Whether your child is preparing to sing their ABCs in kindergarten, getting ready to transition to middle school, or embarking on the high school years, going to a new school is never easy. Here is a timeline of dates parents should be aware of and a checklist of important questions parents should ask school administrators when choosing a new school.
Late Summer/Early Fall
Late summer/early fall is the time to start exploring your options. If you are thinking about sending your child to public school, find the schools in your area that your child can attend. If you are thinking about sending your child to private school, start considering your options.
Maggie Jackson, director of admission at Hawken Upper School, recommends that families begin the application process early. Check in with your school to know when their applications are released.
Some public schools require an application, others don’t. If you’re enrolling your child in a public school for the first time, you might have to upload important forms such as proof of residence forms, immunization records, etc., onto an online registration portal.
For private schools, an application is typically released around this time.
“Starting early is probably one of the best gifts a family can give themselves in this process, because the process is more cumbersome than I think people realize,” Jackson says. “If a family does not have previous experience with independent schools, then they might not be aware that September is the appropriate time to start the process. If you’ve had more experience with public school, things are really just gearing up in August for August.”
Early Fall/Mid Fall
Most schools have smaller events going on around this time, and then host a larger fall open house in October or November, so be sure to attend those events.
Open houses are designed so families can look around the institution and learn more about it, while also speaking to past and present students and talking to faculty and staff.
“Open houses are really the time to ask questions,” says Dave Hilborn, director of admission for lower and middle schools at Hawken.
October and November are also generally the months that individual visit days or “shadow” days occur, when a student is able to tour the school and meet with an admissions officer, or “shadow” a current student and follow their school schedule for the day.
Late Fall/Early Winter
Know when applications are due. Check in with your school to know when the deadline is for turning in applications. Schools will vary, but for most Cleveland Council of Independent Schools, deadlines are around the same time in early winter. For public schools, registration is usually completed in the summertime, and students are entered in the register shortly afterwards. Nonetheless, before you turn in your application, be sure you and your child have completed all necessary elements. Some students are required to take an entrance exam for high school to determine whether they belong in honors classes. Most entrance exams are given in November or December, but check with your school to be sure.
Know when admission decisions are released and how much time you have to confirm your child’s enrollment in that school. After the student is accepted and the family confirms their enrollment, some schools require families to submit their enrollment agreement (contractual agreement with the school), and pay a non-refundable tuition deposit to confirm the child’s enrollment.
In early spring, families begin transitioning out of working with the admissions office and begin working with school administrators. This process looks different depending on the school, but most schools have welcome events where students hear from staff about scheduling and advisors, as well as clubs and activities. Some schools have an online portal that sends updates and provides important dates for when documents such as health forms are due. At this point, families should start buying uniforms (if the school requires them) and start purchasing supplies for school (such as if the student is required to have a tablet or laptop, if the school does not provide them). Before school starts, some students might be required to attend orientation or retreats, so check with your school about what events your student must attend.
Checklist of questions parents should ask:
How much is tuition? When are payments due? Is financial aid available?
Be sure to talk to the admissions office and find out when payments are due, or if you can enroll in a payment plan. Be sure to discuss financial aid options and attend any informational events about financial assistance.
What is the school environment like?
This question is important to ask to gauge what kind of school it is — whether it is a STEM-driven school, liberal arts, religiously affiliated, etc. Knowing this information can help guide your decision-making process.
How big is the school enrollment?
This question is important because some students excel in smaller schools where there are fewer kids in their classes and they are able to have a closer relationship with teachers. Other students excel in bigger schools with more social opportunities and potentially more resources. “I think that sometimes it’s important to think about how the enrollment and the size of the school affects the resources that the school has at its disposal,” Jackson says. “Some students might have better access to special opportunities at a particular school.”
What classes does the school offer?
If your child is enrolling in kindergarten, ask if the class schedule includes reading time, art classes, music, etc. Some kindergarten classrooms might offer nap time, long breaks, etc, so ask what your child’s day will look like. If your child is enrolling in high school, ask about any elective courses, AP or honors courses, dual credit courses, foreign language requirements, etc.
What clubs or sports does the school offer?
Some schools have a few clubs and sports to choose from, while others might have more. Ask your school-specific questions about what clubs are offered, how often they meet, how often the sports teams practice, if there are tryouts, etc.
What time does school start and when does it end? Are before school and after-school care available? Are there early dismissal days or late start days?
These are important questions to help you figure out when you are able to drop off and pick up your child from school. Different schools will have different start and end times, so be sure to ask.
What lunch options are offered?
Some students have dietary restrictions or may be picky eaters, so ask the school what lunch options are offered, if students need to bring a lunch box, or if high school students are allowed to go off campus to grab a meal.
What transportation options are available?
There are many ways a student can get to school, whether they walk, ride their bicycle, carpool with friends or get a ride from their parents. If none of these options works for your child, it’s important to ask the school what transportation options are available and their fees. Some students are able to take public transportation to school or ride the school bus.
What are some ways the school approached learning the past year? What are some effective ways of learning?
Jackson says it is important that the student reflects upon times they were fully engaged in the learning process and what ways of learning are most effective for them personally. “I think it is important to think about how a school has creatively made pivot moves throughout the course of the last year and a half,” Jackson says. “This is no one’s first choice, learning during COVID and the pandemic, but it does provide an opportunity to ask questions about how an institution responded in that scenario and what kinds of creative ways they were able to do that. I think that can be effective in getting to know the school as well.”
What is the schedule like?
For working parents, it is important to know what options are available for your child to fit your schedule. Typically, preschoolers have the option of attending shorter days or full days of school. Check with your school to see what accommodation fits your family best. “Maybe if you’re just starting out with your child, and they’re two years old, and they’re entering the toddler program, they can choose to only come two days and just in the morning, or they can come for the full week and stay the full day,” Hilborn says.
Having the perfect education and fit for your child is important because when kids feel comfortable and confident in their learning environment, that transfers over to other areas of their lives. “It’s important to build that foundation to feel comfortable in the classroom,” Hilborn says. “That really helps them become strong learners further down the road. Feeling comfortable in the environment is going to make them feel safer to take academic risks and feel comfortable with their peers. So really finding that perfect fit for a student really helps them thrive.”