Finding the right school for your family is often an important part of any home search.
In a Realtor.com survey of prospective buyers, 73 percent said school boundaries were a key factor in their selection, and 78 percent relaxed their real estate wish list to get into their preferred district, giving up things like a garage, a large backyard and updated kitchen.
But figuring out which school measurements matter, especially if moving in from out of town, can be tricky. Home buyers rank high test scores as a hallmark of a good school, according to the Realtor.com survey, followed by accelerated programs, arts and music, diversity, and before- and after-school programs.
But how many lessons are devoted to test prep, how much teacher training goes on during the school year, how much recess kids get, whether your family will fit into the school culture — all those things are harder to measure.
Scores and numbers are nice to review, but they don’t tell the complete picture. Before you start looking for schools and homes, understand and identify the needs of your family, and build your own list of criteria against which to rate your school options.
Areas to consider when choosing a school:
Your child’s needs
Academics (e.g. test scores, student-to-teacher ratio, teacher training) Special services and programs (e.g. IEP, advanced placement) Learning style (e.g. lecture-driven, hands-on) Subject matter focus (e.g. STEM, arts) Extracurriculars (e.g. sports, theater, student government) Diversity of the student body
Your own needs
Other parents share your values Volunteer opportunities Parent-teacher relationships (e.g. PTA) Logistics (e.g. transportation, before and after school care)
Your child’s needs
All schools have strengths and weaknesses, so make a list of your requirements. Indicate what’s a non-negotiable for your kid, and what’s a wish list item.
For example, does your child require special services or programs? Thirteen percent of all public school students receive special education services, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Maybe your child needs support from an individual education program (IEP), which are special education services for children with learning or attention disabilities, or an occupational therapist who helps your child participate in the full range of school activities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that schools must provide these services, but some schools may do a better job than others.
Or perhaps you want an advanced placement track or have a gifted student. Federal law does not mandate that schools provide special programs for gifted children; it’s the responsibility of local schools, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. Parents should research schools that offer these programs because they will vary in type and quality.
Also consider how your child learns. Maybe they thrive under strict schedules, lecture-driven learning and strong discipline. Perhaps they prefer hands-on learning and moving at their own pace. Consider the subjects that hold your child’s interest. Some schools offer a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or the arts.
Extracurriculars can enhance a child’s educational experience. Consider the activities your child enjoys, such as sports, theater, student government, or social or academic clubs. Also determine how important student body diversity is to your family.
Finally, consider your end goal. If your child will be college-bound, you’ll want a curriculum that gets them ready. Some high schools offer dual-enrollment classes through local community colleges that allow kids to earn college credits and save on tuition. If your child might prefer a technical skill or trade, some schools offer classes or even apprenticeships in high school.
Your own needs
While schools support your child, don’t overlook your needs as a parent. Choosing a school where parents share your values will help to create a more positive experience for everyone. Perhaps Dad is a stay-at-home parent and would benefit from a school community where that’s not unusual.
If both parents work full-time, you will appreciate a school that considers the needs of working parents. Maybe you like to volunteer as a class parent or teacher’s helper and want a school that offers those opportunities. Or perhaps you feel strongly about having a voice in school decisions, so want a school with a strong parent-teacher association (PTA).
Finally, consider logistics. You may require before- and after-school care. Some schools offer this service onsite for a fee. Or you may need transportation to and from school. While many public schools offer bus service, the state of Indiana’s Supreme Court, for example, ruled that it was not a constitutional right, according to Indiana Public Media.
Some schools don’t offer to bus, even for first graders, within two miles of its location. Understanding your own relationship with the school will give you additional criteria to add to your list before you start to look.
Start your school search
Once you’ve considered the ideal educational experience for your family, start researching the best fit. If you’re moving to a new city or state, you can gather information online. The National Center for Education Statistics provides data for each school district, such as student/teacher ratio and demographics.
Another source of information is GreatSchools, a national nonprofit that digs a little deeper, offering standardized test scores, college readiness, program information and parent reviews. U.S. News & World Report also publishes its “Best High Schools Rankings” report each year based on student performance.
