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What Are the Top Ten Considerations in Choosing a School?

 When looking at a Preschool or Early elementary setting for your child, consider:


1. Your child


 This truly the only place to start. Your child will be at the school you select for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for at least the next six years (assuming you are looking for a K-5 setting). They need to be in a place that: 


Appreciates them for who they are. Is your child shy? Gregarious? Thoughtful? Creative? The school you choose should appreciate your child as a complex whole, as a great kid - because they are.


Feeds their passion. Is it Music? Writing? Math? Science? All of the above? Not sure yet? Choose a place that can not only support your child now, but can grow with them as their passions change and grow.  


Meets their key needs. This is a tricky one. I have worked with children with special needs for many years and I have been a part of decisions to place a child in a setting that the family feels the child will “grow into” - and meet their needs at a later time. Occasionally, the kids do grow into the selected setting - which is great. Sometimes, they don’t. What that means is their needs aren’t being met in the now OR in the future. For any child, I feel that immediate success in a setting is a critical part of helping them feel competent and confident in school. Pick a setting you can envision your child in - playing, working, making friends -  and that is the one where your child will be successful on their first day of school.  


So to do that you need to figure out what your child’s key needs are - and that is the difficult part. For some kids, what they need to have in their consistently in their first educational setting is obvious. My nephew, for instance, is one of the fastest moving kids I have ever seen.  For Kindergarten, he will probably need a school that supports active learners with opportunities for athletics and movement during and after school. His family doesn’t have to think too much about his key needs - they and his past teachers know what he needs to feel successful in his day. However, for other children, this process isn’t as straightforward. Identifying what you child needs to have in their school day and prioritizing those needs (see #4) is essential to finding a setting that meets them  consistently. When you do that, you have the capacity to find a special place that supports your child where it matters most. 


2. Your family


Your educational values and priorities are shaped by many factors. Your education - and your feelings about your education. Your family’s education - and their history. Your culture, your ethnicity - and where you grew up. If you are parenting with another person, the same goes for them as well. (And a little bit of a news flash - your educational history, values, etc. might be different from one another.) All these pieces (and more) create a picture what you and your partner perceive is a “good education” for your child.


 If that picture is crystal clear for you (and shared between you and your partner) - great. Then selecting a school that matches that picture should be fairly easy.  If your picture is fuzzy, or doesn’t match your partner’s, then it is going to be more of a challenge. 


Some people might look at this part of their school search as something they might do by feel - “I know a good school when I see it” kind of a thing. In part, I think that is true (see #8). However, if you don’t know what is most important to your family in terms of a school you will, in the end, find it difficult to prioritize and choose (see #4). An elementary school that offers French as a language is a great benefit to a child - but is it more important than having a up-to-date technology center, or having a project-based curriculum,  or having a school garden, or having experienced, tenured teachers, or having a library staffed with a librarian... or, or, or. You get the picture. Without having specific qualities in a school to point at, it makes it difficult to begin your school search (how do you know where to start if everything is equally important); it will be difficult  to hone your search; and it will be extremely difficult to make a final decision.


In talking to your partner (or someone you trust, see #5) about their values regarding schools and education, some good starter conversations might be: 


  • Examining educational histories - thinking about experiences you had and would love for your child to also experience and situations/school settings you would like him/her to avoid. Additionally, bringing in the memories of extended family in remembering really what Kindergarten was like for you or your partner might also be helpful. 
  • Thinking about optimal school climate and culture - what would a school be like that supported your particular family’s uniquenesses? Start with broad descriptors (like traditional, faith-centered, progressive, warm, professional, etc.) and then move to the detailed descriptions of your vision as soon as you can. What would the ideal school look like? Feel like? Sound like? What would you see there on a regular basis? Be specific as you co-create your vision with your partner. 
  • If you had to pick three school amenities (garden, music program, computer lab, athletics, etc.) that were the most important to you, what would they be and why? Try to agree on the top three - it will make looking for a school with your three priorities easier to find. 


And if this wasn’t enough - there is one more thing. This picture of a “good education” that you are creating with your partner or trusted friend.... is actually separate from your child’s needs in a school. While difficult to do, you need to balance what makes your family at ease with a school choice while looking at your child key needs (see #1) at the same time. Because if you and your partner don’t feel comfortable at your child’s school, guess who else won’t feel comfortable? Your child.  


3. Distance, Time, and Money


This is the nitty gritty section of school choice. Take some time to compare the day to day aspects of your child attending school, including school location, school start and end times, and cost. Considering these key factors as a part of your decision making process is important in choosing a school that meets your family’s needs in an essential, practical way. Figure out for your family:

  • How far away can your school be from your home? Does it need to be near public transit? In a certain area to help with commuting? 
  • What time does school start and end daily? (Note: this varies greatly from school to school for the Kindergarten year.) Will you need before care or after care due to work schedules? Do your chosen schools have it available - or will you need to organize outside care? 
  • The money. No matter what the setting, there is money involved in kids attending school. Before care. After care. Tutoring. Enrichment classes. Transportation. School donations. School supplies. Field Trips. Uniforms. If you are looking at private schools, then other costs (a.k.a. tuition, annual funds, auctions, etc.) come into play.  If money is a concern for your family (like most of us), creating a school budget might be a necessary component of school selection.

