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Choosing a school: An overview

To simplify the school choice process, you'll need to learn what to consider and how to evaluate your options.

By GreatSchools Staff

Whether you are choosing a school for the first time for your child or your child is making the transition to a new school, you probably have many questions. What are your options? How much choice do you really have? What's the best option for your child and your family? Where should you begin?

School choice options available to parents have increased dramatically in recent years. There's a growing national sentiment that promoting competition in public education may spur schools to improve and that parents who invest energy in choosing a school will continue to be involved in their child's education.

Where to begin

Think about your child's needs and your family's needs. Consider the personality of your child. A quiet child might fare better in a smaller school or a school with small class size. If you have a budding musician or scientist, you'll want to look for a school that has programs in these areas. Is it important to you that your school be close to home or your place of work? Or will you need a school with before and after-school care? Check out the following articles for ideas on what to consider:
Choosing a School: Considering Family Needs and Values
Choosing a School: Considering Your Child's Needs

What are your options?

Your neighborhood school

Generally, your first option is your neighborhood school. Each public school district sets up its own rules and boundaries for each school in the district, so it is best to check with your local district to find out which school your child will be assigned to, and what the rules are for attending charter schools, magnet schools, or other schools within or outside your local district.

Charter schools

One of the most significant changes in public education in recent years has been the growth of the charter school movement. Charter schools are public schools that are liberated from some of the traditional school regulations required by the state. These schools are bound by charter agreements granted by local school boards. If they don't meet the requirements of their charter, they can be shut down. Charter school enrollment is voluntary and is not governed by neighborhood boundaries, which means your child can choose to attend any charter school within your district, or outside your district, so long as there is space available. Schools that are in high demand usually have a lottery to determine who will be eligible to attend.

School transfers

School districts generally set their own policies for intradistrict transfers (from one school in the district to another) and interdistrict transfers (to a school outside the district). Preferences are often given to children whose child care provider is near a particular school, or whose parents work in the city where the school is located. Most school districts have an appeals process if your request is denied. Space limitations often make transfers difficult, and each district's process has its own regulations, so be sure to check with your local district for specific requirements.

Magnet schools

Magnet schools are another option offered by many school districts. Magnet schools generally have a particular focus, such as art or technology, or follow a different structural organization, such as mixing different grade levels within one classroom, or operating on a year-round schedule. Magnet schools are not governed by neighborhood boundaries; they draw students from throughout the school district and must accept students on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Alternative schools

These are generally schools whose educational philosophies are different from traditional programs. Typically, alternative schools have small classes, a social and emotional development curriculum and a self-paced academic curriculum. This title is used officially as well as informally to describe a wide range of schools, so it's important to ask specific schools why they are classified as "alternative."

Private schools

Private schools are schools that do not receive funding from the state. They set up their own criteria for admission. Families of the students pay tuition or, in some cases, students receive scholarships to attend. The teachers, principal, board of directors (and sometimes the parents and students) decide upon curriculum, teaching methodology and enrollment requirements. Private schools are not required to hire credentialed teachers. More

Homeschooling

Another option is for parents to teach their children at home instead of sending them to a public or private school. Each state has different laws governing homeschooling. Many communities have organizations that assist homeschooling families with curriculum and opportunities to meet other homeschoolers. More

How much choice do you really have?

It depends. The amount of choice varies from one school district to another, and varies from state to state. In most instances, it depends on supply and demand, and schools that are well regarded are generally in high demand. So if you are hoping to transfer your child to a popular school outside your home district, or a popular charter or magnet school, you may find it difficult.

Always check with your local district to learn the rules, and once you have applied for a transfer, keep checking on the status of your application. In some districts, spots will open up at the last minute or once the school year has begun, so it's a good idea to keep checking back with the school.

Narrowing the field

Once you have considered your options, you can check the school's stats on GreatSchools.org. You'll find school profiles for virtually every public school with information on test scores, teacher-student ratios and ethnic makeup. You can compare schools based on these stats using the Compare Schools tool.

