A Citizen’s Approach to Choosing Schools

’Tis the season for shopping, and no I don’t mean Black Friday, or back-to-school clothes. It’s time to shop for schools. 

First, I must admit, this entire phenomenon is a bit bizarre to me. When I was a child, we didn’t shop for schools. You either attended the neighborhood school you were zoned for or a private school for religious reasons or family tradition. If I can be honest, it makes me cringe to think about how we as a society have shifted from a citizen mindset to a consumer one when it comes to schooling. What is the difference between the two, you ask? Let’s look for schools through both approaches and see. 

First, spend some time window shopping.

When it comes to shopping for a school, visiting schools and taking tours (even virtually) allows you to see what the school is really like and think about it before you make a decision. Kind of like window shopping, or browsing from store to store, you get an idea of all the products that are offered before narrowing your selection. 

A consumer can fall into the trap of becoming a chronic window shopper. When we focus solely on how the school can serve and benefit us on an individual level, we can quickly become obsessed with finding a “perfect fit.” I once met a woman who told me that she went on 17 school tours before choosing which one to send her children to. In my opinion, this is overkill. Schools are unique, each and every one, and none of them are ever going to be perfect. But at some point, we must realize that most schools are held to a set of standards that ensures a certain amount of reliability. 

When we approach school shopping with a citizen mindset, however, we can focus on how the school serves its entire community of students, not just our own. We can accept that the school may not be a perfect fit, but overall we are confident that our child can thrive there because of the environment created to ensure that all children thrive. 

Second, make a list so you aren’t subject to impulse buying.

When you go to Target without a list, you will inevitably bring home lots of irresistible items that you never knew you needed. The same can be true for schools. Because we have shifted to a consumer approach, schools with large marketing budgets often know exactly what to say to get your attention. Just like we fall for the promise of a new skin cream to cure all wrinkles, it is easy to be lured into the fancy marketing strategies of a school when we have a consumer mindset. A better approach is to go into your school finding process with a firm list of what you are looking for. 

When making your list with a citizen mindset, don’t forget to consider things besides academics—such as diversity (racial, economic, AND learning abilities), extracurriculars, and accessibility for all families. If you have a solid list of values, you’ll know the right questions to ask when window shopping. You can be proactive in the process and not as vulnerable to empty promises often found in marketing schemes.

Third, read reviews. But read the right reviews.

It is so important to get an insider’s view of what the schools are like. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about getting a review of a school. Hearsay is entirely unreliable. There is a concerted effort to lift up a negative prevailing view of public schools. Alternately, there are also people who will never say a positive thing about non-public schools. So make sure your sources come from people who have actual experience with the school in question. Find out what it’s like to go there. There are going to be positives and negatives about every single school, but since you have your list of values, you’ll be ready to make compromises that work for you. 

Many real estate websites utilize school rating services like GreatSchools.org. These ratings rely heavily on standardized testing scores. If that’s the most important thing to you—then that’s fine! But a majority of parents tend to look for qualities in a school that are harder to capture in hard data. For instance, how safe does a student feel? Do they feel supported by their teachers? Do the students have time and opportunity to explore their abilities in extracurriculars? How does the school handle bullying, including cyber-bullying? How involved are parents at the school? These are things that make a school really good, but that are impossible to capture in a test score. 

San Antonio has a social media hashtag that helps you see stories from parents about their schools, designed by a parent group called RootEd, which I am proud to have co-founded. Each school’s hashtag is #RootEdNameOfSchool, for example, #RootEdOakMeadow. Not every school in San Antonio has a hashtag yet, but try it and see what you can find. It’s an easy way for prospective parents to get a real look at what a school is like. 

Fourth, don’t be pressured by what everyone else is choosing. 

One of the reasons that the school choice has become our modus operandi is because we are all susceptible to the “grass is greener” phenomenon. If we see other parents looking at an alternate school for their child, it’s natural to think, “Oh—if I’m a good parent I must have an obligation to consider that too.” Or, “Wow, if other people think that’s a better school than mine, what am I missing? Maybe it is better.” This is the prime example of a consumer mindset. There will always be something new or shiny to try and steal our attention. But a citizen puts down roots and helps advocate for change when change is needed, rather than leaving for the next new thing. 

Fifth, shop local. 

This one is a little bit tricky to understand, and it might not be for everyone. Just like with shopping for food or clothes, not everyone is convicted about the importance of supporting local farmers and businesses. But even if it’s not for you, our collective social consciousness generally agrees on the importance of “going local.” 

You might assume that all schools are inherently “local,” but it isn’t necessarily the case. If this is important to you, take a look at how your school is governed. Is it operated by a locally represented board? Does it make profits or benefit a corporation in another state?  As a consumer, we may not care how a school is governed and that is okay! But, as a citizen we should because it affects our communities and futures. 

We have so few opportunities in life that allow us to practice being good citizens instead of consumers. Using these tools can help you navigate the consumer culture of school choice and come out as a citizen.

I grew up in Dallas, went to college and grad school in the Carolinas (Furman-->Wake Forest) with degrees in art history and ministry/theology. I work for organizations that allow me to do things I care deeply about: advocacy for immigration, public education and religious liberty. We moved to San Antonio in 2012 for my husband to pastor a church here. When we moved here, our two older daughters were babies/toddlers, and we eventually added a third. They are now 5, 8 and 9. We chose to live really close to the church and hit the neighborhood jackpot. I'm a bookworm and always have 2-3 books going at once. I have learned to love good music by osmosis (my husband has great taste!) (my current favs: Brandi Carlile, Lone Bellow), but I'm pretty happy with silence too, since it's hard to come by with small children. We don't have grandparents or immediate family in town, and I'm insanely jealous of those that do. But luckily our friends here have become like family. Favorite Restaurant: El Mirasol Favorite Landmark: Eisenhower Park Favorite San Antonio Tradition: 4th of July neighborhood parade