It’s time to move. Your kids are getting older, and the school district they’re in now just isn’t the right fit for them to meet their full potential. Before long, you find yourself zoomed in on interactive maps, carefully marking the separation line between neighborhoods that include this school versus that other one.
Finding the best schools for your children, depending on their needs and where you’re moving, can be a grueling process that includes comparing school districts, touring schools and dropping in on PTA meetings to learn even more. You not only want them to go somewhere they will enjoy, but you also want to be sure your child receives an education that sets them up for future success.
Keep in mind that while providing your child with a good education is important, the neighborhood you live in – and whether can afford it – also matters. Follow these simple steps to ensure you’re able to find the right school and home for your family.
Do the research. With plenty of information available at your fingertips, get started with an online search to determine the school district, or even the specific school, you hope to send your child.
Different sites offer test scores, rankings and demographic information, including student diversity by race and gender, the percentage of students on free lunch programs and the student-teacher ratio, to develop an opinion of the schools and school districts you’re considering. SchoolDigger.com is one site that pulls much of its information from public record, and then compiles it to provide a more comprehensive look at the schools for parents.
“We are able to provide historical and demographic data for a more complete picture of where a school or district ranks and is headed,” says Pete Claar, founder of SchoolDigger.com.
Depending on the site you can narrow down your search by location, test scores and ranking, based on a variety of criteria such as grade levels or a focus in math and science. Sites like SchoolDigger.com and GreatSchools.org allow you to compare schools and read reviews and ratings from other parents as well.
Real estate agents often recommend researching education statistics to kick off the house-hunting process. Alex Trusler, executive vice president and broker associate for Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty, says he uses his experience as a parent in the Dallas area, which has many nationally ranked high schools, including several in the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, to help clients understand the education data they find.
“We’ve found [test scores are] a real good indicator of things like parental involvement in the schools,” Trusler says. “Because usually if the test scores are going to be higher or real high-ranking, you’re going to find it’s a school with good parent involvement, good community involvement.”
Take other needs into account. Before you get caught up in a whirlwind of test scores, focus on your own child’s needs. Just because a school has slightly lower test scores than the next one doesn’t mean it won’t be a great fit socially.
Examining a school from a wider perspective can help you avoid ruling it out based on a single data point, especially if that data point eliminates neighborhoods you could afford. Claar says comparing test scores to the number of students enrolled in a free lunch program, for example, can help you find schools excelling in areas where more affordable housing is offered.
In areas with larger immigrant populations, Claar says examining test scores as a progression from younger grades to older, rather than an overall average, can be more indicative of how much success your child could have learning there, especially if English isn’t your or your child’s first language. For students not yet fluent in English, it's reasonable to assume their standardized test scores will be lower when they start school, but as they become more comfortable with the language, their understanding of the material will be better reflected on the exams. “For schools with many English language learners, it is helpful to look at how well test scores improve from lower to higher grades,” Claar says.
Know what you can afford. It’s not surprising that many of the neighborhoods with the best schools are also some of the priciest – where demand is high, prices go up.
Fay Besharat, real estate agent and team leader for Re/Max in Bellevue, Washington, located in suburban Seattle, frequently works with families relocating for highly competitive schools, even when neighborhood home prices can be limiting.
“Some people want to be specifically in certain elementary schools, but they don’t qualify income-wise for that,” Besharat says.
Sometimes the neighborhood's priciness could completely eliminate it as an option, but if you’re set on a particular school, compromising on some home amenities can help you get there. But you want to avoid sacrificing too much for a quality school district, as enough bedrooms and space for your family to be comfortable is important to maintaining a sense of home. Besharat says the West Bellevue neighborhood has high home values and highly desired schools, which will limit the options for buyers who are confined by their budget.
“If they have families and they want to be in West Bellevue, and they’re picky about the house being old, then it’s not going to work out,” Besharat says.
Buying the worst home on a block doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if you’re buying in a competitive neighborhood, since your home equity will increase over time in a healthy market. If you gradually update the house, by the time you’re ready to put it on the market, you can hopefully sell it for a larger profit margin than the neighbors who bought the move-in ready house two doors down.
Consider alternatives. If you prefer a neighborhood that doesn’t filter schools where you want to send your kids, there are always alternatives to ensure your children get the education you think would be best for them.
Within the Dallas city limits, Trusler says there are some neighborhoods where elementary schools are highly ranked, but the local middle school doesn’t receive the same notoriety. Some parents will move to those neighborhoods with the plan to send their children to private school after they finish in public elementary.
“It really depends on, neighborhood to neighborhood, how sticky they may be on wanting to be in one particular school district versus the other,” Trusler says.
Depending on where you live, open enrollment could be another option. Open enrollment allows students in low-performing schools to enroll in a school outside their designated district.
State policy dictates whether districts can opt in or out of open enrollment, so while many places do offer the opportunity to place your child in a school other than the one designated for your neighborhood, be sure it’s an option before you move. Other stipulations, like an application process or minimum standardized or entrance exam score, could be required to enter your child into open enrollment.
Before you buy, visit the school. There’s nothing worse than buyer’s remorse, especially on what is often considered the biggest investment you’ll ever make. Don’t buy a home in a school district unless you are confident it’s a good fit for your child.
Claar recommends visiting the school before you make a decision, as a tour of the school and the opportunity for your child to sit in on a class can help ensure the curriculum is the right speed. PTA participation, after-school activities and opportunities for you to get involved as a parent could make one school a better environment over another. Taking the time to meet with school or district administrators, as well as your child's potential teachers, can help you decide if it's an institution you feel comfortable with your child attending.
In many cases the sense of community, rather than test scores or other statistics, make a school the right fit, as Claar notes, “Some of the best schools have a warm and fuzzy feeling that can’t be conveyed with data.”
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.