How To Choose the Right School District For Your Kids

Choosing a school district for your kids is a big decision. After you've looked at the data, these nine other factors should be considered before you make your choice.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 

One of the biggest decisions parents face is selecting a school district. After all, the right one has a massive effect on kid’s education and academic career. Can this selection process be stressful? Absolutely. But the good news is that there are a lot of options available today. The bad news, of course, is that with more options comes more decisions to make. Does the public school down the street have what your kids need? Is it an environment in which they’ll not only be able to thrive but where their specific needs will be met?

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So, selecting a school district isn’t easy. Such school ranking sites like Niche, GreatSchools, and Schooldigger offer a plethora of lists and stats that are helpful but easy to get lost in. Even if you do get a handle on all that information, numbers alone won’t give you a complete picture of the district. Public school experts say that while the school ranking sites offer helpful data, parents seeking good school districts need to do more research than just rely on the sites alone. Here then, are ten things parents should look for when selecting a school district.

Test Scores (But Only With Context)

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation, said that while a school district’s standardized test scores can be good indicators of a district’s quality, you need to look at other information to gauge a school’s true worth.

“Parents often look at test scores and leave it there,” Burris said. “But to just look at test scores without a bigger context would be a terrible mistake.”

Burris said parents need to understand how test score data relates to the demographics of the district. She suggested that parents should pay close attention to stats like the percentage of students in the district on free or reduced-price lunch, which can be found on sites like Schooldigger.

“That’s an indication that the schools are doing a decent job under difficult circumstances with a lot of high needs kids per pupil,” Burris said.

Technology Use

The presence of technology in classrooms can be a sign of a district’s willingness to invest in their school. But Deb Mayer, Oregon public school advocate and board member of Parents Across America, cautioned parents to look at how school districts use tech. Technology should assist, not replace, teachers.

“I would look for schools that have well-rounded programs that haven’t given up on traditional values of having certified teachers in the classroom,” Mayer said.

Teacher Happiness

If the teachers are miserable in your district, odds are high that your kids will be miserable too. When teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia went on strike this year, it wasn’t just over salary and benefits. Photos from the Oklahoma strike showed crumbling classrooms and ancient textbooks. Teachers care about kids. They want to teach. Teaching is a difficult and important job. If teachers not treated with respect, well-trained or properly equipped, your kid’s education will suffer.

News stories about teacher contract negotiations can give an idea about how teachers feel about their schools. Pay close attention to teachers’ comments.

Percentage of Certified Teachers

School ranking sites offer stats on the percentage of teachers in each school who are certified and have taught for three years are more. Pay close attention to those numbers. Mayer says that teachers need training and experience to succeed.

“As any teacher will tell you, whenever they first walk into the classroom, they are just overwhelmed,” Mayer said. “There’s so much to learn and that just builds on itself. As you become more and more experienced as a teacher, you learn kids better. You learn your content area better. You learn how to cooperate and collaborate with other teachers so that school isn’t just a lot of isolated classrooms. So that school, it’s really like a living organism that all parts are needed to make the school vibrant, and energetic and a place where kids want to be.”

Stability of District Leadership

It never hurts to Google the school district’s superintendent and school board president’s names. School district leaders aren’t all angels. But don’t just look for obvious red flags. Basic information, like how long they’ve been in charge, can offer valuable clues about the quality of education.

“Does the district have a superintendent been there for five years or more or has there been a constant churn in superintendents,” Burris said. “That’s important.”

Class Size

Many parents want their kids in smaller classes so that teachers can pay more attention to their kids. While some education researchers question the link between class size and student achievement, a 2016 Network for Public Education Foundation report argued that students thrive in schools that keep teacher to student ratios low. “We know that kids do better with smaller class sizes,” Burris said.

Diversity of The District

School ranking resources like Niche make information about diversity in schools easy to find through individual school profiles and in features like their annual list of the nation’s most diverse schools. Burris suggests that parents take full advantage of the data’s availability and search out districts rich in diversity.

“It’s a strength, not a weakness,” Burris said. “Students gain a lot by being educated alongside kids who are different than they are.”

Extracurricular Activities and After School Programs

An education is about more than basic academics. You need to explore what the district offers aside from classes, both for your child’s growth and to give them something to do in the hours between school dismissal and when you get home from work. Look at what extracurricular activities and after-school program the schools offer.

Awards, Grades And Accreditation

States have rating systems for schools but Burris advised that parents should read them with skepticism. “They’re all connected to test scores, which depend on demographics,” Burris said. “Of course, if a school was rated F five years in a row, you’ve got to think about it.

The Middle States accreditation program takes more into account than tests, but the self-evaluation program is voluntary and only offered in a handful of states. The U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools that have high academic performance or have closed an achievement gap. But schools need to apply for the program; Burris said many good schools don’t bother. While awards and recognition can be helpful, Burris said parents need to investigate further. “There’s no Good Housekeeping stamp of approval on schools,” Burris said.

Upkeep of Facilities

On average, schools in the U.S. are over 40 years old. The age of the buildings and the inadequate maintenance has created a national school infrastructure crisis where 28 million students attend schools with significant structural problems.

“Pretty much nationwide, school funding has been cut over, and over again,” Mayer said. “Over the last couple of decades, at least. And the first thing to go is infrastructure.” She advised parents to see whether money is being spent updating schools.

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