What to Ponder When Choosing Middle Schools & High Schools

Taking a break from test prep to muse a bit about choosing schools.  So many of us who just "went to the local middle school and high school" are now faced with a great deal of school choice when it comes to our own kids' middle school and high school. Given how terrible the middle school years can be, and how critical the high school years can be, how does one make these choices?

The answer, of course, depends a lot on the kid and the school, and a choice that is perfect for one family could be the absolutely wrong choice for another.  So, I have no magic solution here.  But, these are the issues I like to throw out (in no particular order) as families ponder these decisions. 

1) The commute.  This may sound banal. Such a critical choice!  Why would you let traffic be a determining factor? But the commute is a significant quality of life issue. In Los Angeles, it's not uncommon for students who attend private or magnet schools to ride a bus for 45 minutes to an hour each way (or make their parents drive them 30-45 minutes each way). Every hour spent on the road is an hour less that's available for family time, extra-curriculars, homework, or sleep. And even this varies from kid to kid.  I've known kids who could do the majority of their homework during the bus ride. They found the commute to be dedicated work time and were able to make good use of it. But for kids who can't do homework on the bus (motion sickness?) or won't do homework on the bus (too many friends?  too much noise?), the time can be a simple loss, neither productive nor fun.  Commutes seem mundane, but their significant impact on quality of life suggests that, if you like two schools about equally and one involves a much longer commute, that commute might tip the scales toward the closer school. 

2) School size. School choice often introduce the possibility of schools of varying sizes. And, quite often, you'll find yourself comparing a large comprehensive school to a small private or charter school. How do you decide? Smaller schools have a number of significant advantages. On a smaller campus, everyone knows everyone.  Walk through a small middle or high school and you'll see that an administrator can call out to every student by name.  If your child has a problem, she will be able to turn to an assistant principal or counselor who already knows something about her. Classes at small schools are also sometimes smaller (sometimes not -- you'll have to investigate that separately!). It's harder to get lost in a smaller school. It's also easier to get famous. In a big school, a major accomplishment (like an athletic win or an academic prize) could go unnoticed by a huge proportion of the school.  At a small school, everyone knows everything.  And, therein also lies the problem with smaller schools: everyone knows everyone.  Former students often refer to small schools as "incestuous" - everyone dates everyone, everyone has been best friends with everyone. If you fall out of a social group, there isn't necessarily another social group to fall into.  Academically, smaller schools also mean fewer offerings. Big schools can offer (and fill) more electives and more AP classes, and students at smaller schools, especially if they have specific interests, may have a harder time getting their needs met. However, another thing to look into when considering a large school, is that many big schools have "small learning communities," which are designed to make large schools feel smaller.  If you are concerned about a school's size, ask how the school mitigates the problems of being a big school and see if the response assuages your concerns.

3) Class size.  Class size is not necessarily related to school size. It's also important to note that classroom size is not always perfectly correlated with average class sizes or student:teacher ratios that are posted online. You want to find out about the class size in the specific classes that your child will be taking (a few small, specialized classes could bring down average class size, but actually mean larger, on average, general education classes).  Why does it matter? Smaller class size means more individual attention for each child and better curricular differentiation. Larger classes bring a greater diversity of opinion into each class.  From an academic perspective, smaller class size is usually a good thing. Factor it in. 

4) Grade Span.  Schools that span more grades relieve stress. Enrolling in a school that runs 7th-12th means that you do not have to make a choice about high school, you just continue in your middle school. Not having to go through the choice process again is great!  Unless, you've outgrown the school.  When you do outgrow a school that serves additional grades, changing schools not only means change, but it means leaving your friends, who are largely going to stay at that 7-12 school.  Schools with large spans also tend to have the "incestuousness" problem that small schools have. Being with the same group of people for 6 (or more!) years can get really old. And, at large span schools young kids often get mixed in with much older kids. The older kids are typically not very interested in the younger kids (I don't hear a lot about bullying from 12th graders to 6th graders... it's usually the 7th graders who are most interested in bothering 6th graders!), but they often roam the same halls. I have seen tiny 6th grade girls climb the stairs at their 6-12 school by grabbing onto each other's backpacks and forming a train to pull everyone up the stairs together. On their own, were getting swept back down by the rush of much bigger students. The kids adapted; no one was hurt. But age/size mixing is something to consider.  Definitely don't discount the convenience of attending one school for many grades, but also think about your child's social growth and ability to hang out with older kids. Also, some wide span schools have multiple campuses or deliberately separate older and younger students, which removes some of the downsides to a large span school (and maintains the main advantage: not having to find a new school in just a few years).

