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How to Choose a School: Advice From Two School Choice Consultants

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As school choice expands, parents in many U.S. cities are facing a vastly different education landscape than the one they grew up in and navigating the array of options can be downright baffling for many of them—especially those with less education or children who have special needs.

Charter schools make up over 20 percent of schools in 45 U.S. districts, and the sector is growing. Voucher programs are expanding nationally, putting private school tuition in reach for more families. 

There are also options that have been around for decades, such as magnet schools, and brand new arrivals to the education buffet, like micro schools.

And, of course, there's always the neighborhood district school to consider, or even the district school in another neighborhood for parents in areas that allow for interdistrict choice. 

Some cities are now trying to simplify the task of school choice by creating a single application and enrollment system for both district and charter schools, as I wrote for a recent article in Education Week

But the truth is, with the freedom to choose a school comes a lot more work (a tradeoff, I should point out, some research has shown many parents are happy to make). So, I decided to reach out to a couple of school choice consultants I interviewed for a story I did on this topic this time last year: Laura Barr, founder of e.Merging, a school consultant business in Denver, and E.V. Downey, who runs the D.C.-based Downey School Consulting, to get some pointers from them on how to go about making this important decision.

How to Pick a School: 

Do Research, Meet Deadlines: Attend open houses, tours, and school community events and dig into the educational philosophies on school websites, Barr recommended in an email. 

"It's great to see school from different view points," she said while also warning to be on time with any application materials. "Many schools simply are not flexible with late applications." 

Be Detail Oriented: When you do go visit a school, Downey recommended going when classes are in session and keeping an eye out for details beyond the teaching, such as whether the school administration takes pride in its facilities—they don't have to be fancy, but are they welcoming and clean? 

Consider Location: But Downey says the most important advice she gives parents is to thoroughly consider the logistics of getting their children to school every day. Attending an arts-focused school on the other side of town might seem like a good idea in theory, but may not make families happy in reality when their commute to school requires sacrificing family time at home. 

"I talk to a lot of clients about how a school in their neighborhood could be a better answer, especially in the younger years, for work-life-school balance," said Downey. "I do definitely meet with a lot of people who have not thought that piece of the puzzle through."

Don't Play Games: If you live in one of the handful of cities that have one of those single-enrollment systems I mentioned earlier— Denver, New Orleans, Newark, or D.C. (and potentially Boston and Oakland)—don't try to trick the computer system, Barr said. 

In a common-enrollment system, also called single or universal enrollment, families fill out a list of their top choices, and a computer uses an algorithm to match students to schools based on family preferences and available seats.

Sometimes parents think they'll be more likely to get their favorite school if they don't rank it first on their list, or only put down their top pick, which can actually hurt their chances of getting a school they want.

"Rank your schools in the order of preference," Barr said. "Don't try to game the system." 

I'm sure there's lots of other good pointers out there on how to choose a school, so if you're a parent, teacher, school choice consultant, or interested citizen with advice to share, please leave it in the comments section below. 

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