12 Steps to Take When Looking for the Right School

If you are looking for a new school for your child, your child's strengths, interests and specific needs will be the best guides for making the right decision. You want to find a school in which your child can learn, grow, and develop their own potential. This all has to happen in a caring, safe environment that will meet much more than your child's basic needs. 

The variety of choices available today can make this choice seem complicated. Your child probably has more school options to attend than you did while growing up. Many neighborhoods have local neighborhood public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and even hybrid online/brick and mortar schools. Knowing where to find out information about these schools can help your family make a good choice.

While attending new parent nights and open houses can give you a starting point to learn about a school, they often do not give a complete picture. Teachers and staff have prepared to give a good impression to the public at these events. You see what teachers and staff are most proud of—not necessarily what your child will see on a day to day basis. Here are some other ways to gather information.


Research the School Online First

A father looks at a laptop screen with his two daughters

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Researching a school online before your visit will help to answer many standard questions. Once you know about test scores, reported class size, and rankings, you can move on to asking questions during your visit that will help you to really understand the school.


Attend an Open House or Schedule a Tour

Attending new parent nights and open houses can give you a starting point to learn about a school. These events often cover information that applies generally to all families interested in the school. You can expect to have some of your questions answered, but may not find specific information that applies to your child.

Keep in mind that during events for incoming families, teachers and staff have prepared to give a good impression to the public at these events. You see what teachers and staff are most proud of—not necessarily what your child will see on a day to day basis. 

To get a complete picture, call the school and find a time to visit. The ideal visit would be at a time when you can see the school in session on a regular day —the same type of day that your child would come to expect if they become a student at that school.

If possible, schedule a time to come to the school where you can:

  • Breaks such as lunch/recess for elementary students or transitions between classes in middle and high schools
  • Meet any teachers, counselors, or specialists that would be spending significant time with your child
  • Observe classrooms your child may be placed into
  • See any after-school clubs, sports or other extracurriculars you child is interested in
  • See the school parking lot as students arrive at school or leave at the end of the school day

It may not be possible for you to see the school in session if you are finding a school over summer break and plan to have your child start immediately during the new school year. It helps to get as much information as you can to make your decision. You may not need to know the answer to every question offered to find the best school for your child.


Consider How the School Feels When You Enter

This particular quality is something that cannot be summed up purely with numbers or a simple across the board description for all schools. The feel of a school is a quality that varies tremendously between schools. Pay attention to these feelings, because they are the same feelings your child will experience every day if they attend that school.

Is the school inviting and warm? Does the school lend a busy and structured tone to itself? Is it regimented and orderly, or free-flowing with a creative spirit? Do students seem happy and engaged, or rude and checked out?

Each school has its own unique culture and charm. You can gain a sense of this right away from the moment you walk into the school. Throughout your time at the school, notice this sense of feel. Think about how your child or teen will do in this environment.

Watch how the students treat one another. Are they kind and respectful? Playful and creative? Rude and hostile? Are student projects displayed in hallways and classrooms? What kind of assignments does the school choose to display?

How do teachers speak with students and one another? Does the school principal warmly greet students they see in the halls, or does the principal have a formal demeanor?


Determine If Your Kid's Needs Will Be Met

young girl using asthma inhaler

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Public school districts are required to provide free and appropriate education to all students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. How different districts and individual schools decide to meet that requirement can vary tremendously.

If your child has an IEP, IFSP, or 504 plan, bring it when you visit the school. Share it with the school administrator and teachers that you meet and ask exactly how your child's needs would be met at the school.

Even children who do not experience disabilities may still have other unique needs. Keep these needs in mind when you visit the school to get an idea of what your child's daily experience will be.

If your child has allergies or asthma or requires medication to be available during school hours you will want to know if there is a full-time nurse at the school. If the school doesn't have one, find out how your child's needs are met at this school.


Ask What Standards and Curriculum Are Used

This question is particularly important to ask at schools of choice, such as charters, magnet, and private schools. Public schools across the nation have shifted to more rigorous standards, like Common Core State Standards (CCSS.)

Standards are the specific skills that are taught at a particular grade level. The curriculum includes the materials and methods used to teach the skills. 

Schools with rigorous standards are teaching the level and depth of skills necessary for children to get an education that will be competitive in the future. While CCSS has generated some controversy, the shift to these standards has created a level of rigor that is now expected across the country. 

