Researching Schools in the 21st Century – Part 2

When my parents were growing up, kids went to either the local catholic school or the local public school. Things were a little different thirty years later. I went to elementary school in a different neighborhood and high school in a different county. I loved both schools, but I grew apart from my neighborhood friends after a few years. Since my school friends lived all over, hanging out was a logistical nightmare.

I wanted my son to grow up with a greater sense of community so I enrolled him in a local school without looking anywhere else. He did fine, but never really thrived. I eventually transferred him to a school that has turned out to be a better fit.

He is in eighth grade now. The search is on for a high school. He applied to a mix of catholic and public schools. Some are close and some are far. My instinct is to gather and analyze every detail that I can find about each school and force him to go to the one that I deem to be academically superior.

The truth is that all of them are good. They each have strengths and weaknesses of course, but their academic offerings aren’t significantly different. Even technical schools today offer programs that are paths to college.

The thing is, over the past decade I’ve come to realize three things that have shifted my outlook on school selection:

  1. Not everyone has both the desire and the ability to take on a grueling academic load,
  2. this does not preclude them from being successful in life, and
  3. community has nothing to do with geography.


My son has friends in town. He also has friends in the town where he goes to school. In fact, he has friends all over our corner of the state thanks to theater. His theater friends are his tribe. These are children and adults that range in age from six to sixty. They go to all different schools and live in all different towns. They are his people because they share something in common that is more important than a zip code.

Looking at the high school selection process through this lens, I’ve reigned in my data gathering obsession (as much as possible). I’m focusing instead on which high school is right for him. In this spirit, I am doing a few things differently than when I blindly sent him to the local catholic school.

Open Houses & Events

Open houses are a must in order to see how your child might fit there. Attending school-sponsored events is another great way to get a feel for the personality of the school and to get a closer look at their facilities.

auditorium benches chairs class
Photo by Pixabay on


Shadowing is when your child spends a day following around a student at a prospective school. I’m a big proponent of this. An open house is a performance that a school stages in order to make a good impression. Shadowing will allow your son or daughter to take a peek behind the curtain to see what a school is really like.

What activities do they offer?

My parents believed that learning was your job when you were a child. Period. While I agree in a sense, I think that extracurriculars are important too. Where academics feed your brain, extracurriculars feed your soul. Also, a child will never find their tribe at a school that doesn’t share their values. Every kid struggles with something in high school. Having that tribe makes all the difference.

What is their enrollment like?

Check out the current and historical enrollment numbers to see if the student body is shrinking, expanding, or holding steady. Why does this matter? A rapidly shrinking enrollment could spell closure in the school’s future. A rapidly expanding one could spell overcrowding, makeshift classrooms, and difficulty getting preferred classes.


How will your son or daughter get to high school? In what ways might this affect their life in a couple of years when they are old enough to work and drive?

back bus education school
Photo by Pixabay on

One of the schools that my son applied to is close to where I work. Two are between our house and my work. Another is past our house in the opposite direction. Of the four schools, three have school buses and student parking lots. The fourth has neither.

These things my not seem super important now, but they may matter down the road. They will affect what time your child leaves and gets home each day, whether they can participate in after school activities, and their availability for after school jobs.


I’m mentioning this last because it’s so personal. Really though, how much you are comfortable spending is something that you should sit down and figure out at the start of the school search process.

Nuff said.