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My kid is only 10 months old. I know that seems a bit premature. We live in an area that people have told us is difficult to find a good school. So we thought that if we plan ahead and find 2-3 schools ahead of time, we can buy a house in that area, and take our kid there.

I started looking at greatschools.org and the education department website, and is really difficult to compare schools and to know the profile of students once they finish. So we started thinking about private schools, however, we don't know if we want to bring our kid to a private school, since we were both brought up in the public system.

I am not the only father out there trying to figure this out, so I was hoping to see if someone has a process to select a good school that worked.


I thought that if I put local information the question might be less relevant, but here it is. The city is Orlando, the state is Florida in the US.

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You might clarify your geographic area (country, at least) and what kind of location you are in - urban, suburban, semirural, rural. Those sorts of things make a big difference. –  Joe Jan 26 at 2:17
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Thanks. I didn't necessarily mean you needed the exact location - just if it was a metropolitan area or more rural, as those are really different in how you go about things. But that works as well. :) –  Joe Jan 26 at 2:42
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@Joe, being in the South has some relevance, though, as desegregation orders are still in place throughout most of the region. That makes it very difficult to transfer your child to a better public school in the district. You have to be careful to move within the boundaries of the school you want, not just the district you want. –  Karl Bielefeldt Jan 26 at 16:54
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4 Answers

(must say I'm a really bad example as I currently homeschool, but I did go through the whole process and eventually let my children spent a few years in one of those institutions)

First, define your expectations from school. Could be one of improve social skills, excel in actual studies, close to home, price, social properties of school's population, no violence, springboard to higher schools, nature caring, religion - whatever. Just know what you are looking for. Try to focus, though.

Second, prioritize them, as well as you can (3 different priorities should do). Having 3-4 really important expectations is enough. Remember no school is perfect (even not homeschool :P).

Third, filter the unlikely candidiates. Hopefully, the prioritized list obviously filters many candidate schools. If it doesn't, then there are probably many schools that have more or less the same properties. Almost duplicate schools. Pick the closer to home. But, hopefully, your list is firm enough to filter many in the first place. You should have no more than 5 schools at hand. Otherwise, either your list doesn't reflect your expectations good enough, or you don't have too much expectations (that was my case :D).

Fourth, thoroughly examine the final candidates. Go there, see the place when it's opened, during recess, during class time. Also, find people in your vicinity, with children a bit older than yours. There are probably some children at the preschool (or kindergarten) that have older siblings. Ask their parents about these schools. If you have friends in your neighborhood with older children, that you know to have more or less the same expectations - ask them also. Nothing beats first hand feedback from other parents. But you've got to have more than one (unless it's someone you really count on to not exaggerate a bit). Then, have an appointment with the principal, have your list of expectations with you. If other parents said things that worry you, ask about it in that appointment. OK, I think you got the idea.


For instance, when was in this process, my first and foremost expectation was "not do any harm to the child". It implied the further expectations to be as close to home as possible and have as little school hours as possible, relying upon ourselves for fixing any lack of education, supposed there was to be one. So I sent my children to the block's public school, watching them from my apartment's window, crossing no roads, till they're into the schoolyard. Made me happy (for a few years).

Though I understand you're from the US (now I see that you're from Orlando), this attempts to describe a general process that may apply for many countries (I'm not from the US).

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The two answers already posted give some great advice about choosing a district to land in, but there are specifics about each school you can also choose to take a look at - part of that, "Thoroughly examine the final candidates" step mentioned by yair (Great synopsis of the process btw) Some of the items I've listed here, might be a bit nit-picky, but they are the kinds of things a lot of people don't know they can even inquire about and can make a huge difference for you just in knowing about them (you can decide if something is a deal-breaker or not, or if you don't like it, but are willing to live with it, you can figure out your plan for "dealing.") Most of these items are helpful to know whether you Go Private or Public but a few may be more applicable to one or the other.

Know and understand what the school's mission statement says. Part of accreditation of private schools in the US includes having a mission statement, many public schools also have one. This expresses the general beliefs about what the goal of education is within that school community. Not all schools pay much attention to their mission statement, but you should have a general idea of what the school publicizes as its goal for your child.

