Parents want to send their kids to good schools. That’s why they flock to neighborhoods that purport to have them—sometimes paying thousands more to live there. But what does a “good school” really mean? As with all things parenting, you have to decide for yourself what’s best for your family. Today, finding a good school means doing some homework, figuring out the best fit for your family, and zeroing in on schools that are equipping students with the skills and experiences that will lead to a broader definition of success.
Traditional measures of school quality, such as class size, student-to-teacher ratio, and test scores do matter—to some extent. In addition to solid academics, experts increasingly tout the importance of a holistic education, which cultivates students’ moral, emotional, physical, and psychological aptitudes. Schools with programs that teach empathy, self-motivation, and adaptability equip students with the life skills proven to foster success later in life.
Another option to consider is resisting the urge to follow the crowds to the “best” schools in town, which may have problems with overcrowding and waitlists, despite their virtues. Instead, track the progress of previously overlooked schools; ones that may have a new principal, an increasingly active PTA, or an attendance rate that has steadily risen, even if the school itself doesn’t have the most stellar reputation or highest rankings.
Do the research. There’s plenty of information available at your fingertips, so get started with an online search to determine the school district, or even the specific school, you hope to send your child. Different websites offer test scores, rankings, and demographic information, including student diversity by race and gender, the percentage of students on free lunch programs, as well as the student-teacher ratio. You can use these statistics to develop an opinion of the schools and school districts you’re considering. SchoolDigger.com is one site that pulls much of its information from public record, and then compiles it to provide a more comprehensive look at the schools for parents.
Depending on the site, you can narrow down your search by location, test scores, and ranking, based on a variety of criteria such as grade levels or a focus in math and science. Websites like SchoolDigger.com allow you to compare schools and read reviews and ratings from other parents as well. Take other needs into account. You can also narrow your search by school type: alternative schools, early childhood, special education, vocational and technical schools. Before you get caught up in a whirlwind of test scores, focus on your own child’s needs. Just because a school has slightly lower test scores than the next one doesn’t mean it won’t be a great fit socially.
Don’t be afraid to consider alternatives. If you prefer a neighborhood that doesn’t filter schools where you want to send your kids, there are always alternatives to ensure your children get the education you think would be best for them. Depending on where you live, open enrollment could be another option. Open enrollment allows students in low-performing schools to enroll in a school outside their designated district. State policy and other stipulations, like an application process or minimum standardized or entrance exam score, could be required to enter your child into open enrollment.
Real estate agents can also serve as a helpful resource in this process. Agents will often recommend researching education statistics to kick off the house-hunting process. A local, trusted realtor can most likely point you in the right direction for good information on the area’s school districts.
Know what you can afford. It’s not surprising that many of the neighborhoods with the best schools are also some of the priciest – where demand is high, prices go up. Sometimes the neighborhood’s high home prices could completely eliminate it as an option, but if you’re set on a particular school, compromising on some home amenities can help you get there. Try to avoid sacrificing too much for a quality school district, as enough bedrooms and space for your family to be comfortable is important to maintaining a sense of home.
Buying the worst home on a block doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if you’re buying in a competitive neighborhood, since your home equity will increase over time in a healthy market. If you gradually update the house, by the time you’re ready to put it on the market, you can hopefully sell it for a larger profit margin than the neighbors who bought the move-in ready house two doors down.
This may seem obvious, but it cannot be stressed enough- go see the schools for yourself, and visit as many as possible. You might discover what you thought was important really isn’t at all. Test scores and state rankings often cannot convey the important, yet difficult-to-quantify, vibe of a place. There’s nothing worse than buyer’s remorse, especially regarding what is often considered the biggest investment you’ll ever make. Don’t buy a home in a school district unless you are confident it’s a good fit for your child.
Keep in mind that while providing your child with a good education is important, the neighborhood you live in, and whether you can afford it, also matters. Hopefully, some of these simple and practical steps will ensure you’re able to find the right school and home for your family.
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