“Our Schools Have So Much to Offer Each Other”: Strategies and Structures for Effective School Visits

To investigate powerful teaching and learning, we could inundate ourselves with stories and research about Coalition and other like-minded schools. Phone conversations, emails, books, magazines, web sites, conferences, videos: all add detail to the diverse and constantly evolving possibilities.

But for all of us, time is limited and we need to make the best of the little time that we’ve got for professional development and contemplation. When properly planned, visits to other schools??”and especially into classrooms??”offer deep, multidimensional, challenging insights and are a powerful impetus to planning and change.

It’s hard, of course. You have to secure coverage for your work, find money to travel, coordinate schedules with the host school, create the mental space to make sense of the experience, communicate what you saw to people who weren’t there, and collaborate to incorporate insights into your own school. And it can be difficult to be a host school. You’re faced with distractions and the fatigue of telling the same stories over and over. You want to help kids and teachers at other schools, but you risk hurting your own school’s work in the pursuit of what novelist Richard Price calls “the dangerous thrill of goodness.”

These hassles and pitfalls deserve due consideration, but they shouldn’t stop anyone from visiting other schools or opening their doors to guests. When visits are engaging, personalized, and focused, educators planning new schools or creating change in existing schools will “have an image to share with colleagues about what is possible,” says Peter Ross, Project Manager at Stanford University’s School Redesign Network. Seeing innovative, personalized education in action allows you to be a more persuasive advocate for creating the right conditions from the ground up or for making those changes midstream. And if visitors have opportunities to relay feedback, host schools have the chance to see what’s happening in their classrooms from multiple fresh perspectives. To help colleagues interested in engaging in school visits, teachers and school leaders at Coalition schools offer ideas, insights, warnings, and encouragement as they suggest standards for highly productive school visits.

Visitors Ask Questions
While it seems simplistic to remind us that new experiences require preparation, many visitors show up at schools without enough forethought, and clarifying basic information about the host school’s program fritters away precious time. So do your homework: learn about the school you’re visiting. Ann Cook, co-director of New York City’s Urban Academy, says, “It’s like visiting a foreign country. If you don’t know anything, you miss nearly everything, but if you know a little bit about where you are, your visit will be that much richer.” Many schools send visitors information in advance, point potential visitors to their web site, or refer uninformed guests to fact sheets that cover the basics.

Visiting school teams should develop specific questions ahead of the visit and communicate those to the host school so the visit can be as focused as possible. Cook notes, “The kinds of visits that work the best are when the visiting team has a clear idea of what they want to know, when it’s not just a junket.” Dave Lehman, principal of Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York, agrees, “When people think about what they’re coming for and what they want to learn, they take away more.” But Lehman reminds people to be open to the unexpected, too. “One of the things people take away is the comfortable, relaxed tone atmosphere among kids and staff at ACS,” Lehman says. “It’s something that’s very evident to people, but isn’t something that can be put into a question. “It isn’t a specific thing to look for.” (For questions to consider when visiting a school, see School Visit Questions, page 14.)

Away from their own work and students, and often dealing with time zone and other changes, people have an understandable tendency to become “tourists,” observing but not really engaging. Visiting to understand something specific??”how advisories advance personalization or what structures a school uses to maintain decency and respect??”helps school visitors sharpen their attention and make the most of their time and the resources of the host school.


Last year, Leadership High School’s staff took a professional develpment day and scattered to the winds. Principal Greg Peters says, “We sent every single staff person off to other Bay Area schools.” Leadership’s staff members shadowed job-alikes at a variety of schools and brought back ideas and observations that added energy and perspective to their own work.

Mike Klonsky, directory of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggests, “It’s interesting to think about doing site visits to your own school. We always go on site visits to other schools and look with a critical eye. it’s a really valuable thing to pretend that you’re an outsider in your own school, to look systematically at data, to visit classrooms.” Conducting site visits at your own school, using observation tools and protocols and-if nothing else-getting out of your own classroom and routine can offer a fresh perspective (with no jet lag!).

Host Schools Design Good Experiences
Just as visitors need to maximize the minutes they have under another school’s roof, many frequently visited host schools have learned that they need to prepare thoughtfully to forestall ennui and burnout on the part of their faculties. A constant stream of visitors can be disrupting, not renewing. Ann Cook, CO-director of New York City’s frequently visited Urban Academy admits, “At the volume that we’re operating, we don’t get a lot out of people coming here for a day.” Colleen Meaney, CES Coordinator at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire agrees, saying, “People who come here to visit are very appreciative and very affirming, but they don’t always push us.”