5) Specialties. Many schools of choice have specialties. And, it's amazing how often parents don't think much about those specialties. That's the best school?  Then that's where my child will go!  But, many comprehensive high schools have strengths in particular areas (e.g., very good math departments or amazing sports programs) and many charter, magnet, and private schools have explicit specialties (e.g., science, engineering, performing arts, math, humanities, social justice). To choose the best school for any particular child is to chose a school where the specialties match up with that child's interests and passions. Perhaps more importantly, it's critical that a school's weaknesses do not match up with that particular child's strengths and passions. We have a local high school that is a humanities and performing arts magnet. Those specialties do not mean that it necessarily has weak math and science departments, but our recent experience is that many of its math and science courses are weaker than those at other nearby high schools. A student who loves English and history will thrive at this school (and maybe need some math and chemistry tutoring), but a child whose passion is math and physics will be unhappy. That child will encounter way too much humanities work and way too little challenge and excitement in math and physics. Matching up specialties is important. 

6) Academic Rigor. Some schools pride themselves on being very challenging. Take that seriously! These schools are great for kids who really want to work, but can be absolutely overwhelming for kids who are not academically inclined. If a school states, on visiting day or on its website, that it gives a lot of homework, take that seriously!  If you have a child who hates homework, this is not the right school. You can talk with current students: How challenging in the work? How much homework do they get?  How many hours a day do they spend on homework? And, if you can talk with students that you know a bit about (How motivated are they?  How quickly do they work?) asking these questions is even more helpful. You want to find a school that will challenge, but not drown, your student. And, you want to think about your child realistically (imagine that child that you have, right now, attending that school -- not the child that you hope he will become when he "just grows up a little bit").  On the flip side, you can also learn that some schools are not very challenging. When students report that "it's easy to get As" or that they barely get any homework, or, worse, that teachers barely teach them anything, take that seriously too. Grade inflation can be helpful to GPAs but schools that don't teach are very frustrating for students who really want to learn. And, remember, when your child applies to college, she'll submit grades, but also SAT or ACT scores and a student who isn't learning much in high school will have a hard time with those admissions exams. 

7) Extra-Curriculars. For some students, extra-curriculars don't matter much. They might have their extra-curriculars outside of school, or not be interested in them at all.  But, for many students, the opportunity to play on a great sports team, join the band or drama club, or write for the newspaper is what makes school worthwhile.  So, if your child has an interest, check to see if that interest is supported at the schools you are considering.  Schools may be very similar, but one might have a choir and the other does not, or one might have a lacrosse team and the other does not.  These small differences may not be deal-breakers for most kids, but if your child has a deal-breaker, make sure to match it. 

8) Age. This sounds funny, but in our experience, new schools are risky. New schools tend to have great PR, and there is something exciting about "that new school that just opened up."  But new schools have kinks to work out.  They tend to have new teachers and new administrators and, in our experience, need to run through at least a few classes before things start running smoothly.  Should you ever try a new school? Sure. But do your homework, ask a lot of questions, and be prepared for some bumps in the road. Schools that have been doing this for 100 years can be mired in red tape, but there's nothing they haven't experienced before!

9) Single gender. Many students have at least a few single-gender options. Those may be limited to parochial schools (also a factor to consider: many students thrive at parochial schools, even if they do not subscribe to the religion of the school, but note that they will have to dedicate time and energy to a religion class if they attend!), but may include charter and independent private schools. Most of our students who attend single-gender schools report a great camaraderie at their schools. Boys report friendships of the type they have not found elsewhere (even after college). Girls also report valuing a sense of casualness at their all-girls schools (e.g., wearing sweatpants on test days) that fear they would not find at a coed school. Kids at single-gender schools tend to feel that they are free from opposite sex pressures that they would feel at a coed school. However, when you talk with students at coed schools, you rarely hear them complain about having to dress up for other people, and in fact, sweatpants are a pretty common sight at coed high schools.  So, at least some of the benefits of single-gender schools lie mostly in the kids' perceptions of their schools.  But, kids from single-sex schools do seem to report a stronger sense of bonding with their classmates (on average, these schools are smaller, so that might also be part of the smaller school phenomenon).  Single gender schools also get to avoid the gender stereotypes that we dread in schools: the computer teacher can't favor the boys at the all-girls school, so the best girl coders get to shine.  That's definitely worth considering. The downsides?  Class discussions at single-gender schools miss an entire realm of opinions and responses.  Kids need to work harder to find people to date with (or are more likely to find people to date in superficial interactions like parties, rather than in class where they interact with other students on a daily basis). This factor, in the end, is not one I have a strong opinion about, but kids usually do.  And, I think it's smart to listen to their preferences. 

