Janine Boldrin Gwinn has become an experienced house-hunter and an expert packer of boxes. Seven times, this Army wife has managed to move her family from one place in the U.S. to another, improving the process a little more each time. But the search for schools for her children is never easy.
How can a parent choose the right school when it's not possible to visit the potential choices? As we've become a more mobile and global society, many families now face this challenge as they move cross-country or even internationally.
The decision is ultimately a personal one, but several strategies can make the process go more smoothly:
ONLINE DETECTIVE WORK
Boldrin Gwinn's search usually starts online at GreatSchools.com, where she compares rankings for schools in her destination city. She has noticed that the rankings can fluctuate frequently, however, so she doesn't eliminate schools solely on the basis of that assessment.
Her next step is to explore the schools' websites. A school with a well-organized, informative website will likely be a place that communicates effectively with parents. Is the site kept up-to-date? Do teachers have pages or sections that might give you a sense of their methodology or approach to students?
Just keep in mind that a school's website may have been designed with marketing in mind. Some of the positive buzzwords you see may be the work of a good publicist more than an accurate reflection of the school's approach to teaching.
WORD OF MOUTH
Babette Maxwell, who has moved her family frequently during her husband's Navy career, also does extensive online research about new schools. And she asks people living in the community where she's heading.
If you are moving for a job, ask your employer to connect you with families who have children in the same age group as yours. Use Facebook to explore community groups or other family organizations in your new area; you can post a query on that page about schools.
The Facebook pages of schools can also be a great resource for learning about the community of parents there, the issues parents are discussing and how the school's administration interacts with them.
SCHOOL BEFORE HOME
Maxwell finds it practical to choose schools for her sons before selecting the location of her new home. Finding the right school, she says, can much be tougher than finding a suitable home.
Terri Bridgwater agrees: When she moved cross-country with her children, she selected a school that was a fairly long commute from her new home. The school turned out to be a great choice, but the commute was difficult.
If you don't find a good school in your initial search, Bridgwater suggests widening the search area. You may find something perfect just a bit further away.
PICK UP THE PHONE
"There is so much you can tell about a school by talking to the front desk," Boldrin Gwinn says. She calls with a list of questions, noting not only how they are answered but how the school staff interacts with her.
The most academically impressive school may not be the best school for your child.
"You're seeking a school where your kids will be accepted and embraced," Boldrin Gwinn says, so consider your children's personalities and interests as you research schools. If music is important, for example, you may want to reach out to the music teacher or band director to ask about the program. If it's athletics or art class, pay extra attention to that.
How long will you be at your new location? If it's just a year or two and your children are young, then the school district's SAT scores may matter less than the personal impression you get of the teachers.
GO, IF YOU CAN
If it's hard to get a clear picture of a school from phone calls and online research, consider visiting in person, even if it involves an expensive trip or inconvenient scheduling.
Bridgwater did that when she moved cross-country with her family, and was glad she did. It can be difficult to get a feel about some schools, she says, until you walk around in the building and meet the teachers.
CHANGES CAN BE MADE
You may find the perfect school but discover that enrollment is full. If so, no need to settle permanently for second best. Consider picking a temporary option and then moving the kids to your desired school the next year. It does involve a second adjustment, but if you'll be in the area for several years or indefinitely, Maxwell says, "it's worth the effort."
And if your chosen school disappoints you, she says, "keep hunting once you're there."