If you’re like many modern parents, your own parents’ school choices were simple: kids walked to the local public school or attended the town’s religious school. In contrast, many parents today face a dizzying array of options, from magnet programs, charter schools, virtual schools, and private school vouchers to religious and independent schools.
“There are great schools out there, but the school that most closely meets a child’s needs is the best one for him,” says Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. “It may not be the best school for the neighbor’s child, and if you have two or more kids, it may not be the best school for a sibling.”
Here are some issues to consider when choosing or changing schools:
- Your child’s needs: Weigh school size, class size, and special programs or interests. Does she need the personalized experience of a small school or the social interaction of a larger community? Single sex or co-ed? Many schools offer signature programs such as foreign language immersion or a focus on science or performing arts. Does your child have special academic needs, whether the challenge of rigorous course offerings or a curriculum adapted for children with learning differences?
- Your family’s needs: Consider transportation, before- and after-school care, and cost of tuition if applicable. No matter how great the school, “if it’s two hours away, it’s not a good fit. It’s too disruptive to the family,” says McGovern.
- Academics: Examine test score data, then dig deeper and look at the school’s curriculum, style of teaching, and educational philosophy. “Some parents aren’t comfortable if they don’t see desks in a row,” says Jodi Goldberg, director of local programs for GreatSchools, which offers a comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Right School and parent ratings of over 120,000 schools. “If you’re not comfortable walking into your child’s school, then you’re not going to be involved. The child will take cues from the parent.”
- Extracurriculars: Experts say art, music, and sports can teach discipline, foster creativity, and help children become more engaged in school. Are these “specials” integrated into the school day? Available after school?
- School finances: Look at the school’s financial health. “Is the school being managed well?” asks Audrey Williams, public affairs manager of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. Occasionally, schools close mid-year, leaving students scrambling.
- School culture: Make sure the school’s values match your own. Is the environment nurturing or competitive? Is the faculty and student body diverse? Is parent involvement expected? Is there a dress code or uniforms?
Start the process a year in advance, as many schools have waiting lists or lottery deadlines. Be sure to visit classes, meet the principal, and talk to parents. Though it may seem daunting, investigate all your options. Says Goldberg: “You’re hopefully not making this choice too many times, so you want to explore all your options the first time.”