Check to see if the school has Parent Reviews posted. Parent Reviews tell the story of the school behind the numbers — the quality of the teachers, level of parent involvement, principal's leadership and extracurricular activities.

The school visit

No amount of reading or research about a school can tell you as much as you'll learn by actually visiting the campus. Even a short visit, when you know what to look for and what questions to ask, will guide you in making the right decision. For help on planning your visit, what to look for and what questions to ask, check:
The School Visit: Things to Look For, Questions to Ask

Applications and enrollment

When you've made your choice, the next step is to find out what's required to enroll. Most public schools will require proof of your address and your child's health and immunization record. Check with your local district to find out the specific paperwork required, and the application deadlines.

Check well in advance of the school year, too. Even if you have chosen your neighborhood school, you'll want to be sure to secure your spot. In some districts, if there isn't room at your neighborhood school, the district can send you to a "host" school, which may not be in your immediate neighborhood.

Get involved

Your role is just beginning once you have chosen a school for your child. By staying involved you can be an advocate for your child's education, and the education of all children at the school.  


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

08/18/2011:
"this did not help me whatsoever find a school for my two year old child "
08/8/2011:
"I have dysgraphia a learning disability rezsulting in tons of troubel with wverything to do with writing. I am going into 7th grade. I find it horribel when you cant keep up and are falling behind and are super disorganized. ! was diagnosed in 4th grade "
01/18/2011:
"While private school are not required by law to hire credentialed teachers, I know of no private schools that are committed to a high standard of eduation, that do not hire degreed and certified teachers. I would encourage parents, as they seek to find a school for their children, to ask what qualifications are required of the teaching staff. Also, ask if the school is accredited by an accrediting association, such as Middle States. Degreed teachers and accreditation are positive indicators of a quality school. "
01/18/2011:
"While private school are not required by law to hire credentialed teachers, I know of no private schools that are committed to a high standard of eduation, that do not hire degreed and certified teachers. I would encourage parents, as they seek to find a school for their children, to ask what qualifications are required of the teaching staff. Also, ask if the school is accredited by an accrediting association, such as Middle States. Degreed teachers and accreditation are positive indicators of a quality school. "
12/30/2010:
"I'm chinese, and I'll get a green card next year,I hope immigrate to Boston and choose a High School(grade 9) for my daughter. Can you give me some comments? Can my daughter enters a good high school of Boston if I bau a singe family house near this school? Thanks! Rocky"
12/2/2010:
"Great article- super helpful and very relevant information. Thanks, GS."
08/11/2009:
"I have a granddaughter who will be in the 5th grade. She lives on the border of two counties and is required to a public school 50 miles away. The school she will be attending is only 3 miles away. Is she required to pay a tuition since it is a public school? This is in Alabama. Thanks"
02/2/2009:
"Excellent Article."
01/26/2009:
"To make a blanket statement saying that private schools don't care about kids with special needs is completely ignorant. FYI: Parents who choose private schools are willing to pay astronomical amounts (sometimes over $14,000.00) every year to make sure that their child gets his or her needs met. They wouldn't pay that amount if the school didn't satisfy their needs. It's worth it to them to pay for their education because despite the 'no child left behind' policy, oftentimes public schools simply cannot meet certain needs of kids who have special needs or abilities. Every child is different, every parent is different, and every school is different. Some public schools are better than some private schools and some private schools are better than some public schools, but there is no straight-accross-the-board answer, just as there ought not to be any cookie-cutter children. It's up to the parents or legal guardians to make well-informed decisions based on their own resea! rch."
01/12/2009:
"i think public schools are alot better cause they don't charge money. And i think the teachers are sweet. My teacher teaches me at home it's called homebound. private schools don't care about kids with special needs."
01/2/2009:
"What about transfering? I have thought about transfering to East Jackson High but the only thing is that I am not in that district and I am not going to be living with my parents. I have talked to the counselor of my school about me transfering and she explained everything to me, and she also explained to me that it would be easy for me to transfer since I am a good student and other reasons. I just want to know what else I need to know about in order to transfer?"
