What to Consider When Choosing a School

Education

What to Consider When Choosing a School

We asked parents, educators and policy experts for their advice on what to look for when choosing a school. Here’s what they had to say.

Inside a classroom at Montgomery Elementary School in Chula Vista / Photo by Megan Wood

This post originally appeared in Voice of San Diego’s yearly publication, A Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. See the full guide, including an interactive map and countywide school data, here.

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A school’s quality and figuring out whether it’s the right place for your child involves more than just examining its test scores.

There’s also campus diversity, teacher experience, after-school care and so much more to consider. Looked at on their own, test scores can sometimes make a school look better or worse than it really is.

But where do you start when comparing schools? And what factors are most important? We asked parents, educators and experts to share their experiences and offer their advice for what to keep in mind when weighing schools.

Responses have been lightly edited.

Strong parent engagement is a great sign.

When I think about a good school, my first thought is not how well it scores on the California Schools Dashboard, or whether an elementary school has a dedicated science lab, or how many Advanced Placement courses a high school offers. Good schools are not merely a reflection of test scores. For all parents, I suggest starting with the neighborhood school and those nearby. Look for a school where you are greeted by friendly staff when you walk into the main office, something I think all parents must do when choosing a school for their child. Look for one that has a principal who champions his or her staff and has a good rapport with both parents and students. Schools need to feel safe for both parents and students. A good school gets support from and plays an active role in the community. Look for one with celebrated parent leaders and a functioning school site council and parent-teacher organization. Parents need to be seen as partners by both staff and teachers. Good schools promote agency and inclusion as well as strong academic standards. Beyond that, a good school is one that fits the needs of each student, regardless of where they are.

– Suzy Reid, parent, San Diego Unified

The perfect school doesn’t exist. 

School choice is a hard-won civil right. Having school choices used to be a privilege reserved for middle-and upper-class families with the wherewithal to move to areas with good public schools or send their kids to private schools. Over the past three decades, by adding public magnet, option, alternative and charter schools and by rewriting school districts’ student enrollment policies, many, many more American and San Diego region families have options for where to send their kids to school. I would say two things to parents: first, defend your hard-won gains on making choices by speaking up in school board meetings and through your school board votes. In the absence of parent voice, we see some local school districts disinvesting in bus transportation, limiting choice in the enrollment process and undermining popular charter options. Second, when making your choice, remember that there’s no perfect school, so just do your best to find a school that balances convenience, community, great teachers/teaching and strong leadership. Start with your neighborhood school, but check at least one other option for comparison. And, if your child is struggling in a school, don’t be afraid to move them to new school that will teach, nurture and love them better.

– Laura Kohn, director of Early Workforce Development, San Diego Workforce Partnership

Don’t make assumptions about a school.

As a parent of two elementary students, and someone who talks to a lot of parents about what they value most in their schools, one thing is clear: What parents want most is a quality education in a safe and supportive environment. What can parents do to find that? Check out your neighborhood school — take a tour and meet the principal. Talk to parents, students and teachers, and if it is a good fit, you don’t have to worry about choosing. Don’t make assumptions. Sometimes “conventional wisdom” about a school is based on a reputation from long ago. Last year’s Voice of San Diego Guide featured “schools that remade themselves,” so take a look for yourself! 

Similarly, folks sometimes assume that charter school = innovative, and neighborhood school = uniform and traditional. This is not necessarily the case. Again, take a look for yourself! Watch out for education buzzwords like “personalized learning.” Sometimes it means that your child is getting a lot of screen time, not a lot of individualized personal support. Ask for details about educational programs if you are not sure about them. Check out the California School Dashboard. You can look at academic performance, climate, suspensions, etc. and dig into these issues by demographic or student group. You can also see how the school compares to the state and whether the school is improving on certain metrics. What support does your family need? Do you need before- or after-school services? Some families rely on the free- and reduced-price meal program, so make sure that your child can access breakfast, lunch and even dinner at the school site. Information about this is usually on the school’s website. Once you have chosen a school, you have the right to keep advocating to make your school as great as possible for your child and your community!

