Moving is never easy, but it can be a wonderful new beginning for families, including those with school-aged children.
Finding a great new school is also a little easier than it used to be, thanks to the Internet, which can help you find everything from a school’s test scores to neighborhood crime reports.
“You have to find a nice balance between factors that are important to you,” said Jane (not her real name), a mother of four school-aged children. Her family recently moved from an insular New England town with excellent public schools to Seattle, a city in which a spot in the neighborhood public school is not always guaranteed, and a quarter of school-aged children attend private school.
Finding the Right Fit
Parents should look at student performance at the schools they’re considering. You can find this information using Noodle's K–12 search engine, which provides a Noodle Report Card on each school profile.
State education statistics can also be found at the U.S. Department of Education’s Nation’s Report Card, or the education department in your district and state. Most of these ratings are based on test scores alone, so use them just to get an idea of the school’s standing. The more important aspect of finding a great school is finding a great school for your child. The “best” school may not be the best school for your child.
Alison Bower, a Seattle educational consultant who helps families navigate the school selection process, starts the school search by sending her clients a questionnaire about what they are looking for in a school. “Parents need to know who their child is and how their child learns best,” she says.
Parents should have a clear vision of how a school will support a child’s growth and happiness, said Bower. Children should enjoy school, both academically and socially — they should enjoy how they are learning and who they do it with.
Public Vs. Private School
But even the most ambitious of school quests starts with a very basic question: “The first question is always ‘public or private, or open to both?’” said Bower.
“It’s the difference between running cross country and a running a sprint,” said “Kathy,” an elementary school teacher on the distinction between public and private schools. At a private school, kids can take longer to come up to speed in their learning, whereas at public schools (which are typically bound by more stringent benchmarks of achievement), kids are taught to certain standards on a district-implemented timeframe.
As a public school teacher, she has found that parents often don’t understand a school’s philosophy and mission.
“It’s funny how many parent come in and totally don’t understand what the school is offering,” Kathy said. Many come because of school reputation alone. She encourages parents to “read the school’s mission statement, and know your child, and know what you want for your child’s education.”
Bower similarly advocated for considering overall fit — not just for the child, but for the family. She had a client who felt she had to send her child to private school, despite the financial hardship and long commute. Bower urged her to think about how the tuition savings could be applied on vacations, tutoring, activities, or even a health club with a masseuse for the stressed-out mom.
Affording private school can be aided by school vouchers, which help some students pay for all or some tuition costs at qualifying schools. Vouchers are offered in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
Sometimes it can benefit parents to venture out of their comfort zones. Bower had a client who had never even seen the inside of a public school, but lived in a neighborhood that offered a great public school just two blocks from her home. She recommended that the client consider the local public school. Another client was adamant that her children should not go a parochial school. Bower urged her to try a few religious schools, and she found what she was looking for and realized that the religious component of the curriculum was primarily focused on lessons about morality.
Location and Logistics
Convenience is a real factor in choosing a school because it affects daily family life to a huge extent. “Do you really want a place that is far from your house?” asks Bower. Your commute can have an impact on your ability to set up playdates or the time you have to leave your office to pick up your child.
Our family toured a respected elementary school in our town and found its newly remodeled library so impressive. Full of new books, large tables, hand-carved chairs, and a view of the mountains, it also had a full-time librarian and many volunteers. Yet at morning drop-off, we noticed that most parents drove their kids to school, a pattern that indicated that a lot of students didn’t live in the immediate area. The school secretary confirmed that more than half of their students came from outside the district. Because we wanted a neighborhood school, we decided that it wasn’t the right place for us.
Considering School Community
The school community is a factor to consider, as well. The parents will be your people. Does the school have an involved community with many parent volunteers? Do the other parents seem to place the same importance on things that are important to you? While this is not an absolute factor in school decision, if you send your children to a school where most parents share your values, it will be easier for you to convey those ideas to your children.
“We did not want a really insular community,” said Jane “I like communities that have people coming and going.” When she was younger, the mother had transferred to a high school where most of the kids had been together since kindergarten. It resulted in a very clique-oriented student body.