Know homework standards. Some of the specifics will be dependent on specifically which class your child is in. However, Principles - especially at the upper grades but increasingly even in Kindergarten - often give minimum amounts of homework that should be assigned to kids - even when the teacher feels the class has fully understood a lesson they are mandated to assign a certain amount of "practice work". Know how much you can expect for an average week and an average night

Know the school schedule and attendance policy. This may seem as though it is an obvious one, but which holidays the school decides to offer time for, how often there will be half days and when there will be additional Fridays or Mondays off can be revealing about what a school expects from parents and community in terms of time and commitment. For example, if you take a family vacation during school sessions can your child expect to get make-up work in advance? Is there a difference between kids leaving because of bereavement vs. family holiday? etc. For each day missed, how many days are allowed time to make-up the work for full credit? Is there a difference between an absence for illness and an absence for other reasons? What about Tardiness?

Know and understand discipline policies. Even if your child never misbehaves they can be affected by these policies. For example, how likely is it another child will be able to push, hit or otherwise demean your child and get away with it? At one school where I worked "redirection" was the standard policy for discipline. This means, when a child misbehaved in some way he or she was to just be distracted with a new activity to do. While this works most of the time (in Preschools it is an especially common standard) the result when it was strictly adhered to was that children were simply redirected even when they were physically aggressive toward other children repeatedly.

A lot of stock is put in ratios. Ratio of adults to children DOES matter a lot. The optimum ratio (for all grades really) is about 15-30 kids (although at the elementary level anything higher than 25 is too much). If you go much lower than 15 school-aged children, the energy in the rooms is draining, much higher and you can't truly get to know each individual and their learning styles, strengths and weakness. However, ratios are often misrepresentative of what is actually true in a given school. It is an average schools produce for the information of the families looking into them. Ratios in the standard classroom can be higher than what is published because enrichment classrooms which may have a ratio of one to eight are also averaged in. Other times, a ratio might be given as an over-all. These ratios are purely the number of staff (including support staff that is not in the classroom such as the receptionists), faculty and administrators. Sometimes staff is left out of this ratio, but administration almost never is. Almost every school I have interned or worked at has had ratios that paint a picture that is very different from the actuality. Since this is true overall, when comparing a ratio at one school to another school it is still valuable information for you, just make sure you know that in most schools, a ratio of 20 to one does not actually mean your child will be in a class with no more than 20 kids per adult within the classroom.

Know policies for special needs - you may have a child who is academically gifted and will need a more challenging or specialized curriculum - you just don't know it yet, or you may have a child that is really smart but his/her as-yet undiagnosed dyslexia or dysgraphia makes it very difficult to read so your child will need extra reading supports. What is the process for determining a child may need extra supports and how long does it usually take? Are there in-classroom adjustments that are made for fast or slow readers? What is the school's policy on holding back or skipping children? I have a niece that is particularly advanced in a couple of subjects, but rather than skip her she is given work about the same topics the other kids are studying that is deeper - or more challenging. She is NOT given EXTRA work but work that is appropriately challenging for her. What a healthy and advantageous policy for her in her educational journey and one we couldn't get in our region for our daughter.

Know about additional fees and incidentals. If your child attends a private school there are often book fees, uniforms, activities fees (for field trips etc.) that are not considered part of the tuition. Even at public schools there are additional supplies the school does not supply, field trip costs and fees for extracurricular activities. Get a look at the required supplies list no matter whether you are at a public or private school. I've heard complaints from families that spent hundreds of dollars on supplies because they needed particular type of notebook, calculator etc. etc. While the specifics of a list are likely to change before you are at the point of shopping for these supplies, the size and scope as well as required specificity can be an indicator to you of what to expect.

You might also look at sample report cards to know what will be considered important in terms of grading at different grade levels and to know what the gist of formal evaluation is aimed at in your school community. Some schools put a lot of emphasis on effort while others focus more on scores on homework and tests. Many really don't emphasize any of the subjects except math and reading until much later grades while others give scores for all subjects studied no matter student age and level.

