Spring is right around the corner, and that means it’s time for parents to start thinking about fall enrollment. If you plan to send your child to a new school, there are many factors to consider.
At this time of year, most private and many public schools are deep into their tour cycle, which is when they try to convince prospective parents that their school is the best. As a former teacher, I remember this season well—welcoming large groups of bewildered parents each Friday and answering their questions as I try to keep my students focused and engaged. Now that I have a child fast approaching his elementary school years, I am diving into these deeper conversations about what makes a “good” school from the parent perspective. As you consider where you will be sending your child to school this fall, use the following criteria to help make your decision.
Type of School
At the basic level, you should know the different types of schools to choose from. Public schools are open to all neighborhood children, while charter schools vary widely and have different entrance requirements. Both public and charter schools are free. Parochial schools are affiliated with religious institutions and often require families to complete an application and pay tuition. Likewise, independent schools require an application and tuition but are unaffiliated with religious institutions. To learn more about the different schools in your area and their requirements, look at their websites and plan a visit.
Many people think high test scores mean a school must be good, while others base their opinions on whether a school offers art or foreign languages. While test scores can certainly indicate how well a school is doing in some areas, they don’t always paint a holistic picture of a school. Maybe your neighborhood school has low test scores, but they also offer smaller class sizes, extra art-enrichment and project-based learning. Perhaps the “best” school in your city is ranked highest due to the high standardized test scores, yet the teacher retention rate is terrible. So use test scores as one data point, but be sure to schedule school tours. You will discover so much about the school’s culture that is not reflected in scores.
Know Your Child
Schools draw you in with buzzwords and shiny exteriors. You might tour a potential school for your incoming kindergartener and absolutely fall in love. I get it. Sometimes we see a school that we would have loved to attend. For me, it is always a big beautiful library and an art studio. Here’s the thing, though, just because a school sweeps you off your feet doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will thrive.
Consider what you know about your child. Do you have a super-active kid who needs a lot of movement and outside time in their day? Does your child love to read already? Does your child do well in large groups, or do they need a quieter environment to process information?
As you tour schools, keep these things in the back of your mind and imagine your child at the school. What would their day-to-day life look like? How would your child fare in this setting? What challenges might you see? What would make them shine? When thinking about what kind of school might work best for your child, also consider the curricular elements. For example, would your child learn best in a project-based learning environment or something focused on arts education? What kinds of social emotional curriculum or social justice programs are available, and how might they affect your child’s experience?
Think Beyond Kindergarten
Many people tour schools with the upcoming school year in mind, however, you’ll also want to consider how this school will grow with your child. For example, while you might fall in love with the gorgeous kindergarten classroom and enthusiastic teacher who takes her classes on field trips every week, you’ll want to consider what happens when your child transitions to first, second, or fifth grade. Do teachers follow a set curriculum, or is the curriculum dependent on the teacher’s experience and creativity? Does the school prioritize the arts in all grades and classrooms, or do individual teachers have their own priorities? Visit multiple classrooms and talk to parents, teachers, and students in older grades as well. While teachers are an important part of the school, many come and go. Knowing what is teacher- versus school-dependant can help you decide if a school will be a good long-term fit for you and your child.
While the frequency and type of communication you receive from a school might not seem important right now, it will be the primary way you find out what your child is doing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for the next several years. So it’s pretty important.
Some schools use a consistent communication system such as Schoology, School Circle, or ClassDojo to let you know what is happening. Other schools rely on individual teachers to come up with their own methods of communication, which can range from a monthly newsletter to home visits or emails. What kind of communicator you are is going to influence how you interact with your school community, teacher, and administration team. Do you like seeing photos and real-time updates? Do you prefer in-person check-ins? Your child isn’t the only one joining a school community, you are as well. Consider how you want to send and receive communication with teachers and admin now and in the long term.
Most schools have adopted some kind of policy on school-wide discipline that translates into management and discipline strategies within the classroom. There are many different opinions and philosophies about what works best, and there is no perfect method. Think back to what you know about your child and your own belief system to decide if a school policy will work for your family.
When you tour a potential school, ask questions about their school-wide policies and beliefs about discipline. If you are excited about a school that prioritizes a specific practice, ask questions and then do your own research. Consider how you would feel should your child have a disciplinary issue. Would you agree with the system in place and feel good about your child participating within that system?
Does being a field trip chaperone really excite you? Are you anxiously awaiting the day you participate in lunchtime recess duty? When I had my older child, I imagined how I would want to be heavily involved in the day-to-day classroom environment as a regular volunteer. In reality, as he has become more independent and is attending longer hours at preschool, I’ve realized that I prefer being able to drop in for the occasional read-aloud or art project, but don’t need to volunteer on a regular basis.
Some schools have a minimum amount of time they expect each family to volunteer per year. Other schools discourage parental involvement within the classroom. Decide what kind of involvement works best for you and your family, and look for schools that fit those needs.
After School & Extracurriculars
Another factor you’ll want to consider is what kind of after-school programs or extracurriculars they offer. Some schools provide early drop-off and late pick-up with an extensive offering of after-school activities. Other schools outsource their after-school care to a local organization, like the YMCA, and provide off-site care. Depending on your work schedule, other children, and other needs, you’ll want to consider if after-school programming is something you’ll participate in. If so, ask questions about cost, space availability, and who provides the care—in addition to learning about the types of programs offered.
There is some flexibility if an activity or program is important to you or your child and the school you adore doesn’t offer it. For example, one of my former students was passionate about soccer and our school didn’t offer a school soccer team in the lower grades. So the K-1 parents formed their own school team. While an on-site after-school program might be desirable, other options might fit your needs as well.
Trying to find the perfect school for your child can feel overwhelming, but know that you can always make changes. You are your child’s most important advocate, and their needs will likely change over time. Maybe you find an amazing school, and it’s working really well. Then you realize your child needs some additional math support outside of school. You can work with the school, and you can also provide support at home with resources such as guided lessons or games.
Talking to current parents can provide a wealth of useful information. If you find a few schools that you are seriously considering, ask the administration to put you in touch with current parents at the school. These conversations can give you a good sense of how the school feels from a parental perspective versus an administrative or teacher perspective.
As you weigh the options between schools, consider creating a spreadsheet to have a visual of how schools are similar or different and identify your list of “must haves” (I know this sounds a bit intense, but I assure you it can be useful). I hope these tips have given you some insight into finding some hidden gems among the schools you tour this spring.
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.