Choosing a school: Where to start as a parent

Photos by Light Field Studios.

“If someone tells you the name of another school, plug your ears,” my husband joked, after we’d completed what felt like our hundredth school tour.

In our school search, we had visited several public schools, a Montessori charter, a Waldorf charter and a handful of private schools. We had researched homeschooling, too — all in the name of finding a good fit for our school-averse son who has a few learning differences, which makes finding a good fit a little tricky.

Even for kids without special school needs, Arizona’s robust “school choice” environment makes the process of considering options and settling on a school both daunting and overwhelming for parents.

It’s not like the pre-1995 days, when your zip code dictated which public school your child attended. “In Arizona, your ZIP code is not your destiny,” explains Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and works to strengthen Arizona’s charter schools.

In addition to home district schools, kids who participate in open enrollment can attend their pick of public schools or one of hundreds of public charter schools, not to mention private options.

Our kids spend the better part of their days at school. They’re learning academic skills but also developing attitudes about learning, building self-esteem, figuring out how to interact with other kids and adults, learning organization and time management, and (hopefully) getting a better understanding of how they fit into their community and the world. No wonder the decision is so rife with anxiety!

After the exhaustive quest of trying to find the holy grail of education for my child, here are a few things I learned along the way.

Step 1: Assess your child’s needs

Knowing your child’s learning style and interests will help focus your search. Take a good look at your child and ask yourself: Is my child a self-starter? Does my child respond well to rules or enjoy a more creative environment? Is my child gifted, struggling with a learning challenge, or both? Is my child social, or anxious in social situations?

It’s not easy breaking down what makes a 4-year-old tick. When my son was in preschool, we knew he lacked focus, but we thought it was just a byproduct of youth. “He doesn’t do anything unless a teacher sits next to him,” my husband and I were told at one parent/teacher conference. That inability to focus was later diagnosed as ADHD, which eventually put “small class size” at the top of our list for education options.

Step 2: Decide what’s important to your family

Rigorous academics, a desire for an expanded worldview, religious or personal beliefs, financial constraints and transportation needs — all these should be taken into consideration when picking a school. Make a list of priorities for what you want in a school, but also keep an open mind and be sure your family values and your child’s needs align.

As an exchange student in Japan, I saw the children of American business people speaking Japanese like natives. I, on the other hand, struggled and never became fluent. When I had my own child, I wanted to give him the gift of a second language. But after two years at a language-immersion preschool, he didn’t show any signs of liking or wanting this gift. People would say, “He’s absorbing it. It takes a while to speak.” After another year and a half of glazed looks and foreign-language avoidance, we learned he had a reading problem, which probably contributed to his delay. So we bailed on the language (at least for now) and shifted the focus to reading.

Step 3: Give yourself time to explore schools. A lot of them.

School placement expert Elie Gaines of All Schools Consulting in Scottsdale has made it her job to find schools for students from preschool to high school throughout the state. “Just like every child is unique, every school is unique,” she explains. “Every school has its own personality and culture. It’s important to find a solution that feels good for the child, the parents and the school.”

Gaines recommends starting your school search at least 15 months before your child is entering or changing schools. “Optimally, you will have a handful of schools to apply to a year before [the child is set to enter].”

Ask friends who have school-age kids about their school experiences. Attend orientations — schools typically have regular weekly or monthly dates. Schedule a tour, or make an appointment to talk to the principal.

“Spend time researching the school. Read the website like a marketing tool, and then look for evidence when you visit the school,” recommends Gaines. She also suggests visiting while school is in session to see what it’s like on a typical day. Take note: Are teachers attentive? Are students engaged? Do the kids seem happy? How does the principal communicate with kids?

My husband and I went to the orientation of one highly-ranked public school that received raves from friends. Upon visiting, we saw walls devoid of art, which the school claimed would distract from school work. They boasted that each child was a full grade level ahead in math. For our friends’ high-achieving kids, this was a great fit. For our visual learner who balks at math, this wasn’t going to be the best match.

Step 4: Choose schools, apply and wait.

Now that you’ve gathered information, narrow your school choices and apply. “I don’t believe there’s only one school that’s going to be a best fit,” explains Gaines. “Apply for a handful of schools … maybe three to five.” That way, waitlists and rejections won’t derail your goals.

Open enrollment typically starts in the fall. Those who apply early or by the deadline are often given priority. Applications might require a birth certificate, proof of residency and immunization and prior school records. Some also require teacher recommendations, testing, shadow days, interviews and a fee.

