The past few years have prompted many people to re-examine what’s most important to them, particularly in terms of careers, proximity to family, and general quality of life. Many families are also reconsidering what matters most when it comes to their child’s school experience. Families have more choice in K-12 education than ever before, from traditional public school to public charter school to religious school to independent school to virtual schooling to homeschooling.
Whether you are just beginning the school selection process for a future kindergartener, (re)considering your choice for elementary or middle grades, or seeking a good-match high school for your child, what you see and learn when exploring a school can be key to your decision. In-person events, virtual sessions or tours, student visits, and even a review of school websites can be eye-opening. Below are five things to consider when choosing a school for your child.
Your Goals for Your Child
Think about your goals for your child during their educational journey — who do you want them to be, and what do you want their school experience to be like along the way? If you haven’t done so already, write down three areas of growth for your child within the next few years. Do you want them to rediscover the wonder in learning? Perhaps a small school focused on hands-on learning would be best. Do you want them to develop leadership skills? A Pre-K or K through 8th Grade school will allow them to serve as “mentors” to students in younger grades. Do you want them to try a sport, even if they’ve never played before? Consider a school with an inclusive, no-cut athletic program.
Mission and Values
Find the school’s mission statement and do a quick gut check. Does it resonate with you? Do certain words stand out? The mission should excite you and give you confidence in the school’s ability to engage your child as a learner and as an individual. Do the school’s values align with your family’s? Schools often seek parents who will partner with teachers and administrators. In addition, mission and value alignment will ensure that important messages about learning and growing are reinforced both at home and at school.
Academic Program and Support
When considering the benefits of a school’s academic program, think about not just the product but the process of learning. Consider not just “what” children learn, but “how” they learn and how they feel about learning overall. Do you want your child to focus more on traditional lecture, discussion, and testing or to learn skills and content primarily through creative, in-depth projects? Do you want your child spending more of their day listening and complying or engaging, creating, and constructing? Whether visiting in-person or online, take advantage of any opportunities to see classes in action or hear from teach about their practice and pedagogy. Even better, see if you can talk with students about their academic experiences. Peruse the school’s website and social media. What do they choose to highlight when it comes to teaching and learning?
Consider, too, the level of support your child may need. Does the school have a dedicated learning specialist, and if not, how does the school handle differentiation for students with a variety of learning styles? Perhaps your student needs to be challenged in the classroom. If so, consider how teachers will respond to a student’s desire to engage with learning even more deeply and critically, or whether there are opportunities for students to accelerate in certain subject areas.
It’s not only your student who may be joining a new school community, but your family. When you visit a campus or attend an event, pay close attention to how you are treated as a prospective family, as well as how members of the community treat each other. If you’re able to observe a class or walk through the school hallways, do you notice a rapport between teachers and students? Do the students seem comfortable around adults? If your child is able to spend time in the classroom, do they feel a sense of belonging? In what ways does the school work to build and sustain relationships, enable new families to feel connected, and make people feel welcome? If you’re interested in volunteering, ensure that the school has a robust parent engagement program. Ask the school or admissions office if you can connect with current parents directly, as they are often willing to share their specific experience and helpful anecdotes.
Be sure to consider, as well, the school’s initiatives around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. This work should be part of the fabric of a school’s daily life, from the academic curriculum to images and language used in marketing materials to programming. Does the curriculum strive to represent marginalized voices and develop cultural competence amongst students? Does the community reflect a variety of types of diversity (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, learning styles, gender identity, family structure, and more)? Are there structures in place (programs, committees, leadership positions, etc.) that demonstrate the school’s commitment to continued growth in this area?
Logistics, Details, and Cost of Attendance
While schools may work with you to make reasonable accommodations, they often can’t modify the foundation of their program, so it’s important to understand up front how your child’s new schedule will fit with your own. Be sure to find out not only about the school’s before- and after-care programs (will you need to make other care arrangements?), but also about its fees and policies (do you only pay for hours you use? Are drop-ins welcome?).
And finally, before committing to a new school, be sure you understand the bottom line. If pursuing admission at an independent school, what opportunities are there for financial aid? Does the school’s tuition include all books, materials, and technology expenses? What about field trips? Are there mandatory fundraising requirements (or opt-out charges) or capital improvement fees? The fee structures at independent and parochial schools (like the tuition itself) vary widely, and the cost of attendance can often extend beyond tuition rates.
The school search process can feel high-stress, but it’s also an opportunity for you to learn more about your child, your family, and your values. If your child is old enough, ask them to share their opinion with you—their voice is important. You might be surprised by how much knowledge you gain about your child from simply talking through school pros and cons and learning which school visits resonated most with them. Your search for a school should be informed by both your child’s immediate needs and your hopes for their future.
Caroline Johnson is the Director of Admissions at Friends Community School, a progressive Quaker school for Kindergarten through Grade 8 in College Park, MD, just twenty minutes from Capitol Hill.