While it’s reassuring to see that a school is performing well, standardized test scores are snapshots in time. They reflect a student’s ability to recall memorized facts, but they don’t measure creativity or deep thinking, nor do they necessarily predict a child’s future success.
Visit a district or school website to learn about the staff. Visit teachers’ web pages to glean information on their teaching style and the types of projects they assign. Check the school’s calendar to get a feel for activities and community involvement.
Embrace social media. Visit a school’s Facebook page, where parents will often share photos and comments. You can also check Yelp to see if a page for the school has been created and if anyone has shared their own experiences. Or try RateMyTeachers.com, where parents and students can leave feedback on high school teachers and administrators.
Pay a visit
If possible, visit the school and talk to the staff. Schedule a tour and meet with administrators and teachers. How welcoming are they? When you visit during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up, you can get a feeling about the school’s community, watching teachers and parents interact. Some principals stand outside and greet students as they arrive. Watch the parents. Do they seem friendly?
Inside the school, do you feel welcome? Are the facilities well-kept and clean? If the staff isn’t friendly during pre-enrollment visits, that might predict future interactions. Observe a classroom. Do the teachers seem enthusiastic and the students engaged? As you walk the halls, look for displays of students’ work, which will give you a sense of the projects your child might do when they enroll.
Ask the administration and teachers about the list of needs you created.
What makes your school different from others?
Describe the community and families who are part of your school.
Does the school have a mission statement or educational philosophy?
What type of projects will my child be asked to complete?
How do you accommodate children with different learning styles?
How much homework is typically assigned?
How do you handle behavior problems or bullying?
How do you monitor and measure student progress?
How can parents become involved?
What kind of technology do you offer and how often is it updated?
What extracurricular opportunities do you offer and which are most popular?
Seek out parents who have children in the district. Check the school’s website to see if any volunteer contact information is shared, such as a PTA president. Post a question on the school Facebook page. Ask your friends they know anyone in the area — you’d be surprised how often someone in your network can help.
Or simply approach someone during your school visit. Once you find other parents, ask them the same questions you asked the administrators and teachers, and gauge whether their answers are similar. Also ask what they like most and least about the school.
While the decision of choosing a new school is a parent’s, children can also be a part of the vetting process. If the school allows children to accompany you on the tour, watch your child as he or she meets the principal, teachers and staff. After the visit, ask your child what they liked most about the new school and what they liked least. A child who is excited about their new school may have an easier transition.
If visiting schools isn’t possible, schedule phone calls with principals and ask your list of questions. As you narrow your options, set up phone calls with the teachers your child would have. You might ask if a video call is an option.
Making your choice
Once you have found schools where you and your child will be comfortable, you can start the search for your new family home. Home values in top-rated districts can be 49 percent higher than the national median, according to a study by Realtor.com. This could mean a home there is a great investment, or, that area may be out of reach. You’ll need to weigh your budget and finances.
Keep in mind that school district boundaries change. Contact the school’s administrative office to inquire whether rezoning is in the near future so you can have the most current information for your search.
Some cities allow children to attend a public school outside of their district if the school isn’t at full enrollment. Some operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, while others hold a lottery to fill empty seats. Some districts also allow school-of-choice, where students can attend another school within their own district.
Charter schools offer another option, with an enrollment of 2.8 million students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A hybrid of a public and private school, charters offer an emphasis on a certain subject or educational philosophy, such as STEM or independent study.
While public schools may have a strong focus, they’re bound to a curriculum based on the state’s education board’s decision; charter schools have flexibility in creating their own curriculum, as long as they perform up to the standards identified in their charter.
Unlike most public schools, charter schools may or may not offer bus transportation or sports, so here again, your family’s needs come into play. Students must apply to attend a charter school, and if more students apply than a school has spots, the school will hold a randomized blind lottery to determine who can enroll, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
A happy child is an important part of a successful move, so do your homework. By comparing your family’s needs with the information you’ve gathered from the schools, you can make an informed and confident choice for your child’s next school. Create a back-up plan in case the school you choose doesn’t work out or you can’t find a home within its district.
Having a list of your top two or three schools will allow you to change course if needed. It’s true that school districts can affect a home’s purchase price and resale value, but having children who are engaged and learning is priceless.
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