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When you choose a middle school for your child, you must answer questions like: Where will my child be happiest for the next few years? Is the popular public school near our home going to prepare my child for high school? Is this school really as great as it looks?

Liz Perelstein was the founder of School Choice International. Now retired, she used to advise parents on how to choose the best school for their child. We asked her for the most important things parents should do when evaluating a potential middle school.

  1. Look for signs the school will support your child’s social and emotional development.

    The middle school years can be difficult for kids. So it’s important to find a school that supports kids through it, not just academically, but socially and emotionally, too. How can you tell? Ask if they have any kind of social skills or anti-bullying program. Ask about counselors. Some middle schools assign a child to the same guidance counselor for the whole three years. Others don’t even have guidance counselors. Are the sixth graders separated from the older students, or are there other ways the school helps them transition? Think about what kind of support your child may need, and then make sure you know whether or not she’ll be getting it.

  2. Visit more than once, and ask the right questions.

    Did the principal come across badly? Was a class unruly? Maybe this is a sign of a bigger problem, or maybe it was just a bad day. If you have doubts, but still want to consider this school, visit again. Many parents ask generic questions (“What are your test scores?” “How much homework is there every night?”) and receive generic answers. If you want to find out what the school is really like, ask other questions, like, “What three adjectives would you use to describe this school?” (Related: 10 key questions to ask when considering a middle school.)

  3. Look beyond the school’s superficial qualities.

    A fresh paint job and new playground equipment are nice — and can enhance your child’s experience at school — but they don’t translate into a good education. Similarly, don’t judge a school for a less-than-perfect exterior. There may be dedicated educators and successful students behind that peeling paint.
    Look carefully at the curriculum, teachers, and principal. Do the faculty seem engaged and eager to teach? Does the school teach the core subjects and offer extracurriculars, so that students get a well-rounded middle school experience? Will your child be well-prepared for the rigors of high school? These answers may not be immediately visible, but they’re the keys to finding a school where your child will thrive.

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