Visitors and hosts share responsibility for deepening focus during school visits; just as visitors should clarify and communicate their questions and intentions, hosts should be ready to offer experiences other than the “standard tour”??”experiences that allow them to gather impressions about their school’s environment and practices from their visitors. Greg Peters, principal of Leadership High School in San Francisco, believes that visitors should not expect their experience at Leadership to feel too polished, and he dissuades visitors from looking for simple answers. “We are not perfect; we have things that are wrong,” Peters stresses. “To build trust we say, ‘You’re going to see things that will cause questions, and we want to know what those questions are.’ We need to get something back.”

Visitors have the option to complete feedback forms for each Leadership class they attend. This makes the flow of information easier for guests??”who, Peters acknowledges are “ultimately and rightly selfish” and there to pursue their own goals??”and for Leadership’s teachers, who are eager to receive classroom observations and comments in a consistent format. Peters and the staff members start the scheduled visit days with an orientation that covers (among many other concepts) the function of classroom door signs, which control visitors’ access to classes. Door signs are red, which indicate that there’s a test or something else happening that doesn’t allow for visitors, or green. Green signs welcome visitors and provide information about the class, including the kind of feedback that the classroom teacher seeks.

Leadership High School uses a variety of structures during its twice-monthly visitor days. Visits are organized into two types: shorter personal connection visits and more comprehensive daylong reflective visits, which culminate in a faculty meeting which visitors observe. Guests receive school fact sheets, a list of classes, and other guiding information immediately. Visitors are encouraged to note their questions, observations, and thoughts throughout the day on a school visit observation form, and are also given an evidence/indicator grid that prompts guests to note evidence of and/or challenges to each of the CES Ten Common Principles. The daylong visit agenda allows intervals for reflective writing and check-ins with staff and other visitors, providing time to complete these forms and ask questions.

Host Schools Stick to their Strengths and Set Expectations
Rosemary Sedgwick, Director of School Development & Partnerships at Boston’s Fenway High School reports, “Faculty members said that it was a waste of their time to say the same generic information over and over, but they really enjoyed focused discussions around their areas of expertise.” Through the Fenway Institute for Urban School Renewal, Fenway’s visitor coordination program, visitors can focus on a particular practice such as advisories, the integrated Humanities curriculum, or collaboration with community partners for student learning.

Greg Peters at Leadership High School affirms that creating specific areas of focus adds value for guests and hosts. “We can’t teach people about a wide range of things; too many people want too many different things. So we looked at our core values. I looked specifically at what was most important to me in my next three years of work, the things I felt I couldn’t be pulled away from.” Peters decided to use the areas of focus as a way to invite visitors to participate in Leadership’s works in progress. “We identified personalization, advisories, and professional development,” Peters says. “Because we said publicly that we have something to offer in these areas, we’re accountable to that. It functions as another incentive to work on these things. It has to be the way you do it; otherwise every phone call decides the focus of your day. Even something as simple as a visit has to fit into the vision of a school.”

In addition to focusing the content of the visits around specific areas that will aid both visitors and their schools, the faculties at Fenway and Leadership have developed norms for visitors that guide expectations and social interactions. They distribute and review these norms with guests at the start of visitor days. At both schools, staff members asked for and helped develop these guidelines in order to lessen classroom distractions. As well, once guests have a sense of schoolwide etiquette, they can relax and focus on their own learning with less trepidation that they might be violating social rules or cultural norms.

Who Should Go? For How Long?
Who should go on school visits? Principal George Wood reports that Stewart, Ohio’s Federal Hocking High School has a rule for visiting teams “We won’t allow a visit if parents and students are not included. It’s not worth the effort. Parents and students add legitimacy in terms of what’s brought home, legitimacy that’s not there if we’re seen only from the teachers’ and principals’ point of view. Parents and students have to be able to feel the need for change; they have to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I saw that.’ ” Schools should send planning teams that include all stakeholders, Wood’s rule doesn’t mention superintendents or school board members, but the logic applies: their presence would add additional layers of legitimacy.

How long should visits last? Realistically, it’s hard to get away for more than a day, and multi-day visits demand a lot of host schools. But for real connection and transformation, extended visits can be powerful. The Stanford School Redesign Network, committed to promoting small and restructured schools in California, sponsors Small School Study tours, in which participants from California spend a full week in New York City??”two days each at Manhattan’s Landmark and International High Schools, and a fifth day at the Julia Richman Educational Complex. The School Redesign Network is also offering weeklong residencies in a single New York City school, allowing team members to dive into a particular area of inquiry.

