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 will your children attend the same or different schools, since a perfect fit for one child may be a stretch for another.
This simple, step-by-step guide will help you prioritize what's most important to you in a school and make the best choice for your child and family.
Step 1: Brainstorm
On a sheet of paper, draw four columns down the length of the page, and label the columns as follows: Academics, School Environment, Extracurriculars, and Practical Concerns. Use the questions below as guidelines to help you define your ideal school:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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