Know ratings scores. The public and private schools (in the US) all administer standardized tests for the purpose of evaluating the success of the school itself. Too much stock is often put into these scores in terms of evaluating teachers and administrators as these tests usually only focus on reading and math at the elementary level (science is added in 4th grade at public schools in our state) and they don't consider factors that the school has no control over such as how many kids are in the school that don't have a computer at home, whose parents don't read to and with their children, or how many of their students come to school hungry every morning. However, ratings scores for schools factor in test scores as well as other elements like extra-curricular options that are available, drop out rates (in upper grades), building maintenance and care, etc. When you compare the school's current score to its scores from previous years you can see whether the school is improving and growing or whether it is faltering. It also gives you an idea of how one school preforms compared to another when you are able to choose between two ore more school options. At this time, schools are expected to show a rise in performance each year or their scores do go down slightly so a consistent score does not demonstrate stagnation. In the public schools, a score of 800 is considered acceptable performance by the state in which I live, you may need to do a little more research for your state.

Know policies about what is or is not allowed at school. I've known of more than one story of a child getting in trouble for the butter knife that was packed in a lunch pail by the mother. Many schools (especially in the upper grades) also have policies about cell phones and other electronic gadgets

Don't forget to ask about environmental and safety standards as well. Pesticides and Herbicides are often used extensively on school grounds and athletic fields. What are the safety standards? How long does it usually take for a needed repair to take place? What hazard exist for your region to consider? What are the fire procedures? tornado procedures? Earthquake procedures?. . . Even if the answers aren't make or break for you, asking these questions lets the school know you care and are conscientious. It may even lead to improvements in school standards if enough parents start asking these questions.

Don’t forget to check out the cafeteria and make sure you are satisfied with the "hot lunch" offerings and their nutritional value. Look up Jamie Oliver for more information about evaluating school foods.

As an added comment, you don't bring it up in your question, but I'll share that we had a really hard time finding a school for our kid as none of the schools in our area are all that great. Even the private schools didn't seem to match our needs or intentions so we wound up going with "virtual schooling" which offers a combination of public schooling with classrooms and the whole nine yards once/week, online classes she does at home but who have a teacher other than myself and homeschooling. It is just another option you might consider if you do truly have a hard time finding and getting your child into the "right" school for you. I have asked a question here about what to think about when considering whether homeschooling (or any form of it) is right for you that if you are open to the idea may also be enlightening in regard to both the downsides of choosing this route and the advantages.

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"However, when you compare the school's current score to its scores from previous years you can see whether the school is improving and growing or whether it is faltering" = or you can tell how well the school has figured out how to 'teach to the test'. Sadly, these tests have become important as measuring tools, but what they measure is how well they can teach the kids how to pass these particular tests which isn't necessarily an indication of how well they are being educated in general. –  DA01 Jan 26 at 7:46
    
Definite +1 for checking the cafeteria. A frustratingly forgotten aspect of education in a lot of cases. We can from 'struggling' district that had a GREAT food program to a 'top tier' district that services the nastiest stuff. –  DA01 Jan 26 at 7:47
    
While I agree about the problem of "teaching to the test," the tests are currently in a huge flux and will start including more writing skills and "explain your thinking" aspects to them. Because of this, the concern you bring up is less relevant at the moment than it would have been even two years ago or probably will be again in another five years. Mainly, I would think decreasing test scores would be the thing to be truly concerned about. And I'm sorry to hear about the downgrade in food at your school!!! –  balanced mama Jan 26 at 17:38
    
I assume all cafeteria food is crap and just pack my son's lunch. At least I know what's in it! –  Meg Coates Jan 28 at 1:00
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I don't know if there's really an entirely generic answer to this, but here's how I did this (with a 2.5yo and a 10 month old currently). This answer will apply primarily to those living in suburbs of major cities.

We lived in a major city in the urban center prior to having children, and once we had our first and were considering home ownership, we asked our coworkers and a realtor what suburbs would be good for high schools (grades 9-12 in our area). Once we found out where the good high schools were, we narrowed locations down to those with good ratings on greatschools for the elementary schools, plus some basic logic. That plus our desire not to be too far out, and our desired price range for houses, gave us our potential neighborhoods to purchase in.