10) Race. Are we really saying this?  We are.  And, honestly, if you live in a ethnically diverse city, when other people are talking about schools, they are talking about race too. They just aren't necessarily talking about it explicitly. There are many ways to talk about race without exactly talking about race.  People talk about school safety.  They talk about bullying.  They talk about how "tough" or "rough" a school is.  They talk about the neighborhood around the school.  They talk about money and the amount of wealth at a school. They talk about how "big" or "scary" the kids at the school look.  They talk about how their kids might "fit in." They fixate on tiny details about a school that they find "intimidating" or "frightening."  You can't talk about schools without race creeping into the conversation.  So, we prefer to talk about it openly. Be honest with yourself (and, I would argue, with others).  Are you looking for a very diverse school?  Are you looking for a school that is a tiny bit diverse, but not too diverse?  Or would you prefer that your child go to school with students of the same racial/ethnic background? Depending on your community, some of these opinions will be more acceptable than others, but it's worth being honest. Once you make your decision, it's worth digging further: don't just look at the racial composition of the schools you are considering, but try to figure out the racial composition of the classes your child will attend. Some diverse schools are diverse from top to bottom, with all classes from advanced math to PE fully integrated.  Other schools are integrated on paper, but fairly segregated in the classroom, for instance, with all of the students who attend a magnet program in one set of classes, and segregated from the rest of the school. Attending a diverse school means that your child attends a school in which a wide array of perspectives get voiced in class and your child will be exposed to a wider range of communication styles and cultural norms and mores. It's absolutely true that this diversity can lead to more conflicts and more misunderstandings. But navigating those conflicts and misunderstandings will also give a student more tools for making his or her way in a diverse world. A more monolithic student body means that your child may feel more comfortable right off the bat, and you might feel more comfortable with other parents. It also means that your child will spend formative years in a more protected (and possibly isolated) environment - and that has pros and cons. You might chose a school whose majority matches the background of your child so that your child can form a stronger racial identity, strength in his or her ancestral language or culture, or so, in the same way that people choose single-gender schools, your child can feel more empowered to speak up and work hard by being surrounded by others "like" him or her.  You might choose a more diverse school to gain more exposure or to more closely replicate the world you think that your child will encounter in the future. There is no one right choice here but, because, at least in cities, racial composition is such a significant part of school choice, it's worth thinking about race and diversity openly and honestly. 

11) Friends. Kids never forget this piece of the puzzle, but sometimes it's hard for parents to take too seriously.  They can make new friends, right?  But, it's not an unimportant factor.  Whatever school you choose, a lot of kids are going to enter with a clutch of friends from before.  That makes joining friendship groups tough for a newcomer.  It's nice to have at least a few people to eat lunch with on that first day of school.  And, although friendships and academics are not necessarily related, we find that happy kids who like their friends generally like their schools (or going to school and seeing those friends), which is a plus at any age. It's hard to like school when the social scene is miserable. Should you make friends the first factor? Of course not. Different schools are the right fit for different kids and so friendship groups will split up. But, friends should not be a non-factor. And, you know your kid. If she or he struggles to make close friends, it's worth thinking about how much a friend or two would ease the way at a new school. 

12) Siblings. This one is so hard. Because, at the risk of being repetitive, different schools are the right fit for different kids. But, from a family's point of view, multiple schools means multiple commutes, multiple events, multiple fundraisers. Life is just easier when all of your kids go to the same school. So, if you have siblings who will overlap in school, it is worth taking at least a moment to ponder if there's a school that might be a good fit for both. Also worth considering: many schools of choice (private, magnet, charter) give some preference to siblings. So, getting the eldest sibling in can smooth the way for a younger sibling. Again, should one child's interest in engineering determine the high school of a whole set of siblings? No. But, if an eldest sibling has a weak preference for an all-girls school that her brother will definitely not attend, perhaps that weak preference should not be enough to sway the decision. 

13) Money. In most cities, money can buy a pretty phenomenal education at some pretty elite schools. But that does not mean that it's necessarily worth it to spend that money? The general answer is: it really depends on your budget! When you calculate that budget, please always remember to think about what you will have to give up in order to get that education. It's also not true that any education you pay for is better than any education that you don't pay for. Private schools all offer an experience of their own -- if one is the absolute perfect fit for your child, it's certainly worth thinking about that investment.  And, if money is not an issue, private schools are often a way to pay for smaller class size and the more individual attention that entails.  But, aside from smaller classes (not universal, but common in private schools!), and particular programs that might be ideal for a particular child, there are often public schools that will provide an equivalent education to that which one can get at many private schools. So, consider the trade-offs. That tuition could be saved for college. It could be used for tutoring or extra enrichment classes or camps. It could be used for family vacations or a myriad of other family benefits. Always ask yourself, will the child be better off at the private school or with those other extras?  Also, when considering very elite private schools, always remember that the students at those schools are pre-screened for academic excellence. So, these schools are, by design, much more competitive than schools that take all comers. This means a more competitive peer group (which can be good or bad, depending on your child!), but it also means a much harder road to achieve a strong class rank -- and class ranks are increasingly important in college admissions.  Your "pretty smart" child,  who might have graduated in the top 5% of his class at the local public school, might be in the top 50% at an elite private school -- or even lower -- which will make college admissions harder (even if that child got a better education at the private school than she would have gotten at the less competitive public school). College admissions competition should not be the determining factor, but it's certainly something to consider.

