Part 1 posted here.
Speak to Other Parents
Make lots of effort to speak to as many parents of boys currently in the school as possible. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Ask a lot of directed questions. Try to find out how the rebbeim/menahelim handle problem situations – like scuffles/fights in school, skipping class, chutzpah, bullying — even how they would handle an instance of sexual abuse. Ask how the rebbeim have answered difficult questions raised in class, both in terms of hashkafa ( how do we know we’re right and the other religions aren’t) and hadracha (why can’t we talk to/go out with girls, why is internet/TV/movies so bad? ). I have heard scary things about the inability or unwillingness of some rebbeim to answer these questions. It is always important to ask about smoking and drugs in the school, and for co-ed or sister/brother high schools it would be important to ask about dating and sexual exploits among students (although you would have to speak to the students themselves, not the parents, to get candid and accurate information on these points). It is important not to be naïve and think that these things can never happen in a yeshiva. They can and do, but obviously not in all places, so it is important to ask.
Other things to investigate about a school:
1) What are the graduating seniors like? Do you want your son to be like them? What do those boys do immediately after graduation, three years after, etc. (advanced learning, working, college)? In other words, do you like their product and would you like your son to follow the path that the majority take?
2) What kinds of boys go there? Are they the kind you would choose as friends for your son? Are they the kind your son has typically chosen as his friends in the past?
3) What is the ambience in the school? Go visit the school and look around – do the boys seem relaxed and happy? Do the rebbeim/teachers seem happy? Are the boys in class (esp. during secular hours)? Is the school clean and neat? Is there a schedule that is enforced – i.e. is there order? Is there tension from a very strict hanhala?
4) Is there time in the day for physical exercise and some respite from the work? What sort of extra-curricular activities are offered, and what sort of homework policy is there?
5) Do you feel that you can speak openly and honestly with the mechanchim at the school? Are they open and down to earth with you, or do you feel like they are trying primarily to sell their school, or do you feel a sense of their being closed to your input? Do you feel that they understand typically developing adolescent boys with all their challenges, and know how to mold them into young men? Or do you feel that they don’t/wouldn’t understand the nuances of your son?
6) Try to find out the economic level of the typical family at the school; whether the average boy has a lot of pocket money to spend and whether they spend significantly more than you do on material things and/or vacations. Your son may come home newly interested in designer suits and/or wanting to order takeout instead of yeshiva food or wanting to go skiing or to Florida during various vacations and long weekends. This may not matter to you or your son, but it is something to consider.
7) If your son has a particular need or challenge academically, emotionally or socially, do you feel the school is equipped and willing to handle it and is confident of its ability in that area? In the same vein, if your son needs to take any kind of medication, do you feel confident in confiding this to the school hanhala and working with it as a partner in your son’s care?
A few words about dorming. Many parents prefer their sons to live at home if at all possible during their high school years. However, it is not always the case that the best choice of school for any particular boy is local, so dorming is a factor to weigh among the other factors. It is my humble opinion that dorming can be a positive experience, and although some “scare stories” are true, many other boys will benefit from the experience. One must research each school’s dorm on a case by case basis.
It is crucial to ascertain that the facility is safe and was built and maintained to code, and that there are procedures for emergencies and other more mundane health issues. It is also very important to ascertain the level of supervision and rule enforcement in the dorm and the types of boys in the dorm. Some boys start smoking in dorm environments, many don’t get too much sleep, and some boys get exposed to things their parents rather they not be. Having said that, there is a wide variation in how strict yeshivas are about dorm supervision and in some schools problems are dealt with swiftly and completely. It is important to speak to some of the older boys in the dorm themselves and ask them directed questions, such as “how many boys smoke?” or “are there any drugs in the dorm?”, “what do the boys do for entertainment at night?” “what is the average lights-out time?” Also speak to the dorm supervisor to get a flavor of the place. Ask specifically if there have been any known incidents of sexual abuse or attempted sexual advances (even boy-on-boy), and what the school did about it.
Assuming the dorm does not have major problems, the positive aspects of dorming include providing a healthy social outlet after a long work day, fostering independence and self-sufficiency, learning to live with others and be sensitive to others’ needs, learning self-discipline and good personal hygiene, and becoming aware of one’s own annoying habits. A parent needs to factor in the disadvantages of commuting to and from a school that may not be in the family’s immediate vicinity, in terms of the difficulty of carpooling, the time taken away from the boy’s sleep and free time during the trips, and just what will be accomplished by the boy arriving home in time to go to sleep in his bed and then leaving the house too early in the morning to interact with anyone anyway.
A dorm might be a good place to be if the home environment is negative, or even just unfulfilling for the boy, including having mostly or all sisters with no one to “hang” with. It is better if the boy has attended sleep-away camp before putting him in a dorm situation, or he may have a hard time adjusting. All of my sons went to (or are currently in) dorming schools despite my reservations, and I was amazed at the growth they experienced, even in their first year. Some of this growth I attributed to dorm living.
No School is Perfect
A final note: there is no perfect school out there. All have their positives and negatives. If I had to give advice in one sentence it would be this (a variation on weighing the pros and cons): Choose a few schools which have the features and positive aspects you are looking for, write down all the negative aspects of each school, decide which of the negatives you are willing to put up with and which you are not, and choose the school with the negatives you can live with.
No matter which school you choose, it is important to keep close tabs on your son’s progress during his high school years and be pro-active in finding out what is going on with him (especially if he answers your questions with typical adolescent-male mono-syllabic responses such as “fine” and “good”). Do not become complacent, even if you are thrilled with the school of your choice. Nothing replaces a concerned, active parent!
First Published – Feb 1, 2011