Urban Academy is one of the schools that Small School Study Tour participants visit, and Ann Cook agrees with the in-depth approach. “I think you have to enter into the life of the school. The absolute best thing, when possible, is to participate in residencies but not with preconceived ideas. You should spend a week getting a feel for the school, seeing what they’re doing and how they articulate their mission into real practice.”

Support and Structures for Hosts
Many schools accustomed to accommodating visitors have come to understand visitor programs don’t run themselves. Schools need additional, well-organized resources??”including funding??”to make visits meaningful to all involved. Commenting on Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School’s Regional Teachers Center, Parker trustee Ted Sizer stresses, “It has to have its own phone line, its own room. Visit coordination can’t be run from the principal’s office??”it needs its own structures to survive.”

At Federal Hocking High School, student interns coordinate visits, handling all arrangements: scheduling, arranging travel, booking hotels, making dinner reservations, sending out material, and coordinating follow-up. This truly student-focused approach provides authentic work experiences for students and creates opportunities for them to engage in the life of their school. It also sends a message to visitors about the workings and priorities of Federal Hocking High School. And it serves a practical purpose, freeing teachers and administrators from the minutia of visit arrangements. This year’s visit coordinator, senior Keri Harris, says, “We know how the school works. We’re familiar with the surroundings and we’re better at showing other people what it’s about. And doing this helps us adapt and deal with adults??”it prepares us for what’s to come.”

How do schools pay for their visitor programs? Some raise private funds or get grants. For example, Leadership High School has a two-year dissemination grant from the California State Department of Education that supports its visitor program, allowing the school to pay for a half-time staffer to run the visit program. Because the grant underwrites the visitation days, Leadership doesn’t charge visitors any fees.

Other schools find that charging for visits both provides necessary funding and encourages visitors to commit more fully to the experience. At Souhegan High School, in Nashua, New Hampshire, Sally Groves??”who is also principal Ted Hall’s secretary??”coordinates visits; visit fees support professional development at Souhegan. Visitors, encouraged to limit the size of their groups to four participants, pay one hundred dollars per person. Hall notes, “When you charge people, they’re way more accountable. Quite often, before charging, visitors wouldn’t show up.”

Fenway High School also charges visit fees. Rosemary Sedgwick recalls, “Last year, Fenway was inundated with visitors. With Gates Foundation money going out to districts, we got requests from huge numbers of people. We needed to figure out how to shelter our school and still support the start-up of new small schools. We instituted scheduled visitor days and we charge for visits. When people pay for something they value it a lot and we give them a lot.” Fenway also relies on a part-time visitor coordinator whose salary is paid for by funds raised outside of the school budget.

But for some schools, the mechanics of charging for visits are themselves too much of a burden. Janice Adams principal of Merlo Station High School, a cluster of alternative programs in Beaverton, Oregon, offers this counterpoint: “Charging for visits adds another level of work that needs to be done. We’re selective about the work that we cause ourselves; if it’s not tied to our beliefs and values, we don’t do it. No small school will be a wealthy school??”for us, that’s not the point.”

Conclusion: Systems for Gathering Ideas
Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching and New York-based discussion leader for the School Redesign Network’s School Study Tours, reminds visiting teams that the aim of visits is to gather ideas and examine strategies in order to shed light on their own practices. “Some schools have relinquished their sense of agency, as if the answer is outside,” says Ancess. “It seems like they have given up their sense of confidence, their authority. They don’t say, ‘We’re going to get together in our school and work it out and get expert information when we need it.’ But that’s how they should be thinking. People planning their school’s next steps have to be guided by how well the kids are achieving learning goals; that has to be the driving force. Then it can be useful to bring in an outside perspective, consider it, and maybe reject it.”

Still, there is probably nothing that quite compares by way of both inspiration and practical idea-sharing than a visit to another school that shares a commitment to the Common Principles. As Kathy Simon, co-Executive Director of CES National puts it, “Our schools have so much to offer each other. It’s crucial that we put the systems in place??”and take the time??”to keep learning from the fabulous work that is happening in schools all around the country.”

