Show Not Tell: Virtual School Tours Help Break Down Barriers to School Visits
August 23, 2019

44 virtual school tours over six years with more than 214,000 views. 

Advocates in D.C. are helping parents tour dozens of school options for their students by eliminating common barriers like taking time off from work, scheduling, and transportation. 

DC School Reform Now (DCSRN) is in its eighth year of managing its flagship program, the High Quality School Campaign. The campaign is designed to help families—particularly from underserved communities—navigate the D.C. public school choice process so that all students have the opportunity to access quality public schools. 

Using parent advocates, who act as one-on-one choice coaches, DCSRN supports families recruited from schools and community-based organizations as they navigate the city’s unified enrollment lottery, identifying schools that meet each family’s needs, filling out the application, and ensuring that families’ complete enrollment at their matched school. Over the past three years, DCSRN has served roughly 3,500 families, and in its evaluation of the High Quality School Campaign, the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that roughly 73 percent of families found this service very helpful, and 89 percent would recommend DCSRN to a friend or family member.

Virtual School Tours: Visiting schools on your screen 

In working with parents, DCSRN began to understand that a major barrier to choosing schools was the ability to visit multiple schools in-person; this became even more of a challenge for families with multiple children. An idea quickly emerged: bring schools to families. “We knew that we wouldn’t be able to mitigate all the barriers to visiting schools,” said Patrick Corvington, DCSRN’s executive director. “But we also understood that no solution was not a solution.”

It was parents who first raised the idea that virtual school tours might be the answer. At first there was the notion of having schools present to parent groups, and while useful, that did not provide the texture and “feel” of the schools.

Parents wanted to see classrooms, meet teachers and parents, and overall get a sense of what their child’s experience would be. After conducting several focus groups and interviews, DCSRN created virtual school tours, professionally produced, unbiased videos that take families on a thorough tour of each school.

Each tour has a suite of around twelve videos that showcase not only interviews with the principal, teachers, students and parents, but also feature individual videos on extra-curriculars, class time, lunch, passing periods, and more. The 5-7 minute teaser that gives families a quick view of all aspects of a school day. If families want more information, they can view the other videos that go into greater depth. As a result, parents are able to view the different aspects of the culture of a school without having to visit in-person.

Because internet access and time can also be barriers, DCSRN hosts regular Virtual School Movie Nights, inviting families to watch tours together and meet with school staff in an informal setting.

Corvington says the tours have the potential to “expose families to schools and curricula that they may not have experienced in their education journey to date.”

DCSRN works to only feature schools rated three stars or higher, based on D.C.’s five-star rating system that looks at a variety of metrics. If a school in their library drops in ratings, the team archives the tour, pulling it from public view. Similarly, they keep a close eye to ensure the videos stay current, filming interviews with new principals when there is turnover at a featured school.

Corvington says the best thing families can do is tour a school in person but barriers to visits shouldn’t prohibit families from experiencing a school: “These tours don’t replace a family physically being there. However, virtual school tours go a long way to relieving the burdens and barriers to visiting multiple schools while trying to meet the school application deadline.” 

Interested in learning more about how DCSRN started or sustains their virtual tour library? Reach out for a connection. And, stay tuned: DCSRN will soon be re-introduced as ConnectED.

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Ashley Schmidt

Ashley is PIE Network's Senior Director of Member Engagement & Communications

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