Through her family’s move, her own children would also get more student diversity, which she felt was a positive for them at this point, but it wasn’t a factor in her family’s school search. She wanted to see kids who were supported by their parents at home, a factor that she believes is apparent by the confidence of children. “I like kids who look parents in the eye,” she said.
Looking for Clues
School tours often happen in the fall or after admissions. It’s important to ask whether visits and tours are open to children. Usually, younger kids are invited to the school after they have applied, and there is a special event set up for applicants later at which — yes — school administrators will be assessing children to see how they get along with others, how they listen to the teacher, and if they are intent on learning.
“You are looking for a school that fits. Put an emphasis on process,” said Bower, meaning that you want to see how children are learning. You do this by walking the walls, or exploring the student work on the walls as a reflection of what the teacher was aiming for in the lesson — and an indication of how the students responded.
One parent, “Lilly,” toured a small school with a strong academic reputation. The administrators seemed smart and knew a lot of the students by name. There were plenty of volunteers on hand, many of them retired teachers, to help administer the statewide testing that the students were taking at the time. The walls were filled primarily with student art, as opposed to class work.
“I loved it,” said Lilly. “I wanted to go there and send my kids there. But it didn’t feel quite right for them at this stage of school. It had a sort of preschool vibe.”
You also want to look “for your child in the school,” advises Bower. “Walking through the school, find a kid who is like yours. You can feel your child in a school.”
Yearbooks are also telling. I looked at the yearbook for an elementary school in the Edgemont school district in New York, a highly regarded school district. The graduating class of sixth graders each wrote about themselves. Here, they could have written about their favorite animal or that they loved Katy Perry, but most entries were effusive about their elementary school experience and how much they enjoyed it.
The morning drop-off is also a good gauge of how well the school is run, and that can inform you about the school community. Do administrators welcome the children? Do they assist in getting kids from cars to school? How are the parents relating to one another?
Using Your Child’s Opinion (Kind Of)
Jane’s family toured a few schools with their children. “A lot of our reaction was based on our children’s reactions to schools,” said Jane. One school struck the family as a very mature environment for children. “You could feel how serious and intelligent the students were. You were going to put your nose to the grindstone and work there.” Another school, which the parents hadn’t seriously considered, was her children’s favorite. “The administrators talked to my kids and asked them about themselves.”
Children should be a part of the school vetting process, but don’t rely too much on a younger child’s opinion. Bower has seen children base their favorite school choice on what kind of refreshments were served at the tour. She remembered that having eight different flavors of cupcakes offered at the open house was a real draw for some kids.
The decision about where to go to school is best left to parents. “That decision is not a child’s decision, particularly middle school and younger. They are too young to bear that burden,” Bower advises.
Dealing with Rejection
Parents must also be prepared for the inevitable situation in which their kids don’t get into some schools. Kids know that they are applying to be accepted or rejected from a private school, and that fact, on top of changing schools, can be draining.
“Parents have to do the work,” says Bower. “You want to be thinking ahead about that. Kids will riff off the vibe you give. You have to practice having conversations with your child. You don’t have to tell your children whether they were accepted or not. A simple statement such as ‘we have decided that you will go to school here, and we want you to go to the right school for you’ protects a child from the oddness of school rejection at such a young age.”
Finding a great school may also be as simple as making whatever school your child goes to a great fit for your child. Engaged and supportive parents go a long way in helping kids feel good about where they end up.
At one competitive school, the admissions director told a group of prospective parents that whether their children were accepted or not, they were still worthy of love, and parents should be proud of them. Bower was among the parents and thought to herself how absurd it was that a school administrator thought that parents would think less of their children based on whether they got into a school. She had some choice words that I am not going to type here.
“Keep it in perspective,” advises Bower.
Child Development Institute. “Helping Kids Cope With Moving.” Retrieved from Child Development Institute.
Education World. “Administrators Praise Three-Minute Walk-Throughs.” Retrieved from Education World.
Mourtos, Stacy. Metroparent. “Finding a New School Checklist.” Retrieved from Metroparent.
National Conference of State Legislatures. “School Voucher Laws: State-by-State Comparison.” Retrieved from: National Conference of State Legislatures.