Confessions of a School Shopaholic, by Megan Freedman

Meg FreedmanMegan Freedman is a freelance writer and researcher, with a special focus on medical and wellness topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and three children.

A few years ago, back when my kids were barely walking and talking, a mom on the playground told me that she’d toured 20 schools to figure out where to send her son to kindergarten. What a type-A turbo mom with too much time on her hands, I probably I thought.

Fast-forward a few years, and I found my own type-A turbo self-slogging through 11 schools tours for kindergarten. Fewer than 20, but still so many. At the time, like any parent, I had a few other things going on. I had a breastfeeding infant in addition to a three- and five-year-old, and I was wading through an intense grad school semester and working part-time. So it wasn’t wildly easy to dig up the time and effort to tour so many kindergartens.

I wouldn’t, however, take back a minute of the time we spent touring schools. For several reasons. First, we have a unique opportunity in our choice system in Denver, and I felt lucky to explore. My friends living around the country don’t have this flexibility to choose. We are also fortunate that Denver has a large variety of schools. The city’s neighborhood schools provide deep connections to the community (and in many cases a conveniently short school commute). Then, dotted around town, you also have charter and innovation schools ranging from expeditionary learning, to environmental change, to foreign language fluency, to gifted education. And they’re all about the same price (i.e, free!). Not to mention the area is also home to a really wonderful range of private schools from more affordable parochial to luxe “day” schools.

At this point, you may be thinking – our neighborhood school is great, so why bother shopping around? And I’d respond – even if every other school you tour outside your neighborhood ends up not being even close to a fit for you and your family, the impressions you gather will cement your decision to go to your neighborhood school. All the school tours I’ve taken have helped remove lots of doubts about fit. Likewise, it helps so much if your family feels at home at your kids’ school, and the context of the alternatives will provide clarity around that.

OR at this point, you may be thinking – I’ve heard the best public schools are impossible to get into, so why would I bother shopping around? And from what I experienced, that’s completely fair. My kids didn’t get any of the schools I listed on my choice forms above our neighborhood school, and very few of my friends’ kids did either. However, one thing that’s also true is, you can’t win if you don’t play. If you’re not fully invested in going to your neighborhood school, you do absolutely have a chance to win the (school choice) lottery.

When talking to parents with older kids, I realize that another reason to shop around is to know your options when life, inevitably, changes. Your perspective on what your child needs (how she learns, what types of peers she jibes with, what type of extra help she needs, etc.) may evolve as she progresses through the grades. You may have more kids (or already have them) who turn out to be far different from their older siblings in terms of the type of school that works for them. You may decide to move a little closer to where you work. You may at first choose private school and find it’s too much of a financial strain. Knowing about a range of school options can set you up for riding changes with a little more insight and ease.  Instead of thinking – we don’t like our current school, but we’re stuck, you might think – we don’t like our current school, but I remember from a tour I took a couple of years ago that that other school offered different options in terms of x, y, and z.

And finally, school tours are a great opportunity to connect with other parents. People I met on tours (along with long-standing friends) gave me invaluable insights and perspectives on the choice of public vs. private school, neighborhood vs. charter school, K-8 vs. K-5, etc. There are parents like you out there who have been in your shoes and can speak from experience, and explain something in terms you understand. They may have inside information from a friend whose kids went to x school, or who just transferred out of y school. And you may only encounter some of those people on school tours.

You don’t need to be type-A turbo-parent and tour 20 schools, or even 10. But three to five school tours will only take up a few hours of your life—and perhaps save you years of being in a school that’s not the right fit for your family.