Some states have adopted similar standards to the CCSS, opting for some minor differences that are preferred by that state. This effort by the states to adopt rigorous standards is an attempt to ensure that regardless of which state a child grows up in, they will be provided an education that teaches the same skills. 

Why Standards and Curriculum Matter

High level, rigorous standards are important. A good curriculum and quality teachers are necessary for effective teaching of the standards. Ask the school what standards they are using, and how they compare to CCSS. CCSS is the new benchmark. If a school does not teach to standards that are at least as rigorous as the CCSS, your child risks falling behind or learning less than children attending most public schools across the nation.

If you don't have a teaching degree you can still get an idea of how well the school is teaching high standards. Look at the work and assignments that students are doing at the school. In particular, look for assignments that emphasize thinking and analyzing more than just memorization of answers. 

Be sure to peek in on the work of higher grade levels as well. While your child may start at a school in a particular grade, you want to know what to expect as they advance in school.


Determine What Sets the School Apart

Charter, magnet and private schools are often founded on a central philosophy that differs from a standard neighborhood public school. Some neighborhood public schools have identified a particular focus that works well for their particular school.

Some schools choose to provide extra emphasis on art or STEM skills. Other schools may choose to focus on place-based education and to make a strong effort to use their surrounding community in school lessons. Still, other schools may choose to follow a particular educational philosopher's methods, such as Montessori or Waldorf education.

Each school will have its own style. If they are teaching to high standards and using good methods, they are often very impressive schools. 

It's important to keep in mind with these special focus schools how well your child would do in a school with that particular focus. A child who shows little interest in STEM subjects may lose interest in a school that goes beyond regular STEM expectations to teach more STEM skills. 

Children who like or benefit from a lot of structure may struggle to learn in a Montessori or Waldorf school, as both of those philosophies place emphasis on child choice rather than rigid classroom structures. 


Ask About Transportation

Transportation options can vary wildly between different schools and districts. Many schools of choice do not provide busing to students, leaving parents on the hook to carpool, and older students to walk

Public schools may not provide busing to students who live near the school, believing that those students can walk. While some public schools may accept students living outside of their normal boundaries, these students are rarely provided busing.

Check to see what transportation is available to your family, and how it would work with your daily schedule. It is a good idea to make sure that you have a backup plan in case your child's main mode of transportation cancels out.


Look at Extracurricular Clubs and Activities

adult man playing soccer with two boys

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Check out what activities are offered outside of the regular school day. Extracurricular activities and clubs provide your child with a chance to explore things that aren't part of the regular school day. They can provide a high-interest activity to keep your child motivated to attend school.


Ask About the School Library

School libraries provide reading choice to school children. School libraries often check out books to their students. In-school librarians often have specific knowledge of what teachers class lessons are, and can even provide more targeted recommendations based on the relationships they are able to build with students.

If the school does not have a library, you may find that you will need to spend more time helping your child locate books and resources needed for school reports and projects. Expect to take your child to the city library to find books, or to spend more time at home helping your child find resources on the internet.


Tour the Lunchroom

Where students eat lunch and what lunchtime is like at a school will be a part of the school experience your children will remember.

Some questions you can ask are: What is the lunchroom like? What about the school's food? Do school students all go to a lunchroom together where all students get to mix and eat lunch at the same time, or do students stay in their classrooms and eat lunch as a class? 


Learn How You Could Be Involved

Do you see parents volunteering in the classrooms? Is there a parent lounge or other places in the school for parents to meet? Are their bulletin boards to keep parents connected with the latest school news? There are many ways for parents to be involved with their children's education—be on the lookout to see what the involvement is like at a school.


Explore the Campus

colorful playground equipment and grass

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Does the building appear well cared for? Is the playground equipment in good condition? If not, what are the plans to repair or improve the school?

The condition of the building combined with the way the people in the school treat the building will let you know if the students and staff respect and care for the school. If a school is older and in need of updating, asking about the efforts being made to repair the building will let you know more than just what the current appearance will tell you.

After the Visit

Even if you did not have the chance to check out everything listed, you probably have plenty of information about the school. Remember, you are looking to see how well the school will meet your child's needs.

If you feel that the school your child will be attending needs improvement, there are ways you can help. Above all, continue being an involved parent so your child will have the support they need to be successful.

13 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.