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Picky Parent Guide

Choosing a School: Considering Family Needs and Values

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Prioritizing Your Needs

Some families will find that their multiple needs pose conflicts. You value social connections you can get only in an expensive private school, but cannot afford one. You strongly prefer a teaching method that leaves lots of room for exploration, but logistically cannot swing that way-across-town magnet school that fits the bill. And so on. If this turns out to be you, then you will need to prioritize among your family's needs even before you get to the challenge of reconciling them with your child's needs. Add to this key questions about your child's top needs and school academic quality, and you will be ready to pick a great school that fits.

For many parents, these things that rise to the top of the "must have" list will come down to those things that you can least well accommodate at home. You can sign up your child for ballet and soccer with the elite social set, but you cannot feasibly increase your family income to fund private school. You can keep your child's afternoon calendar clear for plenty of unstructured "imagination" time at home even if you cannot change your work schedule to cart your child 10 miles to and from that magnet school. Every family brings different capabilities and constraints to the table. Be honest with yourself about your family's aspirations and requirements.

You must start with a true and clear picture of your family needs, and trust yourself to balance these with your child's needs and with your search for a good quality school. Giving short shrift to your own needs as parents, or to the impact on your other children, will only cause problems down the road. Facing up to your real needs now will help you appropriately prioritize your school-hunt efforts and ultimately find a better-fit school. Your hunt may lead you down paths you never imagined! But focusing on what's most important now-in the planning phase-will lead you where you need to go. Trust yourself as a parent, both to be honest about your own needs and to bend later if your child's needs pull you in a different direction.

How Does a School Reinforce Values?

A school can reinforce-or call into question-your values in several ways:

  • What your child is taught, including explicit teaching of religion, morals and ethics
  • How the school interacts with children, including general school policies (dress, honor code, disciplinary policies and expected manners), teaching methods and classroom discipline
  • The social environment, including values and behaviors of teachers, other students and their parents

The fact that a school teaches your religion in its curriculum does not necessarily mean that your values and ethics are reflected in other school policies, the teaching method or social environment. You'll need to consider the broader school culture, not just what's taught in the classroom. If values are an important element of schooling for your family, let your school hunt priorities reflect this. Whatever your needs, biases or preferences, it's best to recognize them now and decide how important they are to you before you start sorting through your school options.

Putting the Fit Factors to the Test

To see how the Fit Factors affect your family and your choice of schools, download and fill out these worksheets:

Worksheets for Finding a Great Family Fit

The links below are PDF files, which require Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can download it for free if you click here.

Family Quick Think: What Values, Needs, Strengths and Challenges Stand Out About Your Family? Family Needs Summary Personalized Great Fit Checklist School Comparison Worksheet

©2004-2005 by Armchair Press. All rights reserved. Excerpted by with permission from the book, Picky Parent Guide.

Comments from readers

"I just want to take this opportunity to thank the folks at for developing the "Choosing a School" worksheets! I have been researching high school options for my rising 8th grader for some time now, and I am still undecided. These worksheets will definitely help me narrow my choices! Thank you! "
"Were looking for a great school district in st Louis or Jefferson county that will accommodate my sons speech delay. Can anyone suggest some that they've had personal experience with. Thx "
"i am looking to move to the Idaho Falls area and am looking for a great school that fits my childrens needs. Like a councelor, maybe some special math classes for my ADHD child and a more teacher child ratio. A school nurse on compass would also be a plus . "
"I Have a child who has 2.5 credits and is 16yrs old. She was in and out of Foster care ,Treatment facilities And is now Home with Me her Mom this has caused my Daughter to get so behind no one wants to take the time to teach Her. WHAT IS A MOM TO DO AT THIS POINT????? Please, I need insight in this VERY important matter....................... "
"I'm looking to move into the Surprise or Mesa AZ area, and I'm looking for a school, that is recommended for special needs children. "
"If one comes from a back ground of physical activity/exercise and athletics and schools are a place of EDUCATION/LEARNING, than why can parents choose a school system that promotes this. Just as parents can choose a school for their support in religous beliefs why can one choose a school system that supports athletic beliefs? "
"What are the best middle schools for a top student who needs some ESL support? "
"I think this was a great article, and a great starting point to give low/ middle class parents the quick refernce basics that they need to arm themselves with once the realize that there zip code baised their economic status determines the quality of education that there child will be receiving!!! It's the beginning of loads of general info that will help put them on the path that will be most benefical to there children's education and family needs!!! As a parent who believes that education is the most important journey that a parent must take in leading there children to the education that all americans have the right to, I find it just a shameful that due to all of the political misguidence we've faced and continue to face in this country we've taken our eye off the prize which is EDUCATION! We live in one of the most fortunate countries, we shouldn't be forced to look for a a great education, outside of our communities, or have to jump through holla hoops, and most im! portantly not be buried alive in debt to get it!!!"
"this was very helpful, I'm not happy with my sons school he is zoned to go to. this helps in picking a school. my child did not do his work and the teacher would not lat him have a snack the other kid got one infront of my child."
"Thank you so much for the information you have provided. It is too bad our individual schools and the system itself does not see the importance of offering this to parents. (esp. ones that are just starting out) We have special needs and it is hard enough at times to get the assistance for an average child, almost feeling like you are the only one interested in the child that has special needs. God Bless"
"I am in need of before school care for my 5 year old kindergartener in the columbia area. I've found lots of good schools, but none that can accomodate her before 7am (I am a nurse and have to be at work by 7am and have no family members who can help). Does anyone have any suggestions? I am open to any and all!"
"As well, we are a military family, too and must try to adapt to the constant changes forever present in our lives. These are excellent tools and very helpful. Thank you for your time in preparing it so others may benefit!"
"Great articvle, We are a military family and move often, I love these guides/ worksheets."
"You covered a lot of great points. I would like to add that leadership has a role and was left out. The principal is a major factor that will establish goals and an environment that the teachers and students feel ready to teach and learn at a specific school. The School District will perform up to the goals set by the Superintendent for many of the same reasons. Leadership is what creates of eliminates a common divide between the educators and the administrators. Good leadership will lead our children into the proper environment."