Selecting a school for your child is really hard—especially when she’s five years old and you’re not entirely sure what her needs will be tomorrow, let alone in a few years. Often people look to test scores and lists compiled by “U.S. News & World Report” to choose a good school, but the definition of “good” isn’t the same for every kid.
From kindergarten until 10th grade, I went to an elite all-girls’ school in New York’s Manhattan (if you’re familiar with “Gossip Girl”, think Constance Billard School for Girls). In fourth grade, at the age of ten, we learned the definition of success: Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. And in eighth grade, we were expected to read (and understand) books that were typically taught at the college level. According to national rankings and affluent parents on the Upper East Side, this school wasn’t merely good, it was one of the best.
And yet, it wasn’t the best school for me. While my friends thrived in the high-pressured environment, I struggled to stay afloat. My learning style did not align with the school’s traditional approach to teaching, but because this was over 25 years ago and learning styles weren’t really a thing yet, my inability to memorize long poems and complete math worksheets in under two minutes was seen as an immutable flaw. I tried to mask my challenges with an air of indifference: “I totally didn’t study for this test. I couldn’t care less if I fail.”
After years of academic misery, I transferred to a school that used a hands-on approach to learning and emphasized their motto of non sibi sed cunctis (not for one’s self, but for all). We worked in small groups and took things apart in order to learn how they worked and did chores around the school every day because non sibi sed cunctis. It didn’t take long for both my grades and confidence to grow in this new environment. For the first time, I felt seen and heard and smart.
The first school I went to was a “wrong” fit, but it led me to a “right” one, which ultimately led me back to the classroom after I graduated from college. I was a teacher for a decade and during that time, I worked hard to make sure my students were seen and heard and that their needs were being met. Occasionally, this meant advising parents to explore other schools for their children.
I was recently talking with some mom-friends about the school-search process. “How do you even begin?” one friend asked. “What should I look for besides test scores?” asked a different friend. To help answer their questions, I created a guide with suggestions and tips for evaluating schools (below). Hopefully it will help you, too, in your quest for finding the right school for your child.
Before you begin your school search, do the following:
- Make a list of the values that are important to you and your family. Ideally these values will be reflected in your child’s school.
- Explore how your child learns best. (Not sure where to begin? Check out this article.) Keep your child’s learning style in mind throughout the search.
- Keep in mind: No matter which school your child ends up attending, the most important thing is that you listen to and advocate for your child.
To begin the school search
Explore all of the options in your area (public, charter, magnet, independent, parochial/religious—there are many different types of schools!), and educate yourself about public school lottery systems, charter school applications, and financial aid opportunities for independent schools.
Next, make a list of potential schools.
Dedicate some time to investigating each of them from multiple perspectives: research their online presence (their website and social media pages), attend open houses and tours, and try speaking directly with current parents. Take the following into consideration as you’re evaluating each school:
- Decide if location is important to you and your family. For some, convenience matters more than the perfect school—limiting commute time could mean more family time. And for others, location is the least important thing on their list—commute time could even mean extra time to chat on the drive home.
- Before/After Care and Extracurricular Activities
- Consider how your work hours line up with your child’s school day. Is childcare available before or after the school day?
- What kind of activities, sports, and/or clubs does the school offer that might interest your child?
- Check to see if your family’s values are reflected in the school.
- Look at the school’s mission statement.
- Do you believe in it? Does it align with your values?
- How is the mission reflected in the school’s practices—for example, if they say they are progressive, what do they do that is progressive? Or if they claim to foster environmental stewardship, how is that integrated into everyday life and the curriculum? (If the school does not have a mission statement, does it have a cohesive vision or philosophy?)
- Decide if diversity—and your definition of diversity—is an important factor for you and your family.
- Look at the school’s statistics (including students of color, gender, religion, socio-economic diversity, family structure, staff of color, physical abilities, etc.).
- Is the school actively trying to create a diverse community? How? What are they doing specifically to take action?
Learning Styles and Teaching Methodologies
- Look at the school’s philosophy of education (if available), their approach to teaching, and their curriculum.
- Which methodologies do they use in their classrooms? Will those methodologies work for your child—for example, will your child do well with project-based learning or will they thrive in an environment that is more skill-driven?
- How does the school differentiate for various learning styles?
- If the school says they implement “personalized learning,” what does that mean in that particular school? What does it look like? Will that work for your child?
- Which support services or systems do they offer for students with learning differences and/or giftedness?
- Who creates the curriculum? Do the teachers? Is it scripted or pre-packaged? Do they use textbooks and worksheets?
- How is technology used in the school?
- Does the school incorporate social-emotional learning into their curriculum?
- How does the school handle conflict in the classroom and/or on the playground?
- Is there a dedicated school counselor on staff?
- How much play or free time do the students get each day?
Leadership and Teacher Retention
- Find out how long the Head of School or Principal has been at the school.
- Do some research to find out more about him or her. Are teachers happy with him or her? Does he or she interact with students? Do parents feel heard and supported?
- Find out what the school’s teacher turnover rate is.
- Do teachers leave frequently? Why? What happens when a teacher leaves mid-year?