One last note on practical decisions: What little research that has been done on why families choose the schools they do, many families note distance, time and money as the ONLY factor they examine in looking for a school. While important for the health and well-being of a family, I feel strongly that this should not be your only point of decision (notice I put it third). If you don’t consider your child’s key needs (#1) and your family’s educational values (#2), then both you and your child could be very unhappy in your chosen setting - for years. That unhappiness can impact the academic and social progress of your child - and the stability of your family. It isn’t worth it - in my opinion. Drive a little farther (or carpool) for a place that meets the critical needs of your family. 


4. Prioritization


The bad news first: 


No school will have everything that you could ever want for your child and your family, be located down the street from your home, and cost nothing to attend. 


There isn’t one. 

I’m serious.

Stop looking for it. 

Really.


The absolutely, 100% perfect, optimal educational setting isn’t out there - and believe me, I’ve looked. Every place you consider will have aspects that are just what you have always wanted; have things that you are flexible with or could work around if needed; and have things you prefer weren’t present in the school setting. I don’t think I am being a Negative Nellie here - for the diversity of children and families that schools need to serve in the Bay Area we have a great deal of choice - but we don’t have a school designed for each individual child and family. 


There will be compromises ahead.  


Here’s the silver lining though, I do believe, with hard work and focus, that you can find a good school that meets your child and your family's key needs. But you have to identify with razor sharp focus: 

  • Your child’s top three key educational needs (see #1). Remember, these are the things that your child has to have in his school environment on a daily or at least regular basis or you can’t see them thrive there. For my daughter, I knew that she needed a small environment (a school with under 150 children with a high student-teacher ratio) because she is very shy and new situations are difficult for her. Without a small setting, I was concerned that she would be extremely stressed each day as she went to school So, a small, supportive environment with a social-emotional focus were my child’s three key needs. Identifying your child’s critical needs will help you create a field of schools for you to choose from and focus your search.
  •  Your family’s top three educational values (see #2). Be careful and specific in selecting your top three. If you say that you want a school that supports diversity - describe what that would look like to you; what you would see in the classrooms to represent that; and what school leaders would do regularly to support continuing diversity in the school community. Do not use generalities here - they won’t help you in your prioritization process. Create your own personal definition for each value and highlight what meets that specific criteria that in your search for a school (especially when you are reading the school promotional literature (#6) and visiting the school (#7)).  
  • The top two practical needs for your family (see #3). The more flexible you can be on distance, time, and money - the more options you will have available. For instance, if you can’t be flexible on money, then being flexible on location widens your choice options for schools.  If you can say, I will focus on only my child and family’s needs and not worry about distance or money - fantastic - but make sure that in the end you can truly make that commitment for a K-5 setting (that’s six years people). Looking at the long run is key - otherwise you will be looking for another school in a few years due to a financial or logistical strain on your family.


Once you have identified your critical areas of focus within your search, you can target schools that share your view - making the wide world of school choice just a little bit easier to manage.    


5. Find Some People You Trust


Obviously, I have a bias here because this is what I do for a living. Hiring an educational consultant to help you with identifying your child’s needs and your priorities in looking for a school can be a big support to a busy family. (Here’s our contact information.) But even if you decide that working with an educational consultant, isn’t for your family, finding a trusted friend (one who works in education?) or a partner family going through the same process to talk about impressions, share information, and commiserate can be a big support in everyone making it through to the end with their sanity intact. 



6. Read, Read, and Read Some More


Read the school website. Read the printed literature from the school. Read the district descriptions. Read what you can find on the internet (for East Bay schools look at Berkeley Parents’ Network as a good place to start). Highlight key phrases that show a school’s commitment to your “top three” priorities (see #4). Now, re-read - for what is missing. Make notes if a school doesn’t mention one of your top three in its printed material. Print out a review from BPN that gives a counter example of what you are looking for. Try to read critically for a balanced perspective on your schools of choice. Once you have gathered your information, make a file for each school you are looking at to keep your information easily at hand - and to help you keep them straight. 


7. Go and See For Yourself


This one is important. Really. I can’t even count the number of times I have talked to people about schools they are rejecting WITHOUT HAVING STEPPED FOOT INSIDE. So what if Suzie Q down the street said bad things about your local public school? Who cares if Greatschools.org gave it a 5? (See my blog post on thoughts on that...) The school might not be right for them - and it still might be right for your child.


The same works the other way. I have talked to families who applied to schools without going to a back to school night or a school tour - wanting to keep the process simple, thinking that they know what they want. I really understand that.  As parents, we have so many demands on our time - especially in the Bay Area. However, even if you are very sure that you want your child to attend your neighborhood school, or the school your best friend’s kid goes to...go at least have a look-see. On your day off (when school is in session) - or make an appointment that suits your schedule. This decision is too important to cut corners. 


