Talking to parents about schools is one of my favorite things ever. Last week, the MOMS Club of San Antonio—NE hosted me at their monthly meeting at Windcrest United Methodist Church for a presentation about finding the right schools for your children. I looked at my archives and realized that I hadn’t written this talk down as a blog post yet, so this was the perfect opportunity. (This earlier post, about being a charter school parent advocate, is also based on one of my favorite talks.) The talk, and this post, serve as an introduction to the process of researching schools. If your group would like to hear me speak on this topic, talk to me.
I always start by introducing myself and sharing how I became an education blogger. I am a mom, too, and I struggled with finding the right schools for my own kids. My son, F.T., is now ten years old and has been at Great Hearts Monte Vista since second grade, but before he landed there, he was in a private preschool, he went to our neighborhood public school, and we homeschooled. He is on the autism spectrum, so we have experience with the special education process. He spent months on the waiting list before getting an offer at Great Hearts—a struggle that thousands of other families are now experiencing. (Thankfully, F.T.’s younger sister, G.N., got into Great Hearts through sibling preference.) I felt clueless and inadequate, but also hopeful, during our year of homeschooling. All of these experiences are part of what I bring with me when I visit a group.
In the six years since I started this blog, I have seen so many amazing new schools open in San Antonio, and many more are in the pipeline. This is truly an exciting time to be part of the education community in San Antonio. However, all these new options present a challenge for parents who are trying to navigate the system and find the right school for their own children. My goal with “how-to” talks is to introduce parents to these concepts: the different types of schools in San Antonio, a general application timeline, a toolkit of research strategies, and an overview of the most popular curriculum models.
Types of Schools
If there is a whiteboard in the room, I like to draw a long horizontal line with an arrow on each end. Then, I label the continuum with different types of schools:
- Traditional public schools
- Schools of choice within ISDs: magnet schools and in-district charter schools
- Open enrollment public charter schools
- Private schools
- Hybrid schools and university-model schools
- Online schools
A fundamental truth is that no school is going to work for every child. The type of school doesn’t matter as long as the students are learning and they’re happy. There’s no shame in choosing one type of school over another. Just do what works for your children.
On the whiteboard, the next step is to draw circles and brackets showing which types of schools have things in common. For example, all public schools must follow the TEKS, administer standardized tests, and accept all students, including students with special needs and English-language learners. Only private schools and homeschooling can offer religious instruction. Magnet schools and private schools can have selective admission based on entrance exams and other criteria. In-district charters and open enrollment public charter schools have larger enrollment areas than traditional public schools, but the in-district charter schools can fine-tune their admissions policies more than open-enrollment public charter schools. Traditional public schools and schools of choice within ISDs rely directly on local property taxes for funding; open enrollment public charter schools are funded by the state. All of these statements are simplifications, but they serve to introduce concepts.
Presenting all these types of schools is a lot of information at once, but I always see light bulbs going off over parents’ heads. They have been hearing these terms in conversation, but until now they have not been struggling to put them in context. The parents who are raising school-age children now—most of us grew up going to traditional public schools. Our generation is facing a new challenge to choose the right school from among so many options.
Before moving to the next slide, I always pause for questions. With the MOMS Club in Windcrest, we talked about nearby campuses and what types of schools they were, such as Judson Middle School, a traditional public school; IDEA Judson, an open enrollment public charter school, and Steele Montessori, an in-district charter school.
The families in the MOMS Club have kids at a range of ages, from the infants and toddlers—some of them playing in the room next door while we talked— up to elementary, middle, and high school age. Many of the parents, including my host, Rebecca Star-Murillo, have children who are three or four years old. Kindergarten is just around the corner, and they are thinking seriously about their options.
Let’s take the example of a family that is planning for their oldest child to enroll in kindergarten. It’s never too early to to read and do research, but the process of finding the right schools for your children gets serious about a year before they would start kindergarten. In Texas, a child needs to be five years old by September 1 to enroll in kindergarten.
Here is a rough plan for that year before starting kindergarten:
- Twelve months before: Make your shortlist of schools. Using tools like the Guide to Charter Schools in San Antonio, parents can pick a few favorites. Some parents make a spreadsheet or annotate a map.
- Ten months before: Submit applications to multiple schools. Some schools start taking applications as early as September. The deadlines are different for each school. Among charter schools, Great Hearts and BASIS tend to have the earliest deadlines. Charter schools, magnet schools, and in-district charter schools will have an open enrollment period. It’s important to apply early enough to get into the lottery, rather than after the deadline and get added to the waiting list.
- Eight months before: Navigating lotteries and waiting lists. For open enrollment public charter schools and in-district charter schools (and some magnet schools), if more students apply than there are spaces available, the school holds a random lottery to chose which students get offers right away and which ones go on the waiting list. Some schools have their lotteries as early as January, and some wait until April.
- Six months or less: Making decisions. As lotteries happen, families get offers or get notified that their children are on the waiting list. They have to make decisions about which offers to decline and which to accept. They wonder, based on their child’s number on the waiting list, if they will get an offer before the school year starts, during the school year, or have to re-apply next year. This can be a stressful time.
The basic timeline is the same whether your child is getting ready for preschool or making a transition between middle school and high school.
The process of finding the right schools for your children depends on collecting reliable information that is relevant to your family. When I present about school research, I offer suggestions of good strategies:
- Word of mouth: Friends and family talking about a school they love is the most powerful marketing strategy any school can have.
- Websites and social media: In addition to my guide, I also recommend the school search at Families Empowered for its mapping tool and the Texas School Guide for ratings.
- Open houses and information sessions: Seeing a school up close lets you gather information to feed your intuition. Many schools notify parents about events via email interest lists, as well as posts on their websites and social media.
- School tours and questions to ask: School tours let you see what is going on inside the classroom. They also provide an opportunity to ask questions that are relevant to your family, such as foreign language instruction and extracurricular programs.
An essential part of the process is collecting your thoughts and talking it over with your spouse and other family members. Even with plenty of research, it still takes a leap of faith to enroll your child in a different school.
It’s hard to summarize the variety of school offerings in San Antonio, but I know from my readers that some models of schools are in especially high demand. It’s important to keep in mind that all public schools, including charter schools, have to follow state standards and administer standardized tests. Many schools strive to go beyond the minimum to offer a specialized curriculum.
- Classical education is a movement that seeks to revive ancient traditions, including the subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), and teaching methods like memory work, cursive handwriting, and Socratic seminars.
- STEM education aims to prepare students for careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, which have some of the highest starting salaries for new college graduates.
- Child-led learning programs include Montessori, project-based, and nature schools.
- Dual language programs that offer instruction in English and Spanish are in high demand in San Antonio. Some schools offer different balances of English-Spanish instruction. There are also schools that specialize in other languages, such as Hebrew at EKHLA.
The motto of MOMS Club International is “Moms Offering Moms Support.” The support of fellow moms (and dads, grandparents, and all the people in your tribe) is essential to raising successful children. I encourage the parents I meet to stay connected through the SA Charter Moms Facebook page, discussion group, Instagram, and Twitter. The process of finding the right schools for your children can take time, and parents will face some soul-searching decisions. I hope that my talks and the resources from San Antonio Charter Moms help parents to make informed decisions that get their children into schools where they can thrive.
- “How to Find the Best School for Your Child,” Inga Cotton, Alamo City Moms Blog, September 7, 2016
- “Charters 101: Being a Charter School Parent Advocate—Founders Schertz Edition,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, March 5, 2018