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How to Choose an Elementary School

About the Author

Everymom holds a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics. She has taught at the preschool, kindergarten, high school, community college and university levels. She is also the single parent and sole support of a thriving elementary school-age child.

Initial Checklist: What Do You Want - and Need - in a School?

  1. What’s your family’s philosophy of education?
  2. What are the family values you would like school to reinforce?
  3. What are your family’s logistical needs (before/after school programs, in-school lunch program, bussing/transportation, etc.)
  4. What does your child need (small class sizes, English as a Second Language, speech therapy, learning interventions, lots of physical activity, a special focus on arts/sports/technology, etc.)?

Should I Choose a Public, Private or Charter School?

In some countries, there is a huge difference in curriculum quality between public, or government, and private schools. In the United States, in the 21st century, the good, bad and the ugly exist in all three types of schools; so choosing a good elementary school is a mix of your personal philosophy of education (what you think your kids should learn in elementary school), family values (how you think your kids should learn or be taught and in what kind of environment), family logistics (school location, school hours, transportation needs, existence of before and/or after school programs) and, most importantly, your child’s personality (if your child is extremely shy, for example, you may want to find a school that offers small teacher-student ratios/class sizes). Don’t write off any of the three types of schools (public, private or charter) until you have created your personal checklist and have researched the schools available in your area.

Research Your Options

  • Attend open houses, orientations, parent nights, and school fairs.
  • Take tours whenever offered.
  • Talk to other parents and children.

Research Your Area’s Choices

Not all areas have abundant school choices. Start with the public school district for the area you live in or plan to live in. How many elementary schools are there in the community? My community, for example, is what is called a choice district. There are five elementary schools and parents of newly entering students can list their top three choices from any of them, from their neighborhood school right around the corner to the school across town. Not all areas are complete choice districts, however, if at all. Some locations are controlled choice districts, where parents can choose from a set subset of schools, while others offer no parental choice at all. You must also research when to register your child as the choices become more limited after that initial registration period.

For (publicly funded) charter or for private schools, a quick internet search will probably yield a good initial list for your area or the area where you plan to live. Go to their individual websites and see if what they offer align with your initial checklist. Again, remember to check the initial registration period, especially if your child is entering a grade that is not a traditional entry point. Traditional entry points in the U.S., for example, are kindergarten for elementary school, sixth (6th) grade for middle school and ninth (9th) grade for high school.

Make a list of the public, charter or private schools that fit your initial checklist. Attend as many open houses, orientations, parent nights, and school fairs as you can. Take tours, if offered, and try to find parents and students that currently attend the school. However, beware of making your final decision solely on the data you get from these visits. These presentations are designed to highlight the best parts of the school and parent/student ambassadors are chosen for their school spirit (or how integrated they are into the school community and philosophy) as much as for their grades and other qualities.

Are students learning cooperatively? How is this teaching best practice implemented in the classroom? Do students seem engaged AND happy?

Are students learning cooperatively? How is this teaching best practice implemented in the classroom? Do students seem engaged AND happy?

What to Look for In a Classroom

  • Evidence of student engagement.
  • Evidence of best teaching and learning practices (cooperative learning).
  • Student work prominently displayed.
  • Posters (professionally printed or student-made) reinforcing learning.
  • Integration of technology into classroom routines, presentations, teacher and student work.
An upper elementary student hard at work. This student is definitely engaged in her work!

An upper elementary student hard at work. This student is definitely engaged in her work!

Plan a Classroom Visit

Whether the tours, open houses and orientations helped you begin culling your list or not, there is really no substitute for visiting a school, preferably while classes are in session. Write an e-mail to the principal or phone the school secretary to make an appointment. Make sure you let them know that you would like to spend some time in a classroom (preferably one for the grade your child will be entering). Ask if you can bring your child with you. This visit will help you and your child see how students behave in the classroom (and in the hallways) and how teachers engage the students in learning. Also, look around the classroom and see if the physical set-up is engaging and conducive to learning; here are three things to look for:

  1. Is student work displayed?
  2. Are there posters reinforcing learned skills? (For example, if upper elementary students have learned writing, reading or math techniques, are there posters reinforcing the steps to those techniques prominently displayed around the classroom or at the writing/reading/math station?)
  3. Do teachers integrate technology into their lessons? (For example, are there SmartBoards, computers, AlphaSmart units, or other manipulatives available to teachers and students?)

Talk to Teachers

Try to talk to the teachers to get a feel for their teaching and learning philosophy. Ask about how they handle discipline in the classroom. How do other teachers handle discipline issues at the school? Does there seem to be uniformity of purpose and a collegial, yet professional, atmosphere? How does the school view bullying? Get teachers and staff to give you examples of what they consider bullying and how they handle the situations. How about safety? What is the school’s policy on visitors and volunteers?

Make sure to make a list of questions beforehand, so you can be sure not to miss asking anything that’s important to you.

Make Your Final Decision – But Have a Back Up Plan!

Now you are probably ready to make your final decision – or at least to narrow your choices to your “Top 3.” Make sure you look at the logistics as well. If you commute to work, do you need the school to have a before and/or after school program? If your top 3 schools don’t offer these programs, and your schedule demands them, are there any at all in the community? Create a back up plan just in case your child does not get placed in one of your top 3 schools. Remember to try to make sure that your choices allow your schedule to function smoothly so that you optimize for the long term so that you and your child can settle into a school for the rest of your child’s elementary career (barring, of course, any work or other reasons for relocation; but those cannot be planned so far in advance).


Anahi Pari-di-Monriva (author) from Massachusetts on October 01, 2014:

Thank you so much for reading my hub article! I'm glad you found the advice useful!

Nyesha Pagnou MPH from USA on August 28, 2014:

Thanks very much for the good advice about schools in this comprehensive hub!

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