Choosing a School for Your Child

by Mary Beth Bishop

Choosing a school is one of the biggest decisions a parent will face. With public charter schools in the mix along with private schools, magnet programs and the option of homeschooling, parents certainly have plenty of choices and much to consider.

We talked to moms who weighed their options and came up with different answers and perspectives. But they all agreed on one thing: Before you look at schools, consider the traits that make your child unique. Some children need structure. Some students thrive in smaller settings. A school might be great for one child and not quite right for another.

Rena Pearson turned to homeschooling when she was seeking an environment that would allow her daughter to work at a high academic level.
“She was already reading at 4, and she was very math-minded and very science-minded,” says Pearson about daughter Emma, almost 14. “I just felt like she wouldn’t have been challenged enough in a classroom setting, so we decided to do our own thing.” Pearson was less than thrilled with some of the things she had heard about public schools near her old neighborhood in Cherokee County. (The family today lives in East Cobb County.)

For different reasons, homeschooling made sense for her younger daughter Sarah, now 11, who wasn’t ready to read as early as some of her peers. Homeschooling, says Pearson, allowed Sarah to develop at her own pace. “She’s an amazing reader now,” says the mom, who thinks that at another school her youngest might have been held back or given a label as “the kid who can’t read.”

Pearson looks for inspiration to her own childhood and the memory of her brother who struggled in school despite the fact that he was smart. “Nobody explained things in a way he could understand,” she recalls. “Nobody valued his strengths.”

Now, each of her own children has time to follow their passions. Emma loves cooking and books that connect science to the kitchen; Sarah loves to sew. As for Pearson, she enjoys the extra time with her girls. Most kids, she says, leave home on the big yellow bus just when they are at the age parents can have the most fun doing activities with them. 

Whether parents prefer a public, private or homeschool setting, experts and moms agree that the checklist for the ideal classroom is different for each student. “There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing how to match your child with a school,” says Jeff Jackson, president of the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA). Some children, for instance, respond to different styles of teaching, says Jackson, whose organization includes 160 schools across the state.

“Each parent should look at a school with a different lens,” says Jennifer McGurn, director of Lower School Admissions for Pace Academy, an Atlanta private school. “Think about your child and their needs and wants. We’re fortunate in Atlanta that there are many great public and private schools, and they’re all a little bit different.”

One key, she says, is multiple visits to the school. Watch the teacher-student interaction, she says, adding that most families visit more than once to get a good sense of the school. While “it may be time-consuming on the front end,” she says, getting several looks at the school in action will pay off in making an educated decision.

Parents should remember that even in our virtual society, “there’s no substitute for physically walking around and getting a feel for the school,” says Jackson.

Travis Bull of Sandy Springs looked at five private schools, complete with tours, before her oldest started school at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. She sensed a nurturing environment at Holy Innocents’ that gave the school the edge. Bull also liked the smaller environment and the student-teacher ratio. The mother of two teens began the search because she wasn’t pleased with what she had heard about the public elementary schools in her vicinity. The family’s experience proves that even a brother and sister might find their needs best met at different schools as they grow older. Bull’s son Austin is now an eighth-grader at Holy Innocents’, but daughter Alexandra chose to transfer last year to the public Riverwood International Charter School, where she’s now in the 10th grade. She wanted to experience more diversity, both racial and economic, before heading to a large college. Mom reports that the family is pleased with Alexandra’s experience at Riverwood, while Austin is “happy and content” at Holy Innocents’. 

In addition to considering your child’s unique needs and learning style, think about what’s important to you in a school, parents and experts advise.

Laura Calloway is pleased that her 8-year-old son Clifton gets to spend ample time on music, art, physical education and Spanish at The Main Street Academy, a charter school in College Park. Her second-grader has two electives each day.
  “I’m very disappointed that the government isn’t paying more attention to music and art and P.E.,” says Calloway, who says Main Street offers more of these educational components than her son would have had in a regular public school. Choosing a school was fairly easy for Calloway. When it came time for her son to start his education, she had already become familiar with Main Street through parents she knew from her son’s daycare. She also knew members of the school’s governing board. That familiarity with school leaders, she says, gave her peace of mind.

Making The Decision

Guidelines for Choosing a Private School

  • Pace Academy’s McGurn suggests beginning the search a year or two before the school year starts. That gives you time to narrow down your choices.
  • With limited enrollment, especially at competitive schools, it’s a good idea to apply to more than one school.
  • Ask officials about the mission of the school to see if it’s a good fit for your family and your child, says GISA’s Jackson.
  • Talk to other parents who have children at the school. If possible, network with friends and co-workers to locate parent contacts yourself; don’t only rely on the school itself to put you in touch with parents.
  • Think ahead if you’re looking for a school that your child will attend through their high school years. “Look at what colleges the students go to and what percentage go on to college,” says Bull.
  • Remember that admissions officials also have a vested interested in making sure the fit is right between the student and the school. “The school will select students who will be successful in the program,” says McGurn.
  • Don’t be too quick to rule out a school for financial reasons. Jackson says some parents immediately see tuition costs and drop a school from consideration. Financial aid could be available; in any case, you should at least inquire. Many schools offer need-based financial aid, and school officials can often help with carpools.
  • Ask about programs in drama, art, music and sports. A variety of offerings will give a younger child the chance to sample myriad activities and then pursue the ones that most interest him, Jackson says.
  • Other considerations include accreditation and class sizes.

Is Homeschooling Right for You?

  • Know that homeschooling is “a huge, huge commitment on the parents’ part,” Pearson says. “If parents say it’s easy and that the laundry is always put away, then they’re not doing it right.”
  • Look for a homeschool community near you. Attend events, ask questions and sign up for the community’s email lists, which are very often free. With a variety of homeschooling groups available, look for one that’s a good fit for your family and your goals, says Karen Gimnig, communications coordinator and founder of the 100-member Atlanta Homeschool Cooperative.
  • Become familiar with the variety of resources, including teachers with advanced degrees in various subjects, who work with homeschoolers.
  • Consider hybrid options to homeschooling. These typically involve a school setting two or three times a week while other days are spent learning in a home environment.
  • Consider the employment-related and other implications the move will mean for the family, says Gimnig. “I think it’s incredibly rewarding and wonderful, but I tell people to think of it as a lifestyle change.”
  • Investigate extracurricular options that fit the interests of your child. The Pearson girls, for instance, perform in theatrical productions made up predominantly of homeschoolers.


Public School Options: Considering a Magnet or Charter School

As with private schools, take a tour and ask questions of other parents. What are the school’s strengths and weaknesses? Does a charter school have requirements in place for parental involvement? 
Charter schools are public schools governed by a board of directors rather than a school board. This gives school officials a chance to put innovative programs into place. Magnet schools typically have an area of specialized instruction and might be a good fit for a student with an avid interest in such things as theater or math.