– Clare Crawford, senior policy adviser, In The Public Interest

Visit the school, meet the adults.

Choosing a school for your child depends on what is important to you and your child, and what you want a school to do for your child. Parents often focus on the test scores only. The tests scores can be decisive factors in how the students at the school are performing, but they may not tell you everything about the school’s effectiveness. 

The most significant feature of students’ school life is the relationships with teachers and friends. Positive relationships help students feel secure and confident, and enable them to effectively adjust to the school environment and build positive school values. 

Furthermore, to gather additional information on the school, plan a visit. And during the school tour, make sure to focus on how teachers and staff interact with one another and with children. Do they treat all children with dignity and respect? How inclusive and diverse is the school? Does the school encourage parent and community involvement? Look at the work on the walls and get an idea of what the school values. It’s important to make sure that the school you select is the place in which your child will succeed not only academically, but also emotionally and socially. 

– Lallia Allali, chairperson of the District English Learner Advisory Committee

Seek out a character-building culture.

Our children spend a large part of their day at school, and their experience on campus will shape more than just the information they learn – especially for young children, it’s where they learn to be a part of a larger community. For that reason, a school culture that focuses on building character of students is important to me. When visiting, pay attention to how you are greeted, and how staff interact with children and one another. Do their interactions show warmth and respect? Also ask what communication between families and staff is like: In what ways can you expect the school and your child’s teacher to help you know what’s going on? If I had to pick just one indicator from those laid out in this guide to get a pulse on a school, it would be the equity rating. Schools with a high equity rating are places where students from all backgrounds and economic statuses are learning in stride, and that’s a sign of strong instruction and leadership among staff. Finally, do the location and the before/after school care options work for your family? The perceived payoff of a certain school or type of program may dwindle if getting them there and home every day, and your time left together, is overly disruptive to your family’s routine.

– Amanda Bonds, program director, Words Alive 

Neighborhood schools offer perks you might not have thought of.

I firmly support every parent’s ability to make the best decision for their child’s education. My hope is that you’ll consider your neighborhood school as a positive choice in that process. Our older two children attended charter elementary, middle and high schools. But when our youngest child wasn’t selected for any of the charter lotteries, we were left with an unfamiliar lack of choice and enrolled our son at our neighborhood school just two blocks away. Four years later, we are Clay Elementary’s biggest fans. Most importantly, our son gets a stellar education at Clay. What happens in the classroom is on par or even better than our older kids experienced at the charter school. What neighborhood schools might lack in facilities and wow factors for kindergarten tours they more than make up for with experienced, well-established teachers. There are also all benefits of a neighborhood school we never thought about until we got involved. For example, our son has neighborhood friends, whereas our older kids don’t. Friendship is a vital part of a child’s life and having playmates that they can meet up with at the park is undeniably easier when you go to school and live in the same community. Likewise, we love walking to school each day instead of driving across town. And there are benefits for us, as parents, too. Building relationships with fellow Clay parents means we are also getting to know our neighbors, which is central to helping our neighborhood be the place of our dreams. So yes, by all means, explore every educational opportunity San Diego has to offer your child. But do yourself a huge favor and remember that a perfectly viable choice is actually your easiest, fully guaranteed one: choice-ing into your neighborhood school.

– Adam McLane, parent, San Diego Unified

There are opportunities in every school (but IB programs are a slam dunk).

There’s a quality education to be had at every school. I honestly believe that. When considering choice, looking at test scores is fine, but test scores do not tell you how your child is going to fare at any school. What you want to look for is something that’s a good fit. If your child has particular interests, there are magnet schools for that. The job of elementary and middle schools is to provide kids with a good foundation and chances to explore. In theory, every school is doing that. You can ask, “What opportunities do you have for my kid to explore?” I would also consider elementary and middle schools that feed into International Baccalaureate programs, like those at San Diego High or Mission Bay High — that is a quality education that’s guaranteed. Those programs will prepare students to challenge themselves academically and to be global thinkers and to be community-minded. Remember: Wherever your child goes to school, always encourage them to take the most challenging courses they can.

– Tom Yount, former principal and teacher

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