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Choosing the Right School for Your Child

As your preschooler approaches Kindergarten, you will need to find an elementary school that best fits the needs of your child and your family. Many, many factors will go into your decision—where should you start?

  1. First, remember that you know your child best. Think about writing an imaginary letter to your child’s future Kindergarten teacher. Include all the details about your child’s personality that you believe would be important for a teacher to know. Keeping these details about your child in mind, write down a description of your child’s ideal classroom. For example, if you know your child feels overwhelmed and over-stimulated in high energy, noisy places, perhaps you’re looking for a school with small class sizes and a calm, quiet atmosphere. Or, maybe you feel a multi-age classroom would be best for your developmentally-delayed child, whose developmental peers may be younger in age. When you create a long list of desired classroom attributes, spend some time prioritizing those that are most important to your child’s success. You may also wish to ask your child’s preschool teacher for her thoughts on the type of Kindergarten classroom that would best benefit your child.
  1. Now reflect on your family’s personality and needs and make a list of school attributes that would work best for you. Perhaps you are looking for a close-knit community of parents because you plan to spend time volunteering in the school. Or perhaps you want a school that reflects your ethnic culture, heritage or religious beliefs. These school attributes may need to be prioritized, as well.
  1. Now consider what you would like your child to learn beyond the classroom basics; what educational opportunities would you like your child to have? Are you looking for a place where her musical or artistic skills will be developed? Perhaps you’re seeking a bilingual experience, or maybe you’re hoping for time every day to learn outside in a natural environment. If your child has a physical or cognitive disability, what services will he or she likely require?
  1. Finally, think about how you would like your child to be taught; what teaching methods or philosophy are most attractive to you? For example, do you want the teacher to guide your child throughout the day, or would you prefer your child take the lead as to the topics she wants to explore? Do you want her to learn using all the latest technology, or are you looking for a more traditional classroom?

Now you are ready to identify potential schools. To find schools in your area, visit websites like greatschools.org, schooldigger.com, and your school district’s website. Many districts offer a “school chooser” document or webpage that describes each district school. To learn about independent private or charter schools in your area, visit the website of your state’s education department. If you think you might want a private religious school, start with a call to your house of worship. Ask friends and neighbors for school recommendations, as well.

At this point you may have a very long list of potential schools! You can narrow down your choices by reading about each school’s curriculum and philosophy and looking for matches to your desired educational opportunities and teaching methods. If needed, you can further narrow down your choices by looking at standardized test results, attendance rates, or other school performance data. This type of information should be available on each school’s website. If not, call the school and ask for their packet of information for incoming families.

Once you have narrowed down your list of potential schools, call each school to schedule a visit to tour the school and talk with the principal and the Kindergarten teachers. Bring your child with you and try to visit during the school day when teachers and students are present, if possible. During your visit, ask questions that reflect the needs of your child and your family that you feel must be met. Watch how the staff interacts with your child and with other children—are they interested in the students’ thoughts? Do they positively motivate students to learn and behave? Listen to the conversations of the students—do you hear respectful language, creativity, and excitement? Ask the principal and the teachers how they typically communicate with parents—does it match your preferred communication style? While touring, be sure you are comfortable with the organization, maintenance, and safety of the classrooms, building, and playgrounds.

The visit is also your chance to ask practical questions about the school, such as the cost of tuition and the availability of scholarships, the availability of before- or after-school care, whether the school offers support services such as counselors or a school nurse, the quality of the breakfast and lunch menus, whether uniforms are required, etc. If you time your visit to include the start or end of the school day, parents of current students are more likely to be at the school—ask a few about their experiences and opinions.

Hopefully you will find more than one great option for your child, but keep in mind that the perfect school likely will not exist. As the parent, you will have a big role to play to fill in any gaps that the school will not be able to meet. Be prepared to be actively involved in your child’s school no matter how great a fit it is—parents and schools are partners in children’s growth and academic success.

How did you find the best school for your child?

Anneliese Dickman is the policy and program researcher at Penfield Children’s Center with eight years experience researching the indicators of high quality early childhood care and education.

More resources:

The Picky Parent Guide: Choose your Child’s School with Confidence

Babycenter.com’s School Decision Guide

Greatschools.org’s How to Assess a School

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