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Imagining your ideal school

About to start your school search? This quick exercise will help you clarify exactly what you're looking for.

By GreatSchools Staff

Deciding what you want in a school is no simple task. When you imagine the best school for your child, you may picture colorful classrooms, dynamic teachers, a wealth of enriching extracurricular activities, and stellar test scores.

But it's also essential to consider your child's needs, your family's values, and practical constraints like a school's hours and its distance from your home. If you have more than one child, there are even more considerations, including whether or not you want your children to attend the same school, since a perfect fit for one child may be a stretch for another.

This simple, step-by-step guide will help you prioritize the factors you're looking for in a school.

Step 1: Brainstorm

Consider the academic, school environment, extracurricular, and practical factors that are important to your child and your family.  Use the questions below as guidelines to help you create your ideal school wish list: 

Academics

  • Do I want a more traditional, back-to-basics program or an alternative approach to learning, such as a Waldorf or project-based school?
  • Does my child have any physical, emotional, linguistic, or learning needs that require special attention?
  • Will my child need extra tutoring made available by the school?
  • Is my child gifted, and is that a factor in our school choice?
  • Are a rigorous academic environment and high test scores important?
  • Is learning a second language a priority for my family?
  • Would a more rigorous program like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or a STEM-based school be a good fit for my child?
  • For K-12 schools or high schools, is it important that a high percentage of students go to college?
  • Is it important that all the core subjects, like science, are offered?
  • Are we looking for a school with a special focus like technology or the arts?
  • For high school, is college preparation — including college counseling — a priority?
  • For high school, is a range of honors and AP classes important? Does it matter how many students go on to college, and where?

School Environment 

  • Would my child be better suited to a small, mid-sized, or large school?
  • How important is class size?
  • Do I want a K-5 school or one with many grade levels, such as a K-12?
  • Do I want my child to attend a single-sex school?
  • Do I want my child to attend a parochial school?
  • Is racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity important to our family?
  • Is a school with cutting-edge technology facilities important?
  • Is it important that the school has an established anti-bullying policy?
  • Is it important the school focuses on social-emotional learning, as well as academics?
  • Do I want a school where parents are expected to be involved with activities and decisions?
  • Do I want a school that has a counseling office that offers parent, child, and family support?
  • How important is it to have an attractive facility with ammenities like a large playground or playing field? What about an auditorium, cafeteria, indoor gymnasium, or garden?

Extracurriculars

  • Are clubs and other extra-curricular activities a priority? Which ones?
  • How important are music, theater, and art programs?
  • Is a regular physical education class essential?
  • Are sports important? If so, which ones? Competitive or low-key and inclusive? 
  • For high school, does my child want "traditional" high school features like a prom, rallies, cheerleaders, big sports teams? 

Practical Concerns

  • Are we considering a private school, and if so can we afford tuition, or qualify for financial aid?
  • Would we consider a charter school?
  • Is it important that the school is close to home?
  • Do I need transportation provided, or can I get my child to school another way?
  • Do I need before- or after-school care for my child?
  • How important is it that the school is in a safe neighborhood?
  • Does my child need lunch (and breakfast) provided?

 

Step 2: Prioritize

Review each of your lists and number each factor in order of importance to your family. While all the factors on your wish list may play some role in your decision, it's unlikely that any school will offer everything you're looking for. The goal of this exercise is to clarify which qualities you can live without — and which are deal breakers.

Step 3: Find schools that match your family's needs

After doing this exercise and discussing alternatives with your family (including your child), you'll have a much clearer picture of your ideal school. Now you're ready to start your school search. Check out individual school profiles where you'll find information about curriculum, achievement, teacher-student data, and much more.

And finally...