01/2/2009:
"Great article!"
11/17/2008:
"This is such a helpful article. Thank you, Thank you."
06/16/2008:
"Great job. makes it easier for first time parents looking out for a school, especially if one is new to this system , from another country."
06/12/2008:
"How about foreign kids in public schools? We are a dutch family who will be moving to Houston somewhere next year for a 5 year period. We have two childeren, 5 and 7 years old. What additional support can we expect at a public school, as my kids do not understand englisch yet? It must be hard for my kids in the first weeks/months, so some extra attention from the teachers would be welcome. Any tips how we can facilitate their integration in a regular american public school? "
05/13/2008:
"My husband and I have recently acquired a home in the College Station area and will be relocating there the end of June. We have 4 children all with different needs. Two of our children are Special Needs students- they have DownSyndrome with ADHD,one with BiPolar Disorder and the other with diabetes and both with other minor health issues. Both love being in school and around other peers. They have done very well in self contained classes with small groups but with certain classes during the day with regular peers.If anyone in this area could give me some tips or contacts for the type of educational environment I'm in need of please email me at the address given.Thank You and God Bless."
05/6/2008:
"What is the difference between 'honor of excellence' and schol of distinct'. Which one is better?"
05/5/2008:
"My daughter is a Thai student meaning international student. She is studying at grade 6 of school in Thailand. Now my family wants to move her to study in the US. How do international students apply one of private or public schools in the US.Thanks'"
03/25/2008:
"The article is very helpful for first timer preparing to send children to school. I wanted to know where should we enquire about which school we belong to as there are 3 different schools within a mile range. Thanks,"
03/18/2008:
"My brother is a Vietnamse student meaning international student. He is studying at grade 10 of high school in Vietnam. Now my family wants to move him to the US to study. Can we choose a public school or private school. I know that public schools have no tuition fees because they belong to state, government (the parents pay taxes that meaning they have paid fees for their child). How do international students do to apply one of schools in the US.Thanks"
02/25/2008:
"we live in an area that only has one school in the district to choose from. the schools for all grades are not rated over a 2 and the enviroment is worse. we cannot move because of caring for an elderly relative and would like to know what we can do. thank you. lisa"
10/17/2007:
"You didn't even mention the before and after child care, I need this kind of information for a multi-handicapped child. Are there caregivers and places for these children before and after school?"
08/21/2007:
"I live in a town that has the worse middle school ever. How do I get my son out of this school district without uprooting my whole family ? I am truely scared.I also have no money for private school and there are no catholic schools in the area. Please help me. Thanks Jese"
10/2/2006:
"I think one of the most important aspects of choosing a school is missing here - how many registered sex offenders live near and HOW near they live to the school. As a concerned citizen, I called Sugar Mill Montessori in Sugar Land, Texas and was surprised to hear that the director didn't care to inform the parents that a registered sex offender (for indecency with two children) lived half a mile from them. Her response was that 'it is public information and I don't care to talk to you about this' and she hung up. If this is how private schools treat the care of your children (on a buyer beware theory) then parents should really take note and look into the safety of their children... and more importantly, how the school weighs the safety of the children!"
05/25/2005:
"Very few charter schools in Michigan are chartered by an agreement with a local school district. Most charter schools are 'charterd' by a community college or a university. Central Michigan University holds the majority of the charters and has the best program, though not flawless, for working with and supporting the charter schools in their improvement efforts."
05/23/2005:
"I loved this article. It has helped me a lot. I have a 2 and 4 year old. This means that my son has to start going to pre-k, and i am in the process of moving to raleigh north carolina. I am currently living in New york city and do not know much about raleigh and its schools. It has helped me a lot in finding out about the schools in raleigh."
02/9/2005:
"Northern Suburbs of Illinois 2/9/05: I would like to know more about the guidelines/rules concerning out of district transfers to schools in other districts in the northern suburbs of Illinois. I am also interested in finding out if it is possible for a student residing in the northern suburb can attend a Chicago Public School in the city. Here's my situation: My daughter is African-American she has attended predominantly white schools in the northern suburb where we reside throughout her academic career. She is now in 8th grade. My daughter could be described as your typical average kid, good grades, outgoing, participates in sports and other extra-curricular activities. Up until middle school there was little to no incidence of racism. As African-americans living in a predominantly White suburb my husband and I knew at some point our daughter would be expose to the ugliness of racism. Over the years we have had many age appropriate discussions about racism, watched movies, read books together etc. She knows that some people would be mean to her simply because of the color of her skin. Of course one, especially a child can never be prepare enough to handle the ugliness of racism but we tried the best we could. When the summer of 2004 ended and school began, our daughter started to complain about being called derogatory na! mes on the school bus and at school. What was most perplexing and difficult for her was that the name calling came from peers and friends who she knew and they knew her. Friends who she grew up with, went to school over the years with,lived in her neighborhood, who she played with, their parents knew her parents, shared carpooling, these same kids who she had shared summer camp experiences, bike rides, b-days and sleepover parties with on the years. These same peers acted like she didn't exist when she began middle school. They called her ugliness names, made negative comments about the size of her lips, butt and nose. I won't mention the other racist remarks it hurts to write them and even more to see how they have affected my daughter. We've complained to the principal and teachers to know avail. The school response is a talk with the student. The name calling stops for a while and then starts up again. Our daughter knows that she is beautiful and beauty is the w! hole package what's inside and out however, repeated attacks o! n her lo oks and nasty remarks about her race has taken it's toll on her. Our normally, outgoing, friendly, caring daughter has become withdrawn. With little to know recourse or support from the school we've had to watch all this unfold. She believes as we do that going to a school with a more diverse group of students would be better. I've research several school demographics the area and although many are still predominantly white a few have a highter portion of African-american students and students of diverse ethnic backgrounds. I would like to know more about the schools demographic make-up in my area without broadcasting our situation. We certainly do not think that this is 'the' solution to the problem, we know that racism is deeply ingrained in our society, however, we believe that being around more students that look like her or are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds would provide for her a support base at school. We also know that there are not many ethnically divers! e schools in the northern suburbs. With that said we need some assistance in our search. If anyone could assist us with this issue by providing us with other options (must be a public school) or suggestions for our school research it would be greatly appreciated. I've exhausted my search on the internet. I know that there has to be more options out there available for our specific situation, please advise anyone. To those of you who are thinking, 'just move'! Well that was plan 'A', however, at this time that is not an option for us due to personal and financial constraints. We would like to hear from any of you with advise or guidance to give."
01/4/2005:
"My daughter is in a pre-k program in West Virginia. Our coordinator to address her IEP for special needs has changed 3 times in less than a year, and to say the least none of the 3 have knowledge of IDEA and it's impact for services of students with special needs. These coordinators have been special education teachers who have been 'promoted' and often are overbearing with opinions of what is best for my daughter. I am of a firm belief that MOST parents know what is in the best interest of their children, however, the educational system seems to lack the ability to understand this. These coordinators often try to tell us that even though she is eligible for specialized services such as speech therapy that is not offered in our school of residence, that they do not have to transport her to the nearest school (same district), that does offer the services to meet her needs. My child has two strong advocates whereas many children do not. My child has two parents who are n! ot in the least intimidated by the educational system. What happens to the many children who do not have this voice to speak out for them. The system has lied to us about services they can provide and its not until I force them to show me the law that states they cannot provide a service, that they then backdown and provide the service. How tragic that the educated people who want more and more from the taxpayers, and now do not want to provide services or be accountable for their work and actions. Maybe we do need to rethink our public school systems entirely and start over."
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