“What do I look for in a school?” is what pretty much every military family is asking right now.
Every parent I’ve ever worked with has asked me that question. It’s super tricky to pin down the things that make a great school. Is it location? Area demographics? Extras? Curriculum?
Honestly, it’s all of those things, and so much more! Finding a great school can be hard, so let’s take a peek at the most important parts of a great school for military families.
14 Things Every Military Family Should Look for in a School
Every school system is zoned slightly differently. Some systems are organized by town, others by county or parish. And some schools are a huge mashup of different towns and/or counties. Bigger districts are often sub-zoned, especially for elementary and middle school. This means you could live in the same system or district as a great school, but not be able to attend due to location and zoning.
Pro Tip: Before you settle on a house, make sure it’s zoned for the schools and system that you prefer.
I’m the first to say that school ranking isn’t everything, or even most things. But it is still important to consider. Military families are on the move often, which means we get to select a new school system with each PCS. Given the choice, you should pick a higher ranked school or system over a lower ranked school. The higher the ranking the more likely your child is to find resources and assistance.
Pro Tip: Use the School Comparison Worksheet in the Ultimate School Success Kit to find the best school at your next duty station.
You can usually find this information in the school rankings. Academics is more than just the scores on a test, though. This section really asks parents to take a look at the total package: programs, opportunities, and options. A lot will depend on your child’s needs and wants. There might be a great science-based charter school in your district, but it might not be a good fit for your super artsy daughter.
Pro Tip: consider what your child needs and wants in school before making a final selection.
4. Parent reviews:
Many ranking sites offer parent’s the chance to review a school district or individual school. Read these with a huge grain of salt. Parents with gripes are more likely to post a negative review while parents with neutral or positive experiences might not comment at all.
The better way to get the dirt on a school is to connect with parents on social media. Reach out to the local PTA/PTO and ask to be put in touch with a parent at the school. Follow the school on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Parents can comment, like, and share posts. Take a peek at what they are posting.
Pro Tip: connecting with parents at a potential school can give you the inside scoop.
5. Specific programs:
Schools offer a variety of programs to students, from extra subject-based courses to amazing special education programs to a great gifted and talented curriculum. If your child has a need, especially special or gifted education, it can pay to really dive deep into the school’s offerings.
Reach out in advance to let the school know about your child’s specific needs or wants. You might find out that the autism program is really dynamic or that the science department is connected to the local college.
Pro Tip: if your child has very specific needs, wants, or interests at school, reach out to the school and ask questions about those areas.
Having fun after school is good for all children, K-12.
Elementary schools today have many options to expand and enrich students before and after school. These programs are diverse and range from academic assistance to science clubs, fitness clubs, and more. Having a wide range of options to explore is essential at this level. A school that doesn’t offer a specific sport or club here is not a reason to rule it out.
At the middle and high school level, it is important to really focus on your child’s interests and needs. Try to find a school with a good match for their current interests. For very athletic or otherwise talented students, having the chance to hone their skills in the higher grades can lead to college level opportunities.
Pro Tip: try to find a school that offers extracurricular programs (sports, clubs, etc.) that match your older student’s interests.
You found a great school, but can you afford to live there? It’s important for your military family to check the current rental and purchase pricing of homes in your preferred school district(s).
If a district is too pricey for you, it might be time to consider looking elsewhere for a home. On the other hand, if having an amazing school is a higher priority, can you wiggle the budget to make it fit?
Pro Tip: compare school rankings against area BAH easily with the School Comparison Worksheet, found in the Ultimate School Success Kit.
8. Commute to base:
Just how far are you and your military family willing to drive to get to base? This impacts the service member slightly more than the family. Some families prefer to be as close as possible to their actual duty station, living on or just outside of base. Other families prefer to put some distance between work and home.
Having a longer drive between base, school, and/or home can add time to the commute or complicate transportation options. But if you are willing to sacrifice proximity for excellence or a good home price, it could be worth it.
Pro Tip: when you are considering schools, think about how far the drive to base might be.
9. Website and social media:
We live in a digital world. School’s should have an online presence, too. Follow potential schools across social media and check out their website. Check to see if they are military family friendly!
You are looking for a website that looks professional and is easy to navigate. Social media posts should highlight success, feature students, and share important announcements. The tone should be positive and uplifting.
Pro Tip: better schools have easy to use, welcoming websites and share positive messages on social media.
10. Friendly staff:
When you called or emailed, did you feel put off or given the cold shoulder? Having friendly teachers and staff is something to look for and treasure in a school. Walking into the front office to be greeted by name and with a smile is wonderful. You want this in a school.
Pro Tip: having friendly faces that are happy to see you can make up for a few other minor things that need improvement.
11. Teacher and staff pay:
Well paid teachers are happy teachers. Happy teachers are better teachers. Better teachers have students who succeed more highly. Public school salaries, at least the range, is public information. At private schools, you could take a peek at any available job postings to get an idea of salary. Another option is to use a salary calculator to determine the average rate for teachers in your area.
Pro Tip: higher salaries often mean more experienced educators with advanced degrees and who feel supported at school; this makes for a higher level of education overall.
12. Teacher and staff tenure:
It might be fun to have a young, fresh-out-of-college teacher. They bring tons of new ideas and energy. It’s not so fun when a whole school is staffed almost exclusively by recent grads. This means there is high turnover in the district and could indicate a systemic problem.
Look for a school with a good mix of youth and wisdom. Having teachers with decades of experience combined with the energy of youth means that your child will likely get the best of both worlds.
Pro Tip: high turnover can signal a troubled school district; look for schools where 50% of teachers stick around for longer than 5 years.
13. College acceptance rates and locations:
In the school rankings, there is usually a place that indicates the college acceptance rate. For parents of high schoolers, this is important. A lower ranking could mean that this school might not fully prepare students for higher education. A higher ranking here shows a school that guides students toward achieving at the next academic level.
Where students go could also be of use, since you will have an idea of where to apply. Look for a good mix of schools across all levels, from Ivy League to state colleges.
Pro Tip: checking on college acceptance rates can give families a peek into the overall academic program and success of a school
14. Notable alumni
This one is just cool, honestly. It’s fun to say that your child is going to the same school as (insert really cool person here). Plus, for high schoolers, it could spell opportunity. Reaching out to successful alumni might lead to scholarships, internships, or even job opportunities.
Pro Tip: it never hurts to make a connection!
Not sure what to look for in a school?
Contact me today to find out more about the MilKids Ed exclusive School Concierge Service. Let me find a great school for you!
Make sure you’re getting weekly education advice and resources
by joining the MilKids Ed email list!