When's the right time to begin looking for a school?

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is "When should we start looking for real?" Parents who ask this question already have a leg up over many others because they realize that there's the window shopping version of school selection, and then there's the I'm-going-in-to-buy version.  However, the reality is before you step foot in any store to window shop or otherwise, you have to have some idea of what you need and what you want. Yes, those things are separated by an oh, so important "and". You see in Houston, we are really fortunate to have some great school options, many of which are quite solid in the way of academics.  However, knowing what else you do or don't want will often be the deciding factor between two or three great schools.  

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That said, when starting the process for real, you have to keep in mind the gravity of the decision you are making.  I often say that choosing a school is like getting married since the person/school chosen is going to raise kids with you. Each time you drop your child off at school, you hand off the parenting baton to the adults on that campus. The other students are your son or daughter's extended family, and the teachers are their other parents. This is especially true when you are choosing a preschool or elementary because your children are sponges soaking up the behaviors and attitudes of everyone around them. 

When you think of it this way, the idea of using a school tour to find your child's home away from home is like saying we are going to choose our spouse by speed dating and speed dating alone. If you really want to get to know a school so that you can make the most informed decision, I'd say start at least a full year ahead of the upcoming transition. That means if you are looking for a high school, you want to start looking when your child is a 7th grader. If you are looking for a middle school, start looking in 4th grade. This will give you enough time to do a thorough job inspecting all of the elements of a school that matter to you without the right now, right now, right now time crunch that happens when you try to find and apply to multiple schools in the usual September to December time frame. 

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And if you are one of those people who isn't stressed out by on-the-go decision-making, there are two additional benefits of giving yourself the year to do the research: 1) application fees and 2) two weeks in March. Application fees and the test prep that many parents elect for their children can add up pretty quickly--especially for families choosing between independent schools. While I encourage families to fall in love with more than one school, casting a wide net just because doesn't make your March any simpler. "What does applying in December have to do with March," you ask. When admissions letters are mailed out the second week in March, you and your family have roughly two weeks to decide. If you rushed through the research phase, didn't include your spouse and/or kids in the process, or just casts your line everywhere so you'd have options, you'll find yourself in an all out panic come March. And if the letter from your dream school reads that your child has been put on the waitlist, your level of panic will be on another level. Why put yourself through that? If you can find little ways to simplify and streamline the process while getting the best results, why wouldn't you? 

Visiting schools this fall and want guidance on what to look for? Check out our Get the Most Out of School Tours, a 9-page guide that includes 3 Steps to Help You Choose Well, 4 Things That Matter When Looking For A School, and Navigating School Admissions -The Student Edition.

Diversity in Schools: How it matters in school selection


Whether we are talking about racial or socioeconomic diversity, we cannot deny the impact diversity plays in choosing schools for our children. In some cases, this is deliberate: we want our kids to be exposed to and relate to people from all walks of life, and so we gravitate towards schools that embody this value. In other cases, we focus on a school’s academic performance in a vacuum, and those instances, we rely on rankings, turning a blind eye to diversity altogether. 

The reality is, diversity influences quite a bit more than our kids’ experiences with each other–it influences one of the most important factors in choosing a school: how teachers teach.

Take a look at these two photos: one represents a classroom at one of the highly ranked public schools in Houston (not one in particular, just in general terms) and the other picture represents a school a little farther down the list, but still in the A/B range. 

When you look at the picture on the left, one naturally sees kids who all look the same, but when you look at the photo on the right, you see variety in color.  Obvious, right? But here’s the point: when you look at the photo on the left, it’s actually harder to see the diversity that exists there because on the surface everyone looks the same. It’s harder to “see" the boy who needs to touch things in order to understand or to identify the girl who needs to hear from a friend in order to truly grasp the concept. If the diversity is harder to see, it’s harder to respond to. Because you can easily see the diversity in the second photo, you naturally expect to have to approach that group different purely based on the various shades in the image. This is true for teachers as well. When they look out onto a class of kids who on the surface are by and large the same, the teaching methods they use are by and large the same. However, when teachers look out onto a class of kids that looks diverse, they are visibly reminded that their kids come with varying academic levels, learning styles and preferences. And the reality is, we address and respond to what we can see easily–that applies to teachers as well.

If you have a child who is a natural learner, who can sit, listen to a lesson, follow the instructions given and do the work, you’re good. This may mean very little to you. However, if you have a child who needs to hear things a few times before she understands it, or if you have a child who needs to move around and engage physically before he’s able to process and “get” it, you may want to consider a school where the diversity not only makes it more likely that your child will be “seen” but that (s)he will also see himself in others. 

Truly gifted teachers know kids have various learning styles, and that the only way to be effective is to teach in the way students learn. And while it takes years of experience and training to recognize the different learning styles and effectively employ teaching methods that engage all students, you might find that teachers who do this best are tucked away in schools that wouldn’t initially be on your radar. They may even be hiding in the neighborhood school you’re avoiding.

So as you prepare to visit schools as a part of HISD’s Magnet Thursdays, which start this week and run through December, I encourage you to broaden your search. Be deliberate in thinking about the role diversity plays in how your child experiences school, both in and outside of the classroom. 