School Visit Questions from the School Redesign Network

  • Staff members at the School Redesign Network at Stanford University suggest that planning teams visiting schools “consider the big picture, taking care not to get too focused on a lot of detailed questions that may get in the way of your seeing the big ideas that are really important.” The School Redesign Network offers these questions — meant to provoke observation and description, designed to advance understanding about how the host school works.
  • How does instruction drive the schedule, the organization of teachers, the class assignments of students, professional development, etc.?
  • What evidence is there of teachers knowing students well? How is this achieved?
  • What evidence is there of strong teacher-student relationships?
  • What evidence is there that all students have access to challenging curriculum?
  • What evidence is there that students are supported to achieve at high levels?
  • What evidence is there of professional collaboration focused on student learning?
  • What do adults do together to sustain the ongoing development of the school?
  • What is different about this school?
  • How does this school approach and support instruction and what is the evidence?
  • What does classroom practice look like?
  • Does this school do anything different about instruction from what we do? How do they do it? Why do they do it that way?
  • What surprised us about the school? Why?
  • What would we like to find out more about now that we have visited the school?
  • What was the most powerful thing about the visit?

“School Visit Questions” and related information about visiting schools can be in “Solving the Puzzle: Redesigning Large High Schools Together”, a Field Guide supporting the redesign of large high schools available from the School Redesign Network at Stanford University. See “RESOURCES” page 18, for more on the School Redesign Network.

Examples of Expectations for School Visitors from Fenway and Leadership

Boston’s Fenway High School and San Francisco’s Leadership High School provide examples of guidelines that visitors are requested to follow when in the school buildings. Both school developed these sets of expectations to optimize conditions for guests and host, creating possibilities for everyone to learn from each other.

Fenway High School Visitor Protocol


  • Fenway faculty and students welcome visitors. We enjoy sharing our practices and experience, especially if that helps other schools to serve their students better.
  • Fenway is first and foremost a school. All classes and activities proceed during a Visitor Day just as they would on a day without visitors. This ensures that the education of our students is not compromised by visits, and that visitors get an authentic look at Fenway.
  • School life is constantly changing. It is impossible to predict which classes will be available for observation and which staff will be available for roundtable discussion until a few days before the visit. When the day comes, we try to match visitors’ interests with staff and student availability, but we can’t always do so.


  • We ask visitors to remember that school is going on around them, and to act as they would like visitors to act in their own school or classroom.
  • We ask visitors to follow the assigned agenda. Once a visitor has entered the class shown on his/her agenda, s/he should stay there until the end of the period. A visitor should never enter or peer into a classroom that is not on the agenda.
  • We ask visitors not to talk to the teacher just before class starts, to refrain from asking the teacher questions during the class, and to wait until students are gone after class before approaching the teacher. Fenway teachers are happy to talk with visitors when they are not focused on student learning — which is what we assume visitors want to see.


  • Most teachers are pleased to have visitors participate in the activities of the class, particularly when students are working in groups. During individual work time, a teacher may encourage a visitor to talk to a student about what s/he is doing. Many students are also pleased to have the opportunity to talk about their work with interested listeners.
  • When (lost) in the school halls, visitors are encouraged to ask passing staff and students for directions. If students volunteer to lead the way, visitors may accept the invitation and engage the students in conversation.
  • Visitors can do a great service to staff and students by filling in the Feedback form (both sides) in the Visitor Portfolio. After the visit, all the forms are copied, and the appropriate sections are distributed to the staff and students who hosted visitors.


Leadership High School Visitor Norms*


  • Observe. Listen. Take notes. Experience.
  • Ask questions when you don’t understand.

Critical Thinking

  • Challenge assumptions — your own as well as others’
  • Cite examples and evidence when raising key questions and issues

Social Responsibility

  • Honor the trust teachers show in opening their classrooms by reading door sign carefully before entering a classroom and allowing the teacher to focus on her/his students
  • Offer feedback
  • Balance feedback between warm (identifying strengths, good ideas and effective practices) cool (surface respectful skepticism, framing questions and underlying assumptions) and hard (to take away and ponder — framed in ways that can be heard, i.e. open, thoughtful questions)

Personal Responsibility

  • Seek connections to your own work
  • Spend as much time as possible in classrooms
  • Learn as much as you can about our school and its context (so you can help us think more effectively about how we can improve — Social Responsibility)

Leadership High School Meeting and Discourse Norms

1. Be accountable
2. Be prepared
3. Be respectful
4. Trust / Take risks
5. Have fun

* These norms are framed as indicators of Leadership High School’s Schoolwide Outcomes, the organizing framework of the school’s curriculum.