Remember that the best way to find out whether a school is a good fit for your child is to spend some time there. To make the most of your school visits, take along this handy school visit guide from GreatSchools.org:

The School Visit: Things to Look For, Questions to Ask

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/13/2012:
"My son will be 4, in January and I appreciate the information on your website. I am from Trinidad where great emphasis is placed on academics. At home, we are entitiled to see the curriculum but here I am told that parents are not allowed to see it. Is that so and should it be a concern for a parent, moreso,since if I was not teaching my child's things at home he would be very behind if I were to return home soon. "
01/9/2012:
"I finally came across an article that broke down my worries and made them a common and logical concern! The step method is definately a plus for the parent who has moved before and knows how hard it is for both child and parent! I wish there was something like this for neighborhoods close enough for work and school! Thank-you Jackie "
07/14/2009:
"this article is good it remembers my school days."
08/5/2008:
"Help please... We would like to know how to compare test scores from three different states (WA, MN and SC). It appears that each state has different tests they used so how do you find out if they test equally and have similar results? Any suggestions would be appreciated. Kristie and Lane Strandberg"
07/28/2008:
"Hello. We are looking to relocate from the UK to Kissimmee Orlando. My daughter is 3 years old and at the moment she attends a nursery. I have no idea which way to turn to find out which school is best i.e. public, private, local or what nor do I understand the grading system etc. I would like a recommendation and when we come over in November this year to possibly make a visit. I would so appreciate someone to give me some advice on the area with schools etc. I am really really worried. Many thanks x"
02/19/2008:
"Wonderful information! Thanks so much!"
01/10/2008:
"I am in MA, we are looking for a school for our 2 boys in grades, 5 and 7.They intelligent boys who love sports. We would like them to have a good exposure to both sciences and Arts before they choose their career paths. Can anyone out there help?"
11/30/2007:
"I find this website the best thing... I got this from Phoinex School website. I was going to send my 2 yr. old.. But I have a 12 yrs old going to middle school. Don't like the ones around my house and this website opened my eyes. There are so many out there I didn't even know about that was near the house. I even forwarded this website address to all my friends. Thank You so much for the help."
05/23/2007:
"I SINCERELY THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR INFORMATION!!! AS A FIRST TIME MOM I'LL BE SENDING OFF MY SON TO PRE-K AND HAD NO IDEA WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK AND THANKS TO YOU I KNOW IN WHICH DIRECTION I'M HEADING! FL."
12/11/2006:
"This site is the best I've found so far! After searching fo the last 2 years for the right school to send my son to next year, I foundthisone in the '11th hour!' He'll be in 1st grade next year, and both my husband and I were lost as to what schools were close by, and what their ratings were, as well as class sizes, etc, etc. Now it's easy to pick from as many as pique my interest adn then narrown them down to a field of 1/2 dozen to research further. Let me just say, I'll be telling my son's daycare school about this site!"
11/3/2006:
"This is a great article and very necessary in choosing the correct school (or as close as possible0 for your child's needs. My oldest children were enrolled in a charter school with an Arts emphasis. I chose he school from word of mouth but after a year I decided that the administrative and faculty staffing issudes, political corruption and poor attention to academics were not for my children. The disorganization was a disater that I could no longer deal with. My children loved the school but realized that it wasn't the best for their overall life goals. Major funding from the former mayor was removed when he was votede out of office and the school ended up in turmoil scrambling for funds to accomodate the doubled enrollment cost for each student. The once large vocal ensemble dwendled down to almost nothing and several memebers of the faculty and administration were dismissed for 'misconduct.' During an 'exit interview' for my youngest child the principal, after pouring out her personal frustrations over he recent happenings commented that it took a certain kind of family to attend a charter school and deal with the up and downs of organizing and reconstructing.' Without missing a beat I said, ' And we are not that family. Dealing with up and downs at the detrement of my children's education, is not for us.' I don't feel that my family is any less significant for leaving the school, in fact I feel as though taking them out was a bold move that others may be too intimidated to recognize as a benefit until my children have graduated from top colleges and are on their way to graduate school while pursuing their musical interests. Like I tell my children, there's nothing wrong with being a surgeon with an album on Billboard's top ten or a Grammy winner that discovered the cure for cancer.'"
10/30/2006:
"Hi, I am the parent[dad] of a 14 year old girl. She started Olympic Heights H.S. and is not in the right element as far as I am concerned. I need help in finding her a 'Better' school environment that is more structured. "
10/30/2006:
"First I would like to say that this is a FABULOUS site and very useful. I have read every posted comment here. I was impressed that there were very few (if any) spelling errors which reinforces my belief that we are all products of our invironments. Educated people produce educated children, and ignorance promotes ignorance. As a society we should ATTEMPT to enlighten everyone. I have 10 developmentally disabled people in my immediate family, spanning 3 generations. IF YOU HAVE a child with disabilities or learning disorders PLEASE read the post from Virginia on 1/4/2005 and from Kansas 8/15/2006! These children need SPECIAL care, SPECIAL training and SPECIAL attention. Furthermore, one of the LARGEST DISSERVICES we do to them and to society in general, as a whole, is push them through school then give them diplomas that look JUST LIKE the valedictorians that might be our next president or a brain surgeon someday. That is not FAIR to the special needs individual nor society in general that is led to believe they can read and write and think rationally for themselves, when they cannot...even after 12 years of school. It is also not right nor accurate to lump these children's standardized testing scores with the rest of the student body, which ultimately LOWERS the appearance of the schools overall performance. I think that the SYSTEM overall n! ationwide needs to take a serious look at the way the numbers are configured. Thanks for taking the time to read my voice of experience. I have lived in FL, CA, MO and IL and have been dealing with this for over 40 years. I am now legal guardian for 3 adult siblings in their 40's that THIS system did not help a bit. The system needs examined!"
10/16/2006:
"Although my child is only 14 months, I belive it is never too early to begin looking at educationalopportunities.. This is a great article and great start to a long decision making adventure."
10/13/2006:
"I thought this article was very helpful. Excellent! Thank you."
08/15/2006:
">From Chesterfield Mo. If you have a child with special needs don't even think about moving to the Mo. schools. They don't keep up with the IDEA or the FAPE and are way behind."
08/14/2006:
"This is a great article and a parent of anonly child who has not had any prior experience, I thought this was an informative article-it had a few extra things I did not think of for my 1st grader. Thank you for helping me make an informed decision. Mom of a 1st grader."
06/19/2006:
"Quick and easy guideline suggestions are great!"
02/1/2006:
"I am currently living in St. Louis, MO and my family is moving to Dekalb County, Ga. My children attend a charter school in St. Louis. Can anyone give me some recommendations for Atlanta schools? My email address is taiwana_1@yahoo.com. Thank you in advance."
01/10/2006:
"WOW THESE ARE GREAT TOOLS! IN A SOCIETY THAT FOCUSES GREATLY ON TEST SCORES YOU TEND TO FORGET HOW IMPORTANT ALL THE OTHER ELEMENTS ARE LIKE WILL YOUR CHILD FEEL COMFORTABLE IN A PATICULAR ENVIRONMENT AND WILL HE/SHE BE ABLE TO PROSPER ACDEMICALLY AS WELL AS A GOOD HUMAN BEING. YOU WANT YOUR CHILD TO GET A GREAT EDUCATION IN EVERY SENSE.THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR SUPPORT. IT MEANS ALOT!"
02/28/2005:
"I was clueless on what I wanted out of a school for my daughter. This excercise really helped. Thanks!"
01/4/2005:
"We lived in Mi and attended a private christian school. Then we got transfered to Reading Pa. Its different! But they have a virtual school for grades K-12. They provide all the materials, computer, printer, books, certified teacher, everything you need. Its publicly funded, and the child studies at home. Its a win-win situation, and the child gets a better education. "
01/4/2005:
"We're in the process of moving and i'm finding this site useful. However, I want to warn people that we (my family) made a horrendous mistake during our last move by looking only at standardized test scores as an indicator of which schools were good. The scores are only part of the story. Also, I think that many of us naively assume in looking at schools that of course our own children will be stellar students with no learning difficulties, and so we tend to ask 'How is the gifted program?' rather than looking at all aspects. Our child ended up being diagnosed with serious learning disabilities LATER in his elementary school career, and the school we chose may have been great for 'regular' kids but was a terrible fit for our family. Consider ALL aspects of the picture, and the possibility that your child might fall outside the curve. ALSO, we found that our current school was getting great academic results at the expense of the children! There was no concept of what is developmentally appropriate. Sure, it sounds great to say that your child goes to a school where ALL the kindergarteners can read -- but do you know what price we're paying for that bit of fiction? Does your kindergartener have to take spelling tests? Does your kindergartener melt down and cry and refuse to go to school? Please, when you go to a school,look to see if the children seem happy. Look to see if the work displayed in the hallways appears to have been done by the children, or by their pushy, overcompetitive parents. Look to see if the work displayed is developmentally appropriate. (Are the first graders writing essays about Sandra Day O'Connor? Run screaming in the other direction!)Try to determine if the teachers/administrators in the school seem overly focussed on one group of kids (i.e. high achieving math whizzes)or if they speak favorably (and at length) about all kinds of kids, even those who struggle. Don't repeat our mistakes, please. It's not a factory you're looking for which produces high-functioning achievers, it's a home away from home for your children, your most precious possession. "
