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Choosing a School by Choosing a Neighborhood

4 ideas to help you sift through the information and disinformation.

Kars4Kids Car Donation/Flickr
Source: Kars4Kids Car Donation/Flickr

A frequent question from parents contemplating a move is how to choose a home so they’ll have good schooling options for their children. Similarly, parents who are concerned about their children’s schooling sometimes think about moving into what appears to be a better school district. I’ve often been asked to help parents choose a good neighborhood school for their child, and have developed some simple rule-of-thumb concepts to keep in mind.

1. Look for a neighbourhood you want to live in.

In a recent article in Forbes, Christopher Rim wrote about his experience as an educational consultant. He wrote that the wealthy families he works with are increasingly choosing to send their children to public schools. “After all,” he writes, “public schools are funded by property taxes. Many families who can afford private school live somewhere with amazing public schools, and their students would be better off there.”

Rim’s comment applies to his work with American families, neighborhoods, and schools. The observation doesn’t apply as egregiously in Canada and elsewhere, where a real attempt is made to provide equal funding to all schools across a much broader jurisdiction. There is some truth to the comment, nonetheless, in that even in places like Canada, neighborhood schools vary as a result of differences in parents’ commitment to education, parents’ involvement in the schools, proportions of children with disabilities and for whom English isn’t a first language, and family stressors such as proportion of single-parent families, poverty, and more.

My advice: Look for a neighborhood you want to live in, where you think you and your child will feel comfortable. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and in fact many of the best schools for most kids are in middle- or lower-class neighborhoods rather than wealthier ones.

2. Take ratings and rankings with a grain of salt.

Ratings and rankings can be terribly misleading. First of all, they vary greatly in the usefulness of the factors they use to create the ratings and rankings. Some systems rely totally on mandated test scores, such as province-wide testing in math and English in grades 3 and 6. Others attempt to evaluate student, parent, and teacher satisfaction variables. Others consider parent education and income. Still others take into account the learning climate, including factors like bullying, racism, and environmental awareness. Some of the factors will be more relevant to your child than others.

Another problem with using ratings and rankings is that schools vary in the kind of data they supply to the rating body. Some schools exclude from their scores all students enrolled in English as a Second Language courses, whereas other schools include some or all of those students’ scores. Some have unusually large numbers of children enrolled in Special Education classes, and thereby exempted from the numbers. Some schools put a lot of teacher and classroom time into preparing for the tests that are used in the rankings; others invest their time into students’ learning.

A third problem with rankings is that schools with diverse students tend to do less well than those with more homogeneous student bodies. Top-ranked schools typically have fewer challenges like English as a Second Language, poverty, special education needs, and racial and cultural differences. The important things kids and teachers learn from classroom diversity don’t show up in test scores.

Take a look at any ratings and rankings that might be available, but don’t rule out a school that makes the top two-thirds or so of any system. And don’t feel pressured to choose a more expensive home just because the neighborhood school is in the top tier; the factors used to put it there might not fit your child’s needs at all well.

3. Investigate.

As you begin to narrow down your choices, see if you can attend a PTA meeting or meet with the principal at the school or schools that interest you. Talk to parents of children who attend the school or schools. Get a sense of the environment, both academically and socially. Does it feel like a good place for your child? Check into accommodations for any special needs your child might have. Take a look at the library, the hallways, the gym, and the outdoor facilities. They don’t need to be luxurious, but do they look safe and inviting?

4. Trust your instincts.

If you are thinking about moving into a more expensive home in what everyone says is a better school district, do your homework first. Don’t trust the realtors, rankings, or gossip mill to tell you where that might be. Get a sense of whether you and your child will feel comfortable there. And remember that your child’s experiences at home are far more important to their long-term happiness, well-being and success, than the schools they attend. The research shows that all they need is a good-enough school environment, as long as they have quality time with you, including a warm and loving home, and your guidance and support.

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