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The 3 biggest pitfalls of picking an elementary school

Want to find the right school for your child? Avoid these common mistakes parents make when trying to choose the best educational experience.

By GreatSchools Staff

When it comes to deciding on a school for your child, the more choices you have, the better, right?

Sure, except that having more choices makes the school-choosing process all the more difficult as you struggle to answer questions like: Where will my child be happiest for the next few years? Is the popular public school near our house or the private school with the stellar scores a better bet? Is this school really as great as it seems?

To help parents avoid common pitfalls when choosing a school, we checked in with Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International. Perelstein, who has worked as an admissions officer, now advises parents on that sometimes crazy-making, but all-important, question: Which school will be best for my child?

1. Judging a school by the hallways

Maybe the school's been freshly painted a chipper chartreuse and the hallways are decorated with MOMA-worthy sculptures of endangered rain-forest animals. Or maybe the school resembles a dismal and dimly lit 1970s-era Eastern-bloc orphanage. Either way, don't let a cursory and superficial tour sell or sour you on a school. (Keep in mind: even a physically downtrodden school can have the best teachers and curriculum in town.) If you really want to get to know a school, get a sense of it where it matters most: in the classroom.

If you're seriously considering a school, ask to sit in on a couple classrooms and observe — for anywhere up to a half hour. That sounds like a lot of time, but your homework will serve you and your child well. See how involved, active, and inspirational the teachers are. Do they interact well with the students? Do the kids look bored, fidgety, or are they badly behaved? Check here for more questions to ask when touring a school.

2. Choosing a school based on the kindergarten class alone.

It's hard to picture your little one as a big kid, but she will be soon enough. So have as discerning an eye for the upper grades as kindergarten.

Do kids look happy and engaged? What's on the walls of the classrooms? What are the room layouts? What kind of special offerings — from academics to team sports to after-school programs — does the school offer older kids? To learn more on assessing an elementary school, check out these insider tricks.

3. Choosing a school without regard to location.

Although on the surface this may seem less important than other factors like test scores, parents should be able to get to the school without too much difficulty — either for emergencies or for school events. And if there's no school bus and little chance at carpooling, you might be making the trek twice a day, week after week, year after year.

As well, children should be able to easily have play dates with other kids — more difficult if they live far from the school. And if you want your child to stay for after-school activities (and that's where a lot of the good stuff happens!), you — not the school bus — will often be the one picking her up. More:fFree printable elementary school tour checklist.

Comments from readers

"What do I do if I chose a elementary school that is best and the principal from our school district won't approve the transfer? This school is not a good school and they are refusing transfer."
"Can I choose which school my child can go to if the designated school for my district does not have a cluster program for him? Which he needs."
"The most important attribute of a lower elementary, after safety, is that they teach reading properly. Especially if the parents don't do the job at home. If your school doesn't use systematic phonics instruction as reccommended by The National Reading Panel Report then ask them why. There is no reason for any school to not be using scientifically proven reading instruction more than 10 years after the definitive study on how reading should be taught came out. If your child struggles in reading the reason is almost always because of poor instruction in k-2nd grade. Don't count on special ed to remediate any problems if your child has any problems. They will most likely use the same strategies that didn't work in the classroom. Then be prepared to be blamed by the teachers and principal for their failure to teach your child. "
"The number 1 question should be what middle school and high school would they be going to after elementary. We had a fantastic elementary school and ended moving because the middle school and high school were(are) terrible in our old the neighborhood. Very sad to have to move."
"Dear Great Schools, When the day comes that our teachers and parents can have a direct input into the most appropriate curriculum, textbooks, etc. for their students, the public schools will be a happy choice. At this time parents are running to charters, and if they can afford it, a private education. We have some of the most talented teachers in the city working in our public schools. Special Ed. teachers are buried under paperwork and all teachers are mandated to use a curriculum, maintain a pacing schedule, and use texts that are often a poor fit for many of our students' needs. As long as I live, I will fight for justice for our children. There are many people, icluding myself, that would love to have input into our system which appears to be dominated by educracts. Talk to any kindergarten teacher, and they will tell you how nuts it is to have reading as a subject in kindergarten. Good grief! Some of our kids have not learned how to function in a group and get along with adults and other children. Also, children must meet reading readiness goals and objectives before getting formal reading instruction. And, what about rigorous PE? Check out last Friday's edition of 'Need to Know' on channel 12 (WHYY). I care and could go on and on. Teaching is my passion, and because of it, I am willing to speak out. Is this falling on deaf ears? I hope not! Sincerely, Barbara white"
" I don't see how number 1 is possible. I was barely allowed in the school office when I was checking out a school for my son. I don't agree with number 2. My son is in 1st grade, and the school is still as bad as when he was in preschool there. I think the way the younger kids are treated at a school, gives an idea of how the school will be for the other years. I very much agree with number 3. I don't have a car right now, and the school I think is better for my son is really out of the way. I know it would just make everything harder for him. "
"I'll second that last one. Being able to walk or ride a bike to school is really important for our family. Fighting obesity and embracing neighborhood level relationships being high on our family priorities - being close to home is vital. Driving kids all over town is really a bad idea on so many levels�everyone suffers with poor air quality and unfriendly streets for biking and walking."
"I cannot agree more! I changed my child from a school with a beautiful new building, loaded with ammenities and super involved upper middle class white parents, to a small neighborhood school that serves a working class population. My child has never been happier! It's a warmer, more diverse environment and the teachers are superb and value my child as an individual. Parents, please don't hesitate to change schools if your intuition leads you that way! All of my child's problems vanished."