09/19/2004:
"my dream school envolves choice and freedom.I think we should be able to make our own choices.Example choosing to sit out side to eat lunch.I think this would give us fresh air and stimulate us to want to learn. I also think we should be able to sit with our same grade at lunch because that is our only time to talk about school issues and other things. If the lunch room is to small or crowded than that is a sign to expand the school not spli up groups of friends or peers. I know I am only a 7th grader but please consider our thoughts. Thank You. "
07/9/2004:
"I agree that it doesn't matter if the school is good or not if the parents aren't involved in their childrens lives or school. Parents shouldn't complain unless they are trying to help the kids and the school. My family is a military family so we have encountered a number of different school systems. Some good and some bad. The main problem I have encountered is that alot of teachers talk down to parents or act like the parents don't know what they don't know what they are talking about. Also my other complaint is that teachers usually have about 25 students in their class which is too many but they can act like a parent only has that one child to care for. Well I have 4 to care for and one is in middle school so I don't have alot of free time. I keep in touch with the teachers but they also need to contact me if there is a problem. To me a great school is one that has good communication between teachers, parents and children. "
06/7/2004:
"I think that schools should be classified from K-4 and 5-8. Schools in urban areas that have these grades combined in the same school show more discipline problems than schools that separate these grades. K-3 are very important grades. Students are being introduced to reading which is crucial to learn by the time a child enters the third grade the student should allready be very fluent. Many people who are in jail today left the third grade without knowing how to read. Therefore, grades k-3 should be top priority. "
02/26/2004:
"If you have a positive and supportive home environment, it matters less whether or not the school your child goes to is fabulous. My brother and I grew up in a decent but not stellar school system, and we had great teachers and less than great teachers. The difference between us and our underachieving peers was our parents. Our parents taught us how to behave, how to treat others, and how to strive for academic betterment. These are traits that are not taught at school and should not have to be. Parents shouldn't drop a rambunctuous troglodyte off at school and expect a polished genius to come home. That's not the job of the public school. If the child has good parenting and a sound background of manners and morals, he or she will excel in almost any school, provided the parents continue to involve themselves in the child's daily life. "
08/18/2003:
"The key to successfully educating a child are family memebers at home that give her/him the needed support for homework, class assignments, reviewing test scores and reportcards. There are many teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District that have chosen to be a positive influence in the lives of our kids. But, we can't do it alone. "
08/15/2003:
"Public schools don't need any more money. The just need to manage what they have. "
07/23/2003:
"Having been both a teacher and a parent (before I was a teacher), I believe that the determining factor in a child's success is how well qualified the teacher is and how experienced the teacher is. It doesn't matter how well a teacher can teach if they can't keep discipline and they don't respect the students. "
07/23/2003:
"I am faced with the dilemma of sending my children to a school over 15 miles away from home or to a private/Christian school, which, by the way, they have been attending for the past two years. I am sorely disappointed in the quality of schools in my local district (Los Angeles Unified), especially the ones that are located within 10 miles of my home. I am grateful to GreatSchools.org for providing me with the information I need to make the best choice for my children. I don't want to make the mistake of sending my children to schools just because they happen to be in the neighborhood, as my parents did. "
06/11/2003:
"I believe that parents should get more involved in school related activities.So they will know the progress their children are making. The past year at my school has been dealing with alot of drugs. One thing is that our teachers don't care enough, their just there to get their paycheck. I believe principals should also greet their students, show kids love because that is what makes a great school. With a good positive enviroment. "
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