Choosing a School that Fits

Gone are the days when it was a given that most children simply attended school in their neighborhood. There are so many choices: public school options from charters to magnets to transfers, in addition to the wealth of choices among private schools. The task can seem overwhelming.

What Type of School Is Best for You?

Public: Public schools receive state and federal funding and don’t charge tuition. Teachers must be credentialed by the state. Many Bay Area districts have “neighborhood schools” attended by children who live nearby. But some allow parents to apply to any school, and even those with attendance boundaries may allow transfers from within and outside the district. 

Charter: Charter schools are publicly funded but are freed from some local and state regulations. While independently run, they must follow agreements with the agency granting the charter, usually the local school district. Many offer specialized programs.

Magnet: Magnet schools also are public but tend to have a specific focus, such as science or the arts. Any student within a district may apply.

Private: Private schools charge tuition and grant admission on a selective basis. Many do not use the same standardized tests required in public schools and used as a basis for comparison. Religious or parochial schools tend to charge less, and many admit students of different faiths, though religion generally is part of the curriculum. Scholarships may be available for private schools.

Homeschooling: Many organizations exist to assist parents and help them make connections with other homeschool families.

The Elementary School Search 

Consider Your Child’s Needs. Does your child have special needs, or special interests or talents? Do you think your child will do well in a traditional classroom setting, or might he need an alternative approach, such as more hands-on learning? 

Consider Your Family’s Needs. The cost of tuition, and aftercare if necessary, are both major factors in your decision. Make sure to inquire about financial aid options.

Don’t forget logistical considerations, such as the school’s distance from your home and whether transportation is available. The school’s hours and the availability of aftercare are also important. If you have more than one child, you’ll need to consider whether a school works for all of them or the trade-offs involved in having children in more than one school.


Considerations for Middle School 

While many of the same factors apply in picking a middle school as in picking an elementary school, education experts say school climate is increasingly important in middle school, when students are hyper-aware of their peers’ views. Look for a school where it’s cool to be smart.

Other questions to consider:

  • Are classes tracked by level (i.e. remedial or advanced) and, if so, how are students selected?
  • Are core subjects such as math and science integrated or separate? Why?
  • Are counselors available to help students prepare for high school and beyond?
  • How are students graded?
  • Are foreign language classes or other electives offered?
  • If the school is large, are there efforts to create a sense of community?


Heading to High School 

The choices can seem endless when trying to decide where to send your child to high school, especially for families already looking ahead to college and trying to determine the best path for their child to get there.

While experts warn against solely basing school choices on test scores, rankings and other numbers, there are some numbers that are critical when it comes to high schools – what percentage of kids graduate and where they go afterward.

Here are other considerations: 

What is the school’s culture and atmosphere? As much as we’d like to think those distinctions don’t matter – or that the cliques of our high schools are a thing of the past – they do matter. How comfortable your child is in high school will be affected by the school’s atmosphere and whether he or she can find a peer group.

Some schools – public and private – promote an atmosphere of academic rigor; others feel more laid-back or sports-mad. With a diverse school, are there racial tensions? Are there signs of a culture of “mean girls”? Are the kids displaying brand names and following trends or wearing creative thrift-store chic?

Experts say having your child “shadow” another student for a day at a possible school choice will help him determine whether he’ll fit in.

What are student and parent preferences? Teens are independent, and forcing yours to go to a school he or she hates is likely to backfire. Let your child start the process by researching schools he might like to attend. But if you have any issues that are non-negotiable, from location to cost, put those on the table first before your child gets his heart set on a school that’s not an option. However, don’t forget to check out financial aid options before you rule out a preferred private school.

Check out the school’s focus and specialties. A kid who loves to play sports probably wants a school with top teams. The same applies to art, music, theater and other passions – unless the family is willing and able to pursue them outside school. 

Determine school size and organization. Large schools can offer more programs, classes, enrichment and extracurricular activities than small ones, but some students will prefer an intimate atmosphere where they know their peers and teachers better. 

Investigate academic courses and enrichment opportunities. What languages, math, science and specialty classes is your child interested in? While many schools offer French and Spanish, a student who wants less popular classes such as German or Italian – or statistics, astronomy or a wide choice of technology classes – will want to check schools’ curriculum options carefully. Many students want a wide choice of Advanced Placement or honors classes, which vary widely from school to school. 

Consider parent involvement and communication. Kids may not care about this, but parents should. A school with a thriving PTA/PTSA or other parent group is a healthy sign, and frequent communication between school staff and parents is not just healthy but essential. Find out how information gets to parents and how often. Ask for a copy of the parent handbook. If there’s not one, it’s a red flag.

How does the school handle college placements and counseling? Families looking to high-powered colleges should look at where a school’s alumni have gone. Conversely, there’s a growing movement backing away from the college admissions frenzy that has some ninth-graders already obsessing over their college prospects, and families might think about their view on that, too. Find out about a school’s college counseling. Most schools serving higher-income populations have comprehensive counseling, but it can vary. Budget cuts have forced many public schools to cut back their number of counselors, limiting students’ access. Some parents can afford to hire a private admissions consultant, but it’s still good to be aware of what resources are offered at the school.

High School Red Flags is a leading national nonprofit that empowers parents to unlock educational opportunities for their children. It provides school information and parenting resources to help families guide their children to great futures.

Here are their red flags for high school:

1. It’s Not Safe

Studies have shown that students are incapable of learning when they fear for their physical well-being. If a school has problems with violence and bullying, it’s a huge warning sign. If the school can’t provide basic safety, what else is it lacking?

2. Bad Teaching

If teachers lack subject knowledge, can’t control their classrooms, act unprofessionally or focus on the wrong goals – or have no goals – those are all obstacles that it’s difficult for even the best students to overcome.

3. Low Graduation Rate

If a school you are considering has a high drop-out rate, ask tough questions to find out why. Are the students engaged? Are the teachers? Not all schools with low graduation rates are necessarily bad, but when underachievement is the norm, it’s hard for motivated students or teachers to swim against the current for long.

4. Terrible Student-Teacher Ratio

Education jobs are declining while enrollment is on the rise. Some studies have shown that small class size is not the silver bullet some believe, but make sure there is room – literally and figuratively – for your child.

5. It’s Not a Good School

Visit schools. High school teachers need to know more than their subject matter. They need to know their students and understand and empathize with adolescents.

Source: GreatSchools


Choosing the Right School for Your Child, by Brandi Roth and Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson (Association of Ideas Publishing, 2008). $20.


Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence, the Elementary Years, K-6, by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel (Armchair Press, 2004). $19.95.


Straight Talk About Schools Today: Understand the System and Help Your Child Succeed, by Judy Molland (Free Spirit Publishing, 2007). $15.95.



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