Choosing a school from a distance

Moving? We can help you choose the best school for your child.

By Connie Matthiessen

Whether going across the state or cross country, if you’re facing a move, you’re probably stressed out and no wonder: Moving means turning your life upside down and making an endless number of decisions. And one of the biggest stressors that can send a parent over the edge? Finding a new school for your child.

In an ideal world, in advance of moving you can visit potential schools, meet teachers, and get a good sense of the school environment. But what if there isn’t time, or cost or distance make a scouting trip prohibitive?

This was the case for Catherine Milne and her family, who moved from Sydney, Australia to San Francisco last year. She had to find schools for her two children, who were 10 and 15 at the time, and she says it was by far the toughest part of the moving process. "It was much harder than finding a suitable house to rent," Milne says. "There's just so much angst and upheaval for kids in terms of leaving friends and changing schools. If you can find them a school where they have a good chance of being happy, then you're well on the way to having a happy family."

The following steps will help you make the best long distance choice:

Make your wish list
Clarify the kind of school you – and your child – are looking for (see our work sheet to help you imagine your ideal school). You probably have "must-haves" that will help narrow your search. For example, if your child requires support for learning differences or you want her to attend a language immersion school. Consider your child’s abilities, interests, and learning style. Then seek advice from her current teachers about what type of school environment they think will suit her best.

Would she do better in a small school or a large one? Will a strong sports or theatre program make all the difference for your child? Does she like a structured learning environment, or does she thrive when she has some independence? (For more ideas on making the best school choice, go to Choosing a school: An overview.)  One sobering reality check: Whether it's a public or private school you have your eye on, you're not assured a spot. So make sure you have a few fall-back schools if you can't get into the school of your dreams.

Coordinate your school and housing decisions
Some people find a school they like and then find an apartment or house in the vicinity. Others do it the other way around. (Although keep in mind: If you're applying to public school, in almost any district in the country you'll need proof of residency before you can apply.) What you don’t want to do is enroll your child in your dream school and then discover that housing in the area is way out of your price range. It also makes no sense to rent a fabulous apartment in an area with no schools nearby. While it may seem viable from a distance, schlepping across town twice a day for school drop-offs and pick-ups will get old really fast. It will also make it harder for your child to connect with new friends outside of school. 

Connect with other parents
Every parent knows that other parents are the best source of school information, so put the word out about your move as soon as you can. That worked for Catherine Milne’s son, and she wishes she’d done the same for her daughter. In her son’s case, Milne got lucky: She knew a family who’d recently spent a year in San Francisco, and had a great experience at a K-8 school. But she enrolled her teenage daughter in a charter without knowing anyone who was familiar with the high school. Even though she’d corresponded with the administration and the school sounded great, "I knew it was a bad fit the minute we walked in, and [my daughter] left two days later," she says. "There are things you just can’t figure out over the phone or from a website."

Milne recommends telling everyone you know about your move. It could turn out that your best friend’s cousin or your son’s piano teacher’s college roommate lives in your new town, and can give you honest information about the school — not just website hype. Remember, too, to tell friends on Facebook and Twitter about your move.

Use online school resources
GreatSchools.org Your first stop – of course! Our site will give you information and test scores for public (including charter) and private schools in your new town or city. You’ll also see how parents rate schools in terms of teacher quality, principal leadership, and parent involvement. Just as insightful: You can read parent reviews. You can even look for homes for sale near the schools on your list. GreatSchools has a community section  where you can ask other parents for advice. You can also browse by city (see tab to the right on the community page).

District and school websites If you’re considering public schools, start with the school district website. Sites vary district to district in terms of how comprehensive and helpful they are, but most will provide a list of district schools, contact details, enrollment procedures, school schedules, and information about after-school programs. You may find that you have fewer choices than you expected, depending on the school district and its enrollment criteria. Some districts require students to attend their neighborhood school. Others may work by lottery and you might be assigned a school on the other end of town. Whatever the case, make sure you are clear about the application and school assignment process which, district-depending, can be complicated.

Whether you're considering public, private, or parochial, browse individual school websites. Some sites include contact information for Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) officers, so you can contact parents directly to talk about the school. You might even find photo slide shows or videos, which will give you a virtual tour of the school - the second-best thing to being there.

Other online resources Many schools now have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and if you "like" the school on Facebook, you’ll automatically receive updates about events and other school news. Do a Google search on the school and consider setting up a Google news feed, so you’ll get news about the schools you’re considering. Look on YouTube as well. Many schools post videos by students, parents, or the school itself. Parents For Public Schools helps parents navigate the public school system and has chapters in many cities. Check to see if there is one in your new town.

Seek out local resources
Real estate agents are often an excellent source of school information, so if you have one, be sure to ask your agent. As well, look on the website of the local newspaper or city magazine for articles about the schools on your list. And if you already have a new job in place before your move, put an email blast out to your future colleagues asking for their recommendations on the best (and worst!) local schools - and even tips on how to get in.

Contact the schools
Once you’ve narrowed your search to a few schools, contact each one directly. Have a list of questions ready for the school principal or administrator. This is your chance to get a sense of the school environment, so don’t hesitate to ask questions about not strictly academic issues, for example, "How does your school handle bullying?" or "Which after-school clubs are most popular?" Ask school administrators to recommend a parent or two who could talk with you about the school.

Have a back-up plan

Be sure to have a back-up plan in case the school you choose doesn’t work out. Narrow your list to two or three schools and enroll your child in your top-choice school, if you can. But also find out if there are slots available and what enrollment procedures are at your back-up schools. That way, if things don't go well for your child at her new school, you can move her quickly without starting the process all over again. "Don't be afraid to change schools if it isn’t working," Milne advises. "If your kid is really unhappy, be prepared to try again at another school."

Final details
If you have a school lined up, check with the school and ask what paperwork they'll need in advance of your arrival, such as school transcripts and current immunization records. (See other tips for helping your child adjust to her new school.)

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.