For a parent’s perspective on choosing a diverse school, check out Our School is Title I and We Like It. If you want to talk diversity in schools or about how to honor your children by choosing schools that fit them, email me at aisha@crumbineed.com


What the Change in HISD’s Magnet Application Means for You

Last week, Houston ISD’s Board voted to make an adjustment to the magnet application process.  In the past, parents who were exploring magnet options need only know the names of the schools to which they were applying. They’d complete the application online and select up to 10 schools for which they would like their application to be considered–a process similar to the Common Application many high schoolers use when applying to college. In March, families would find out where their children got in and where they were waitlisted. Then the real work–the work of choosing which school would be best–would start. And by April, parents decisions had to be made.

That’s different now.

The change in HISD’s process requires you choose at the front end of the process rather than at the end.  When you complete their online application, you'll be required to rank your choices, so that when the actual lottery is conducted in January/February, admission in your highest ranked school forfeits consideration for anything ranked lower. Here’s a visual:

Ultimately, that means parents who are exploring their options must do the work of really understanding their options on the front end. The work of surveying other parents, posting questions in Facebook groups and looking at school data and visiting schools should be happening now, so that when it’s time to apply, you’ll have a prioritized list that resembles a high schooler’s college list.

Just as seniors bucket their school choices, parents should do the same, grouping their choices into 3 categories: dream school, sweet spot schools and safety schools. Approaching the process this way works well for anyone engaging in school selection this season, whether you are considering public or private, elementary or college.



So before you gear up to take advantage of the Magnet Thursdays (HISD did away with Magnet Week to give parents more opportunities to visit schools), decide what would make a school a dream school for your son/daughter. What characteristics would make a school fall into the sweet spot category? Doing this early will help you articulate what you are looking for and will help you focus on what matters most during your tour. Think of school selection like shopping at Target: if you go in not knowing what you want, you’ll spend time you don’t have looking at things you don’t need, and you’ll likely walk out without the essential you went in for. But if you walk in with a list in hand, you’re more likely to get exactly what you want without the loss of time and money (read: application fees). And if you focus on what’s essential to you, you make it possible for others to come in and get what they need because it’s not an extra in your basket. The change forces parents make more informed decisions on the front end which incidentally make it possible for more families to get into their school of choice.

HISD got it right here. Go forth and #choosewisely

For guidance on what else you should be looking for, tips on how to mine the data to see which schools are likely to be a good fit, for clarity on the public and private school admissions process, contact me to see how Crumbine Ed can support you through the process. 

Making Sense of CHILDREN AT RISK's Elementary Rankings

Me with Dr. Bob Sanborn, President and CEO of CHILDREN AT RISK.

Me with Dr. Bob Sanborn, President and CEO of CHILDREN AT RISK.

The ever anticipated CHILDREN AT RISK rankings of Houston Area schools was released last week, and many of the public schools are either over the moon about their rankings and posting links to the front page of their websites, or they are ignoring the rankings altogether. Whatever the case, the rankings, conducted by the local non-profit are a great starter resource for parents who want to know how their current or future public school stacks up. I highlight “starter” because a school’s ability to serve your child best depends on much, much more than a test, which is the primary basis of these rankings. Even CHILDREN AT RISK indicates their calculations don’t take into consideration some of the most significant factors in a child’s success in school. 

There are numerous factors that affect the success of children and schools. Research shows some of the biggest factors for student success are parental involvement, social and emotional development, participation in extracurricular activities, teacher and parent expectations of students, and engaging class work that stimulates critical thinking.
— 2014 Texas Public School Rankings Methodology, CHILDREN AT RISK

That said, parents want to know that at the very least their children’s academic needs will be met.  This list of Houston’s “A” schools should be treated like base camp—the place you go to pitch your tent and prepare for the real work of finding a school.

Here are a couple of interesting ways to process this statistical madness (I am English teacher at my core and am exceedingly grateful for those short, intense years in math and science programs.):

If all of these numbers stress you out, and you really just want to know which schools have the most kids who are meeting or exceeding the academic standard, see columns N and O.  The nitty gritty about what percentage of kids at each of these schools rocked the state exams in math and reading can be found there.

Raw academic measurements, such as those in the Student Achievement Index, have a bias toward campuses with a low percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
— ibid.

If diversity is important to you, scroll over to columns I through L.  It’s interesting to note that 41% of the population at Roberts Elementary considers itself something other than Black, White or Hispanic.  Imagine the richness of culture possible on that campus!

Those of you are looking for a small school experience, might find it interesting to note that the second ranked school is also the largest in terms of enrollment.  While size is one of the things parents equate with individualized attention at a school, the reality is great teachers are great regardless of class size. So while West University’s size may be off-putting, there has to be something working over there for the kids to be performing second only to T.H. Rogers.  And that’s without a Pre-K!

For now, I’ll give you a moment to digest the elementary information. Things get much dicier when we start talking about my favorite--the middle children.

Need help navigating the madness? Click here to see what Crumbine Ed offers the parent(s) of school-aged children looking to make their most important choice.

For CHILDREN AT RISK'S full list of Houston Area schools, click here.