A few factors beyond ratings we considered:

  • Property taxes. Higher taxes = better schools, in most areas. This obviously is not always true, but suburbs with higher taxes typically are where parents with kids who want their kids to do well in school live, while lower taxes tend to be where people who will go to private schools or who do not have kids - or who don't care as much about education - will go. In my area, this is even more relevant for elementary schools - as sometimes high schools will span multiple towns, but you want to be in the elementary school district of the region paying more of the taxes as their elementary schools are often better.
  • Education levels of the adults in the town. More educated parents tend to pay more attention to the education of their children, which means not only better schools due to more interest in paying for them and seeing results, but also higher level of education for your child's peers. Our town is very educated compared to other similar suburbs.
  • Breadth of classes and activities at the high school. Our local high school has a huge amount of activities, from drama club and forensics to astronomy club and a SF/F club - over 50 clubs and activities, plus athletics. It also offers classes in Latin, Japanese, and Chinese languages (plus the usual western european set), has a variety of vocational classes, over a dozen science classes, etc. I have no concern that my children will lack for choice - and a high school that offers such a breadth of classes is probably better (at least better funded, if not actually higher in quality).
  • Parks and other recreational activities in the area. At a young age these are as important or more so than school. I'd be happy with a mediocre first grade class but an excellent park system that allows my child to learn motor skills and social skills. Fortunately we have both in our town - we are a block away from a large park and within two miles of five very different parks, plus two large public pools, ice skating, etc.

I highly recommend asking around, as well; if you don't have coworkers to ask or family or friends with experience in the metropolitan area, then pick a few candidates and go there - see if you can find someone that seems reasonably reliable, like a pastor of a local church or a librarian. You might also ask your realtor which neighborhoods are considered to have good schools. Combine that with research and logic, and you can come up with some good candidates.

Finally, remember that you can't necessarily pick the perfect neighborhood right now; your child will grow up to be his/her own person, and may prefer or need a different environment than you'd expect. Just pick somewhere that seems like it has good elements and will give your son/daughter as much room to grow as possible.

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This is a great answer. Thanks Joe. I will start collecting all the info soon. I think you're spot on your last comment about what he will want/need when he is a few years older. –  Geo Jan 26 at 2:54
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All of the answers above are pretty great, I will add a couple of things that I have experienced personally:

Before you plunk down money on a house in a school district that you think you like, dig into the school district's website. Some school districts have zero districting lines meaning that if you can get your child to a school, you can take them there. I have taught in this type of district so they do legitimately exist, though they are few and far between. The downside of this district is that everyone wants to send their kids to the highest-performing school(s) and those schools quickly become overcrowded.

Check to see how flexible it is to transfer your child within the school district in case you don't like the school you wind up at. Since your child is only 10 months old, it's going to be 4-5 years before he/she starts school. In the interim, new schools could be built within your district which could change the districting lines and place you into a school you didn't sign up for when you bought your home. Every year, our school district lists schools that are "open" for transfer (meaning you can transfer your child into them) or "closed" for transfer (usually meaning that the school is all ready at or exceeding their capacity). Additionally, our local smaller city school district runs a lottery every year, but parents whose kids are accepted into the school are expected to pay tuition which runs about $2000 per year--which is roughly the equivalent of sending your kid to a decent K-8 private school in my area.

Also, look for other educational options within your school district such as charter schools--some of which can be excellent if you can get your child into them.

When looking at elementary schools, check out their PTAs (a lot of them will have websites or a Facebook account at least). By the time kids get to middle and high school, PTAs either don't exist or have such low participation they may as well not exist, but elementary schools are a totally different story. My son's PTA is awesome--we're constantly sponsoring events (donuts for dad, muffins with mom, father-daughter dances, etc.) and raising money for the school. Even the best schools in a good district are subject to the same financial constraints as the lower-performing ones. But a good PTA can go a long way toward finding other ways to pump money into their schools (our PTA raised $35,000 this year with just one of our fundraisers). This extra money has allowed us to buy new playground equipment, computers, keep our library up-to-date with books, smartboards, and now we're putting money into creating an outdoor classroom. Schools lacking a strong PTA have to find other ways to pay for these things or wait until their school district finds the extra funds to pay for it (which they probably never will). Also, getting involved with the PTA allows you to build some bridges with teachers, administrators, and other parents in the school which might come in handy sometime. I all ready know which teacher I want my son to have next year for first grade, and that first grade teacher all ready knows who I am.

Finally, once you've sort of settled on a school district, look carefully at the schools within the district as this will sort of help you decide where you buy. The difference between the schools in the south end of our school district and those in the north end of our district (which is where we live) are almost like night and day so be selective even within your preferred district.

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