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.
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.
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.