Choosing the right school for your child can be an overwhelming prospect.
After all, the choices you make early on can have a significant impact later. Elementary schools often feed to particular middle schools, which in turn feed to particular high schools. And once one sibling starts down an educational path, subsequent siblings are likely to follow. With open enrollment available in some form in every state — and with an increasingly broad range of other school choice options — families have more educational decisions to make than ever before.
Read below for tips on questions you should ask. You can also listen to advice from Suzanne Podhurst, Noodle's Editor-in-Chief, on the podcast Lifehacks for Working Moms with Megan Strand.
Here are 10 things parents should consider when deciding on the right K–12 school for their child:
1. Read the school's mission statement.
Does it use words like "nurture" and "support," or words like "discipline" and "organize"? A school conveys a lot about its ethos in its mission statement — listen to what schools communicate, and take their messages to heart.
2. Look at the numbers — all of the numbers.
You'll want to see how schools stack up on standardized tests like the PARCC. But student test scores are just one piece of the numerical puzzle. You'll also want to consider factors that are important to your family — whether those are graduation rates or student-to-teacher ratios. Noodle's K–12 report cards provide scores for educational quality, cost of living, climate (which includes such factors as bullying and truancy rates), and outcomes. See how the schools you're considering measure up with this search tool. Some states, like Nevada, also offer school-by-school statistics on discipline and other factors.
3. Understand the curriculum.
Ask about what your child would be learning, and about whether there are gifted or other programs that meet her needs. Does the school employ education innovations like flipped classrooms? Consider how each school's instructional philosophy and methods suits (or doesn't) your child's temperament and learning style.
4. Consider a school's capacity to serve students with learning disabilities.
Especially if your child is still in preschool, you may not yet know whether she has a learning disability like dyslexia, which affects one in five people. Ask each school about the supports and accommodations that are available for students with learning disabilities — and about whether the school is equipped to provide those services, or whether it typically sends students to nearby institutions.
5. Inquire about educational pathways.
Ask about where students go after they graduate. Do most fifth-graders progress to a particular middle school (and is that school a potential fit for your child)? Do high schoolers graduate — and at what rates — and what are their next steps? Asking these questions will not only give you a sense of your child's prospective educational track, but also about the level of stability she's likely to experience. Some students do best when they are surrounded by a core group of classmates throughout the course of their K–12 education; others thrive on change. Greater stability may also correlate with higher levels of parent involvement (see #6 below).
6. Ask about parent involvement.
A school has to be a great fit not just for your child, but also for your family. Ask each school about its levels of parent involvement. Is there a thriving PTA for which parents are expected to volunteer several hours each week? Is there no PTA and a history of chronically underfunded class trips and activities? Think about what is expected of parents, what you would like — and have the capacity — to do, and how you would prefer to get involved. If you can, talk to families who send students to the schools you're considering. Ask about their experiences (both good and bad), and about what makes the school a good fit (or not) for them.
7. Walk the walls.
This idea is borrowed from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, where administrators do three-minute walk-throughs that provide insights into students' classroom experiences. When you're visiting a school, take the opportunity to see what's on display — it not only shows what students are working on, but also what teachers consider worthy of presentation. If you can, you should also sit in on classes so you can see what material students are covering and how they engage with it.
8. Observe the environment.
Is there a dress code? What are class sizes like? Do students get lots of individualized attention? Do students sit in rows or in circles? Are they encouraged to raise their hands, or to speak freely when ideas occur to them? Each kid will benefit most from an environment that suits her temperament and academic needs. Consider whether your child thrives in a structured setting or when given the freedom to explore.
9. Investigate teacher satisfaction.
Teaching is a calling — but it's also a job. Consider how administrators treat teachers, and how teachers view administrators. Look at the school board, and consider how active it is. For public schools, you may be able to find out whether teachers are well-paid. Also look at turnover — does a school have many teachers who have been there for five or more years, or do teachers tend to stay for a year or two before moving on? When teachers have high levels of job satisfaction, they tend to stay on at schools, to be active participants in extracurricular activities, and to serve as mentors for students throughout their K–12 education. In short, happy teachers often correlate with happy students and families.
10. Find information about a school's financial circumstances.
Particularly for private schools, it is important to find out about financial stability. You want to ensure that you'll be sending your child to a school that can pay its teachers (see #9 above) — and that will still be open in a few years' time, when either your child or her siblings may matriculate or graduate.
Finally, remember that no school is perfect. Even if you do all of the above research and find the school best-suited to your child, there will be still be aspects of the educational experience that you don't love. That's OK, too. Just as your children learn how to pursue their ambitions from encouraging teachers, innovative curricula, and exciting technology tools, they also learn how to cope with adversity from the challenges they face. If they are in a school that's a good fit, there will be many more successes than struggles — and both experiences will be valuable.