14) Test Scores. The one piece of information we always have when considering schools is test scores. But what do they mean? In truth, test scores tell you the most about the socio-economic/educational background of the families of the students who attend the school. Schools with more advantaged students have higher test scores. Schools with more disadvantaged students have lower test scores. And, when considering the efficacy of a school, you have to take these scores with a grain of salt. A school that serves many disadvantaged kids very well, consistently improving those kids' skills, will typically still have lower scores than a school that teaches students almost nothing, but serves mostly advantaged students. So, when looking at test scores, always think about context.  Who is the school serving?  Do they seem to be serving those students well? So, how can you use test scores to choose a school for your child?  You can  use test scores to measure fit. If you have a student with very high academic skills, placing that student in a school with low test scores may mean that the level of academic instruction, tailored to students with lower skills, may be too easy for your child. What questions do you need to ask before you enroll?  How does that school challenge and support high-skill students?  What expectations does the school have for students? Does it expect students to do homework? How much? Does it expect students to go above and beyond?  How does it encourage that? At some schools, a high-skill student will be able to get by without doing much work at all.  That's not a good fit. Likewise, if you have a student who struggles in school, you have to ask a lot of questions before enrolling that child in a school with very high scores. What resources does that school provide to students who need more help and support? Some schools have great programs to support kids who are outside of their norm. But others don't. When your student is not an obvious fit at a school, ask as many questions as you need to make sure that your child will get the support, help, and challenge that he or shee needs. 

15) Gut. You and your kids must visit the schools you are considering. There's a gut feeling that cannot be denied. There's no evidence that a prettier school is a better school, or that one with a modern design or well-kept grounds will result in a better education. But, it's clearly not fun to go, everyday, to a place you dread going. Make sure to attend schools' tours and visiting days -- and if you have options, choose a visiting day when students are in class, so that you can see what the school looks like during operating hours. Your goal is to learn: What is the experience of attending this school?  If there's a tour or a presentation, ask questions.  Be honest and ask what you really want to know!  And be thoughtful about WHO is leading the tours and giving the presentations.  Some presentations are very clean and well-prepared. Others are messier.  What does this tell you about the school?  A messy presentation may mean that the school is disorganized.  Or, it may mean that the school allows a wide-variety of students to present, including those who do a lot of preparation and those who may not. A very slick presentation tells you that the administration cares about appearances and is organized and well-prepared. A more casual presentation may tell you that the administration doesn't care, or that it is trying to appear more genuine and less rehearsed. Try to look beyond production value and see what the school is trying to show you (you may not like it, that's fine, but try to differentiate well-organized and over-organized.)  Try to look in some classes.  Schools that allow prospective students to sit in on a class tend to be schools that are very comfortable in their own program. You, or your child, may  have a gut feeling about a school that it hard to explain.  But that gut feeling matters.  Consider it as you make your choice.  

And, of course, once you ponder all of these factors, you may still be stuck.  But, the topics above will at least help you sort through your priorities.  And note what's not there:  don't worry about how prestigious a school is or how it stacks up to the schools other kids are attending.  Those distinctions lose their importance fast if your child is unhappy at school.  Don't worry too much about rumors about particular schools.  There are rumors about every school.  Some are true and some aren't.  But the most scandalous rumors spread like wild fire. Everyone will know about the high school where half the class turned up with the same STD.  Everyone will know about the one kid from your elementary school who got bullied at that particular high school.  On the flip side, everyone will also know about the one kid from that school who got into Harvard or Stanford. These stories, good and bad, if true, are important, but they lack context and history and numbers. Rather than painting an entire school with one child's experience, seek a diversity of opinions! And, think more about your child and his or her match with a particular school than any story about another child. Think honestly about your child (and talk honestly with your child) about his or her strengths and weaknesses and needs and wants.  And, then make the choice that best addresses those needs and wants. 

And remember, school choice is never permanent.  Many kids change schools, either at a natural break, or at a moment when it becomes clear that a school is the wrong fit.  It can be hard and disruptive, but it's not impossible.  And most students who change are glad that they did.  So, think of your choice as your first, best choice, for now.  And know that, if circumstances change, you can always adjust. And, your child, if empowered to think and talk and consider options, will help you to know when you have made the right choice and when it is time for a change. 

Most of all, good luck and trust yourself and your child.  You are the ones who can make the best choices for your family.