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Moving on Up: Choosing a School After Preschool

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When looking for childcare or preschool for their children, most people do extensive research to find the best program for their family. In many cases, the same process can be followed when searching for elementary school programs. There are more choices now than ever before and finding the right one may be the secret to school success. Here are some details on the different types of schools you may come across in your search.


District Public Schools—In certain school districts, there are choices beyond an assigned neighborhood school. You may have curriculum choices outside of the traditional neighborhood school curriculum: arts, language immersion, Montessori, open, fundamental (back to basics), or others.


Public Charter Schools—Charter schools are available in some areas of the country. They are public schools chartered by the state or district and run by a variety of organizations: non-profit or for-profit, founded by parents, religious groups, entrepreneurs, or corporations. These schools may be tailored to a particular population (e.g., employees, ethnic groups), educational approaches, or content.


Private SchoolsPrivate schools range from long-time established schools to brand new schools established by religious groups, for-profit organizations, or entrepreneurs. When most people think of private schools, they typically think of country day schools, academies, and independent schools. Most private schools are run by non-profit boards, some are founded and run by individual owners, and a few are run by educational corporations. Their approaches range from very progressive (learning based and child centered) to very conservative (instruction based and teacher centered). The name of the school may be part marketing and part intent. “Academy” connotes serious academics. “Country Day” is often associated with a broad liberal arts approach, probably progressive (individualized and experiential), and perhaps a place for higher status families.


Parochial SchoolsThe majority of parochial schools are Catholic schools and run by a diocese, but there are also Lutheran and other Christian parochial school systems in some areas. Parochial schools typically emphasize the basics, respect for authority and traditional values—some focus more on religious instruction than others. Tuition is usually less than most private schools and there is often a discount for parishioners.


Christian SchoolsThese schools are the fastest growing segment of private schools and are usually run by a church, an organization, a group of parents, or an entrepreneur. Christian schools are typically more conservative and tuitions tend to be lower than other private schools.


Montessori SchoolsMontessori schools are private schools that provide an individualized Montessori curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning. Unfortunately, the term has become a “brand” and some schools use the name without having a real Montessori approach (check for Montessori teacher certifications). Tuition cost is usually comparable to lower priced private schools.


Determining Which School Is Right for You
Every family has different priorities when choosing a school for their child. You may want a rigorous academic curriculum or a strong science curriculum for your budding inventor. Perhaps a top music program or Spanish or French language immersion is what you’re after; or simply a school with an enthusiastic faculty and strong leadership. It’s important to spell out your interests and your child’s particular needs before you set out to find the right school. Develop a simple profile. The questions below may help you get started:


  • What are your child’s educational needs? Are they purely academic? Do you prefer a curriculum that is structured, child initiated, or a combination of the two?
  • What do you want the school to achieve for you and your child? A certain level of academic preparation? Discipline and respect? Greater appreciation for natural resources and environment? Appreciation of the arts? Certain social status and acceptance? After-school activities?
  • Are the ideology and values of the schools compatible with yours?
  • What size school are you looking for? Some children may do better in a smaller school while others may benefit from a larger school with more options and more children to interact with. How important is class size to you?


Family Logistics


  • What are you able to afford? Keep in mind that even public education entails costs beyond taxes, such as lunches, after-school programs, field trips, and supplemental costs for band or sports. Some parents believe that the early years of education are equally or more important than college and choose to invest accordingly.
  • What type of school transportation do you need?
  • What childcare support do you need? Does the school offer extended day programs, or flexible early entry?


Develop a School Search Strategy
After creating the profile, start searching. Begin the search as early as possible. Organize your search with files and mark deadlines and appointments on a calendar.


  • List all the schools that meet your profile. If you don’t think you can afford the tuition at a certain school, request financial aid information and scholarship forms before excluding it from your list.
  • Research the schools in your area. Call or e-mail the schools for catalogs, videos, and applications. Most important, locate and talk to parents whose children attend the different schools.
  • Select approximately three to five schools to explore further.
  • Visit your top choices.


Ask questions, observe the environment, and talk to teachers. The sample questions below may help you get started:


  • Does the school have a particular educational philosophy or mission?
  • How does the school encourage and monitor students’ progress toward meeting grade-level standards?
  • Does the school individualize curriculum?
  • How does the school support students who have academic, social, or emotional difficulties?
  • How does the school support special gifts or particular interests?
  • What kinds of library resources are available to students?
  • How is technology used to support teaching and learning at this school?
  • What extracurricular opportunities are available for students?
  • What is the school’s approach to student discipline and safety?
  • What strategies are used to teach students who are not fluent in English?
  • What professional development opportunities do teachers have?
  • How does the school approach parent involvement?
  • What are some of the school’s greatest accomplishments?
  • Ask all schools about the qualifications and turnover of leadership and faculty and how they evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others.
  • What is the school’s history, organizational structure, and financial stability?
  • Are test scores available?
  • How do students get to school? Is bus transportation available?


Assess the School
(Information adapted from GreatSchools.net. For more information, please visit GreatSchools.net)


Look for the following when you visit the schools on your list:


  • Do the classrooms look cheerful? Is student work displayed, and does it seem appropriate for the grade level?
  • Do teachers seem enthusiastic and knowledgeable, asking questions that stimulate students and keep them engaged?
  • Does the principal seem confident and interested in interacting with students, teachers, and parents?
  • What are some highlights of the reading, math, science, and social studies curriculum?
  • What criteria are used to determine student placement in classes?
  • How are parents informed of school information and activities?
  • Is there an active Parent Teacher Association? What other types of parent involvement take place at this school?
  • Are child care/extended day programs available? What is the cost/quality?
  • How do students behave as they move from class to class or play outside?
  • How well are the facilities maintained? Are bathrooms clean and well supplied, and do the grounds look safe and inviting?


Application Process


  • Check with the schools and districts where you’re applying to make sure you know their application deadlines.
  • If you are ready to make the big decision, apply, enroll, and complete the applications on time.
  • Once you’ve applied, stay on top of the process and check with the school or district to find out when you can expect an answer.
  • Arrange return visits as necessary to schools that have accepted your application.
  • Return the acceptance form with a deposit check.


Once again, it’s important not to obsess over which school to choose. For many of us without a lot of choices, school is like an arranged marriage that works if we put our energy and minds into it.

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