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Pitfalls of picking a middle school

Want to find the perfect school? Avoid these 3 top mistakes parents make.

By GreatSchools Staff

When it comes to your child’s education, 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. Choosing a school without taking into account the critical social and emotional factors.

We’ve all been middle-school students so we know: These are not exactly the wonder years. So it's important to find a school that supports kids through it. How can you tell? Look to see if they have any kind of social skills or anti-bullying program.

Some middle schools assign a child to the same guidance counselor for the whole three years. Others don't even have guidance counselors. Decide what support you think your child will need, and then make sure you know whether or not she'll be getting it.

2. Basing your decision on one visit – and not asking the right questions.

Did the principal come across badly? Was a class unruly? Maybe this is a sign of a bigger problem, or maybe it was just a bad day. If you have doubts, but still want to consider this school, visit again.

Also, many parents ask stock questions — "What are your test scores?" "How much homework every night?" — and get stock answers. If you want to tease out what the school is really like, ask other questions, like, "Can you describe this school using three adjectives?" (Or check here for more key questions to ask when considering a middle school.)

3. Choosing a school based on superficial bells and whistles, like paint color, nice furniture, and a pretty play yard.

These are nice — and can enhance your child's experience at school — but they don't translate into a good education. Similarly, don't judge a school by its chipped paint. There might be gold in them there classrooms.

So carefullly examine the curriculum, teachers, and principal. Do the teachers and principal seem engaged and eager to teach? Are they teaching the core subjects, and offering extracurriculars, that will give your child a well-rounded middle school experience? Will your child be well-prepared for the rigors of high school? 

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/21/2011:
"Wishing to relocate from South Africa to NC, and especially to Winston-Salem with family already in the local area, with a child also being from an alternate schooling system and at the start of his Grade 8 year in this region, what is the right starting point with steps to take in finding the best school, information on aligning to the NC schooling system and the right school. Advice would be appreciated. Adrian"
02/15/2011:
"First, evaluate the parents priorities, and time commitment to supporting their own children? For us with minimal or no choices, just be there for your own children when they need modeling, or support with school works, or protection when they are vulnerable. Be present in your children's lives. Second, check out the school environment, personnel, and history before you make a choice. "
02/14/2011:
"This article could have helped a lot just a couple of months ago. Its worth to the thousands of children in the fifth grade and their parents is zero. More than a little bit too late."
02/14/2011:
"Really, is this the best advise we can get in this day and age? School colors and three adjectives! What about other important factors about the way our kids learn -- and the class sizes, or what about the fact that the schools are sooooo big the teachers really do not tend to the kids, they are treated like numbers........really? First time, this is no help."
02/14/2011:
"This article could have helped a lot, just a couple of months ago. Its worth to the thousands of children in the fifth grade and their parents is zero. More than a little bit too late."
02/14/2011:
"Great tips, but how many parents actually do those things? I'm afraid that most parents send their child to the school that most of their son or daughter's friends will go to. This is exacerbated by the schools 'tracking' kids from one specific elementary schood to the 'feeder' middle school, without offering them a choice. In fact throughout the year the kids are prepped to go to one particular school by visiting it on field trips and hyping it up with no regard for the child's talents and interests. Most parents don't recognize this and just send their child where the paperwork says they should go."
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