When searching for a new home and neighborhood, school often is one of the most important deciding factors for a family. And there’s more to choosing the right school than test scores. Other considerations also include your child’s overall education experience and commute times. Here, Trulia offers seven ways to evaluate schools in your new neighborhood.
1. Ask yourself these important questions
Before beginning the process, it’s key to do a little soul searching about what matters most to you when it comes to your child’s education. Consider the values you want to come through not just at home, but in a school setting. Here are some questions to get you started:
• What are some places where my child has thrived in the past? What unifies those experiences?
• Do we prefer a traditional or alternative educational style?
• How important are extracurricular enrichment opportunities?
• What sort of contributions (time or money) are we interested in making as a family?
2. Use your network to get insight
It’s worth a shot to reach out to everyone you know to start to do some research. Post a question on Facebook letting everyone know that you are investigating schools in a certain area and find out if they have any experience or insight to share. You can also ask your network to share your post so that it gains even more exposure. It could turn out that your uncle’s best friend or your daughter’s soccer coach grew up in your new town and would be able to give an insider’s perspective on a school you’re looking into—or perhaps point you to a school you might not have even considered.
3. Call schools directly for information
Once you’ve found a few options in your new neighborhood, use the American School Directory (asd.com), a paid subscription service, to contact each school and find more nuanced information. ASD provides phone numbers, email addresses where available and a map of the campus for every school in the country. When you reach a school by phone, you can ask to be sent any school catalogs by mail along with any other printed material available, particularly about how this school or district compares with others in the area.
4. Surf schools’ websites
Most schools have their own websites that include a wealth of information. Spend some time reading newsletters or PTA meeting notes if they’re available. Look into what awards or certifications the schools have recently received. If you’re eager to dive even deeper into the school website, look for downloadable calendars, and sign up for a weekly newsletter that can offer insight into any events or news at the school.
5. Visit in person, if possible
It’s always ideal to visit a school in person. While you may want to visit during school hours, that may not be possible. You may be 1,000 miles away—or a school may have restrictions on visiting hours for prospective families. If you’re local, ask about coming in after school hours to see classrooms and common areas. Look at the art on the hallways and any posters around the school to try to get a feel for the school’s values, teacher engagement and what the administration prioritizes. Whether you encounter the crossing guard or the person at the front desk, try to engage people in conversation to ask them any questions you may have. If you get the chance, ask to meet with the principal. Among other things, you might want to find out how teachers are evaluated. Here are some other questions to ask:
• What is the school’s approach to discipline and homework?
• What does current parent involvement look like?
• What are the rates of teacher turnover?
• How is information shared with parents?
• How does the school support children with any unique academic, social, or developmental needs?
6. Evaluate multiple sources of data
Parents often look to data they find online to get basic standardized test scores and other facts about a school. This can be a helpful step, but it always should be combined with other types of information to get a complete picture. GreatSchools (greatschools.org) publishes data that compares schools nationwide based on test scores and other available data, including how much progress individual students have made on reading and math assessments during the past year or more, among other factors. SchoolDigger (schooldigger.com) is another nationwide resource that compiles metrics for private and public schools. You can find student/teacher ratios, average numbers of students in each class, standardized test scores, and reviews on school districts and systems around the country.
If you like to look at raw data, a public school report card is available at every school that receives Title I funding from the U.S. Department of Education. School districts sometimes post these on their websites, however, if they are not publically accessible, you can reach out to the district directly. The report cards let you know how well students and teachers are performing on a number of measures, including:
• How many students performed at the “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced” levels
• Graduation rates
• Numbers and names of schools in the district
• Qualifications of teachers
• Test scores on state tests, broken out by student subgroups
7. Read reviews
While scores are a useful input in evaluating a school, they only are one data point and fall short of giving a well-rounded and current picture of a school’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to read parents’ reviews on the SchoolDigger and GreatSchools sites, as current families often share important facts and impressions about what the school is doing well and what they believe needs work.