or bad, they tend to confuse the issue. Almost every school is good for someone and bad for someone else, so it is meaningless to talk in non-relative terms such as "good" or "bad." You must know your daughter's specific needs and capabilities and find what is "good" for her.
Ask specific questions. Do not rely on cliches and vague information. To separate meaningless but well-sounding cliches from real facts, ask yourself "Does any other school disagree with this statement?" For example: Among the Bais Yaakovs, there are those which are more academically inclined, deeming it imperative to their mission to impart the maximum amount of Torah information possible to the student. Others feel that academics are not as consequential as instilling within each girl a love for frumkeit and a commitment to a Torah lifestyle. To them, abundant emphasis on academics is just undue pressure. The choice depends on your daughter's particular needs. However, you may find the edge between appreciation for Torah knowledge and overemphasis on academics, as well as the difference between emphasis on frumkeit and inadequate academic standards, somewhat blurred.
When asking a principal about his school, you may hear something like, "Here we don't hold that a brain is a chisaron in a girl." This may mean an overemphasis on academics at the expense of a love for frumkeit, covered up by a nice cliche. Or, "Here we don't think there's a need to make girls into big Lamdonim" may translate to mean "our girls don't learn much."
No decent Bais Yaakov is trying to make the girls into big lamdonim, and no school considers intelligence in a girl a detriment. Nobody disagrees with either statement. Therefore, these statements say absolutely nothing about the schools, and serve only to skirt the issue.
Ask specific questions. Find out if the school is academically oriented, frumkeit oriented, or somewhere in between. And then decide if that's the right approach for your child.
If you are looking to keep your daughter away from "bad friends", don't do it by looking for a school where every student is to your liking. Schools are like Kashrus - if the Mashgiach finds too many problems it's no good, but if he can never find a problem it's also no good. "Even in the best schools there is, relatively speaking, 'an underworld.' (Rav Avigdor Miller shlita, Awake My Glory, p. 373). Some schools admit it, though, and some don't. If a school says "We only have top notch girls in our school. You have nothing to worry about," be suspicious. If the school says "We know everything that each girl is doing," they are likely deceiving themselves, no matter how good a "spy system" they may claim to have. I have met girls who did not keep Shabbos, ate non-kosher, and violated all standards of Tznius, and the schools knew nothing about it. It can happen, no matter what a school may say.
However, schools do have varying admissions standards and tolerance levels. It is especially important here not to rely on a school's "good name". Such good names may be the result of questionable assertions on the part of the school rather than facts. I know one school with a reputation for having only top-notch girls which is profoundly unearned. Another school I know is known to "be on top of which girls are problems." They are not.
The quality of the student body is of utmost importance for your daughter. Stick with a school that is honest and open with you, and claims at best to try hard to keep bad influences out. Claims like "We know everything that's going on," or "We have no bad influences" are often a symptom of self-delusion.
One particular area of attention should be the staff of the secular studies department. "Know who are the secular teachers in the Torah schools of your children, and insist they be decent observant Jews; very many pupils have been corrupted by the secular teachers in the Mesivtos" (Rav Avigdor Miller shlita, ibid). It is rare, if at all possible, to find a school with exclusively frum English teachers, but you should inquire as to whether there are complaints by parents regarding things that are said or done by secular studies teachers.
Find out what the school's recent graduates are doing. Ask what last year's seniors are doing now - how many went to seminary and which seminaries they went to; how many went to college, etc.
If your daughter goes for an interview, find out what questions she was asked. You will be able to tell from this what the school is interested in. My daughter's friends reported last year that a certain "brand name" school focused their interview primarily on the importance of not going to pizza shops during lunch. (This school has clear policies as to where the girls may go during their lunch break - policies which are often ignored and not enforced).
Ask students of the school what the guest speakers speak about - the lessons they emphasize, and what issues the principal focuses on in his talks. You can get a flavor of a school from listening to the themes of the talks during assemblies.
Find out how the girls feel about their school. Do they feel that the school has confidence in them, or do they feel. like some girls do about certain schools, that the administration distrusts them - that the only method of making sure girls will not do bad things is by a supposedly elaborate system of spies and informers among the student body. In a certain school girls report that the principal even hires people to follow students around. (Whether this is actually true or not is irrelevant. The students' perception is the issue). A "Spy vs. Spy" environment in a school generates animosity, and distrusted students often live up to the negative image their role models have of them. A positive, friendly atmosphere is crucial for healthy development.
To ascertain the academic level of the school, ask to see recent tests of the ninth grade. Find out who your daughter's teachers will be and ask around. Bear in mind, though, that there are always two sides to a story, and take some of what you hear with a grain of salt.
If your daughter has special needs, find out if the school can cope. Seek parents that had or have girls in the school with the same needs and ask if the matter is dealt with to satisfaction. Ask if the school has a guidance counselor - or someone else who the girls can talk to if they have a problem - who she will be, and check her out. Make sure to find out if she has been known to unnecessarily betray confidences of students to the school administration.
Of course, there are many other issues that deserve attention, and the above is meant only as a sampling of where concerns may lie. I purposely omitted the basics - quality of teachers, administrations, etc. - and focused on issues parents may be unaware of.
Girls go through thousands of experiences in high school - inevitably some bad, hopefully mostly good. By examining not only the school in general but its various facets - any of which crush or cultivate your child - you can ensure that she gets the best Chinuch possible.