Even homeschoolers have to fill out an Affidavit of Intent to Homeschool for their county of residence within 30 days of starting a child’s education. Count on more time to figure out how to set up a homeschool, explore curriculums and apply for co-ops and other support.

If you land on a waitlist, don’t despair. Waitlists vary. At some schools, waitlisted students have a good chance of being admitted. At others, the waitlist is basically an empty gesture. The admissions staff should let you know if you have a chance, or if you should focus your attention elsewhere.

Also know this: Rejections happen. School enrollment is competitive. Sometimes schools are full. Sometimes school administrators have a clearer sense of whether a student will thrive in the environment than parents have.

In our search, we were rejected twice. One school gave our son a battery of tests and ultimately decided he didn’t have enough focus to succeed there. Another was more arbitrary. Rejection feels awful in the moment — but it’s better to focus on finding a good fit than dwelling on a place that doesn’t want to educate your kid.

Carrie Wheeler is a Phoenix freelance writer and mom to Wilson (7).

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Six neighboring families, six different school choices
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What to ask when touring a school

School-placement expert Elie Gaines of All Schools Consulting suggests parents ask these questions when when considering a school:

What is the school’s signature program? What is the school well known for?
What is the student-to-teacher ratio in classrooms? (This speaks to the capacity of a teacher to provide one-on-one learning support.)
What are the actual class sizes for each grade? (This is different from ratios. A child who easily becomes distracted in a large group will be better off with one teacher in a small group than two teachers in a group twice that size.)
How involved are parents? How involved can parents be?
How does the school use technology?
How does the school deal with learning difficulties or gifted students?
What is the school’s method of discipline?
How much homework can students expect?
Where do the students come from? Where do they go after they graduate?

Understanding your options

Public district schools. Despite Arizona’s poor record on education spending, there are a lot of positives that favor public district schools: Well-educated teachers (public district schools require teachers to have a college degree and pass an assessment for their content area); ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity; a sense of community (everyone in the neighborhood’s property taxes are funding the school, after all) and stability. Plus, it’s free; you’ve already paid with your tax dollars.

Many public schools are now offering specialized programs such as language immersion, arts, STEAM, International Baccalaureate, back-to-basics curriculums, Montessori and programs for the highly gifted. Arizona’s open enrollment law allows students to apply for admission to any public school. Admittance is based on available classroom space, with in-district students getting first priority.

Public schools are, by law, required to address a student’s needs. This is why Dr. Kenneth Baca, superintendent of the Madison School District in central Phoenix, says public schools have an edge. “We have a spectrum of services at our disposal. We have counselors, occupational therapists [and other staff] available for kids who need them.” The vast majority of public district schools also partner with the National Food Program to offer free or reduced-fee breakfast and lunch programs, bus service for in-district students, optional before- and after-school programs, and extensive extracurricular activities, including clubs and athletics.

Public charter schools. Also funded by the state, charter schools started popping up in the mid-1990s to expand school choice for public education. While they share many traits with public district schools — they are free, participate in standardized testing, enforce anti-discrimination policies — they are independently run and have more autonomy and flexibility than public district schools. Charters vary wildly in teaching philosophies — from Montessori, Waldorf, and arts schools to hard-core academics. Some cater specifically to at-risk students who have failed to thrive in other educational environments.

Montessori. Montessori schools generally believe in child-led education. Every child has different interests and abilities, so instructors follow their lead and guide them on their learning journey. Many Montessori schools combine age groups so that older children help guide younger ones and build confidence by letting kids master practical achievements.

Waldorf schools. A Waldorf education focuses on hands-on activities and creative play that develops imagination and artistic expression using little to no technology. At a Waldorf school, kids will spend a lot of time diving into a single topic of study, learning practical skills such as finger knitting and gardening, while also exploring creativity with music, art and free play.

Private schools. Private schools are responsible for their own funding through tuition, donations, etc. Because private schools are privately funded, they do not have any enrollment requirements and can offer small class sizes and/or religious education. Private schools are not required to have special programs for learning differences, but there are several private schools in the Valley geared specifically toward kids who need extra support. Check out Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and School Tuition Organization scholarships for options to defray tuition costs.

Homeschooling. With the ability to choose a specific curriculum and design a program entirely around the needs of a child and family, a growing number of families are choosing the flexibility of homeschooling to educate their children. With more and more co-ops and other learning centers like Arizona Science Center and Childsplay offering classes designed for homeschoolers, parents also have the option to share the teaching burden and add some social interaction.

Upcoming Open House events at Valley schools
Choosing a special needs school: questions to consider
Navigating school choice: How seven Arizona families found the right educational fit