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Choosing a school: have a backup plan

Didn't land your first-choice school? Be prepared with a backup plan.

By Marian Wilde

It's disappointing when your child doesn't get the school on the top of your list, but don't give up — get busy!

Find out if there is a waiting list or wait pool and how it works

Contact your school district to ask about the waiting list — and make sure to follow the procedures and meet their deadlines. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, has a complicated, multiphase wait pool process, giving students several opportunities to land a spot at their preferred school. Many students ultimately get the school they want, particularly if they are willing to wait until the first few weeks of school to be accepted. Every school district has its own procedures and deadlines, so make sure you know yours.

Whether your preferred school is public or private, it can't hurt to contact the school directly to let administrators know that it's your child's first choice. There's typically a lot of movement after the first acceptance decisions are made, and spots often open up. Expressing interest can make a difference, says Bryan Hassel, co-author, with Emily Ayscue Hassel, of The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child's School with Confidence, "Many wait lists are really wait pools. It's not really the case that things are going to be pulled off in some kind of strict order. So you actually can influence the wait pool or wait list process through a letter or through [another kind of] communication to the principal," such as an email, phone call, or face-to-face meeting.

Find out if there is an appeal process and don't be afraid to use it

In New York City, appeals are permitted if you are unhappy with your high school assignment. Valid reasons would be a recent move to at least 90 minutes away from the school, lack of appropriate special education services, or interest in a new school that opened after the application was submitted. You can also bring up any other reasons that might motivate an appeal, such as a new interest in a school program or a mistake on your part.

Search for hidden gems

If you've met with the district officials, written the appeal letter, and waited out the waiting pool, and you still didn't get in, it might be time to take another look around for those hidden gems in the district.

Sandra Halladey of the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools reminds parents, "If a school is extremely popular it might just be that it's popular. It might not be any better. Parents have to go visit the schools. Relying on hearsay or outdated information can be very dangerous. Parents really need to make sure that they're getting information from families that are currently in the schools rather than from families that were at the school 10 years ago because schools can change very quickly."

So take the time to consider other schools. You might just find a hidden gem that you've overlooked.

At Greatschools you can compare different schools, see schools' test scores,  demographics, and other information, and get the inside scoop from parents, teachers, and students by reading school reviews.

Comments from readers

"I moved from NY to NJ. I had the best house deal, now I realise that I cannot get my child; who is in the 5th grade, into a charter school. I chose charter because he is in a charter school, and I am very satisfied. How can I get my son into a charter school in Newark? "
"I would like to apply to a charter eelementary school and middle school my two grand daughters attend a christian academy right now and they need help with reading and comprehension "
"LAUSD also offers open enrollment (where seats exist in neighborhood schools), child care permits, and Schools for Advanced Studies as other options, all with different deadlines. Smart parents apply to different programs and choose as many schools as they think they need to guarantee a seat in an acceptable school."
"If I'd like to choose another school for my 4 year old son next year, other than his assigned school, what should I do?"
"You definitely need a Plan B and C and D! We are in a local magnet school lottery, but they are very impacted in the lower grades (typical). The school district representative told me that I can enter the lotteries for an unlimited amount of schools in the district. I called and chatted with school representatives and district employees long before the lottery season, while they were still relaxed and willing to talk to a parent at length. Do your homework (research) and legwork (visiting every school and completing paperwork on time), and your child should get the best public schooling possible. "