When touring a school, remember to have your priorities in written form with you so you can highlight things that you see, hear, read, etc. that support them (or are a counter example of what you are looking for). Additionally, bring a file folder (to keep any printed information for the school organized) and a blank legal pad to take notes during the tour. These written reminders will be helpful in your end decision making process - keeping all the schools you visit straight will be hard to do once you are in the final stretch of decision making - so anything that can jog your memory will be valuable to you later.


8. Listen Deeply


When you visit a school, listen as closely as you can to a few different folks: 


School Leaders: This includes principals, heads of school, commanders in chief - basically the leaders of the school you are examining. These people are more important to a school than most people know - they set the tone for each and every school day. How they view children, teaching and learning, school climate, teachers, family involvement, discipline, collaboration, etc. impacts how decisions are made and what gets done. They select the teachers, the assistants, the substitutes, the custodians, the office staff. They make decisions about how the money is spent, how to handle an emergency at the school, how to handle a conflict between a parent and a teacher - big decisions and little decisions about how a school is run each day.  


Listen to everything that comes out of their mouths. And take them at their word.


Some might think I am being a little overdramatic here. But I am afraid I am not - this is 15 years in education talking. The leader of a school can change the climate of a place in a matter of months. A head of school can take a struggling school and make it a place where the best teachers in the city want to come and work. A principal can also drive the most dedicated teachers (and families) away in the same amount of time.  When they talk, listen to what they say about children, discipline, their staff, how they like their job. Listen to their “jokes” - because they will often show a glimmer of how that person actually feels about the topic that is a part of the punchline. And if they say, “Our school is geared towards children who are high achieving and can focus for long periods of time on a topic” - and your child has a more active learning style - don’t apply to that school.  They won’t do well there - the person in charge believes that they won’t - that they can’t - at a fundamental level. Listen, listen, listen.


School Admissions Counselors or District School Assignment Employees: While these people are hired to bring you into a school or a district, they sincerely desire a “good fit” between the family and the school selected.  In the private school sector, a child or a family who is a “poor fit” with a school will often speak ill of the school in the community - which doesn’t reflect well on the school that is trying to recruit new students every year (in a bad economy no less). In worse case scenarios, children who are not performing well at a private school are often “counseled out”  (a.k.a. asked to leave) - which isn’t a fun process for anyone. Selecting children and families that will be happy at a given school and thrive is the admissions office’s job.  Asking detailed questions about your child or your family and how you would fit into a school is a huge help to them - and to you - in making sure there are no missteps. 


At the public school level, this is less true - but often being nice to district folk doesn’t hurt. Go back to the district and ask again, and again, and again (in person if you can) - until you fully understand the district “choice” policies (often called the “lottery” system in our area) as well as policies on inter- and intradistrict transfers. Sometimes you can get great information about how to navigate a fairly complicated system through a friendly smile and persevering. 


Yourself: This is the part about listening your instincts. The part of you that knows your kid and knows what they need - even if you can’t always explain it to other people. Your gut reaction that tells you when feel comfortable walking through the doors of somewhere - and when you don’t. For some people, listening to the alarms that go off in your head (or the feeling of calm that passes through you) is really easy to do. For some people (me) it isn’t. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt - think the best of people. My brain says, “Well, maybe the teacher is having a bad day today, she looks  a little sleepy...or maybe the janitor was sick this week - and that is why the school is dirty....” To other people (you know who you are) every place seems suspect. Their brains say, “Did you see how organized that classroom was - that teacher has OCD for sure....”  Important to know which way you lean and still keep track of those gut reactions. Your instincts are critical to your comfort level with a school. Listen to those voices in your head as you look at a school - they mean something.


9. Stop and Reflect


Building in “stopping” points throughout the search process allows you to make sure you are focusing on your child and your family’s key needs and priorities (see #1, 2, and 4) throughout the search process. Having uninterrupted time (translated - get a babysitter) to stop and reflect with a partner, a trusted family member, or an educational consultant throughout your search is critical in making sure that you are on the proper course and you haven’t lost sight of what is most important. In addition, if you are making this decision with another person, you both could have completely separate takes on the schools you are looking at - so spending time together reviewing thoughts, information gathered, and perceptions is key to making sure that you both are on the same page throughout the process.


10. Realize That No Choice is Permanent


This thought is actually what got me through the process of buying a house in the Bay Area. Really (really) there is always a way out of a decision if things go awry. As I was signing my mortgage papers, I would deep breathe and tell myself, “you can always sell the house and move back to an apartment” - over and over again. In the school choice scenario, it is also true. Of course, no one wants to change schools in a year -  just like no one wants to sell their house in a panic. But if you have to you can and you do. There is never a place where you can't change course. 


If your family does need to start fresh in your search after a not-so-great first year, the silver lining is that you will have already gathered key information about what DOESN’T work for your child and your family - and you will have come out the other end smarter and more savvy than you were before.

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