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How to Choose the Right School District in New York Suburbs

How to Choose the Right School District in New York Suburbs

A guide to choosing the right school district if your family is moving out of NYC into the suburbs.

Since COVID shutdowns began, many New York City families have ditched their city digs for suburbia. As many offices have gone all remote and the cultural offerings are limited, the city offers less appeal to some. So, some families feel they might as well get more space in Westchester, Rockland, Long Island, New Jersey, and even southern Connecticut.

Still, it’s never easy to move to a new area. Moving with kids can be even more challenging since the search for the perfect home involves more than just the home itself. It’s about finding a school district that’s right for your family, among other factors. “Deciding what community to raise your family in and what schools your children will attend can be some of the most stressful decisions we make as parents,” says Graziella Simonetti, co-owner of Your Parenting Pals.

How to Evaluate School Districts in New York Suburbs

Don’t just go by how great schools look on paper.

Sure, you can look up top schools in your desired area and tackle those towns. However, a school district that’s ranked high in the region, state, or county doesn’t give a full picture of what a school district looks like. Plus, rankings may be subjective or determined using categories that are irrelevant to your family. Your child may not thrive there or be unhappy if it doesn’t have say, a strong sports program and he’s an athlete. “Your version of a good school is different than mine,” says Suburban Jungle Founder and President Alison Bernstein. Or you may not even know who your child is as a person yet. She reminds clients with an infant that they have no idea what kind of child he’s going to be. “You don’t know what type of environment he would thrive in,” she says.

RELATED: Here's a list of all of the public schools in New York State

Think about what type of school you went to as a child.

Consider what you liked and didn’t like about it. Maybe you went to a big high school and enjoyed blending in, Bernstein says. Or maybe it was an awful experience because you felt like you got lost, she adds. Perhaps a smaller school felt nurturing and you loved knowing everyone. Or maybe you felt like you missed out on opportunities since your school wasn’t larger. “Peel back the layers of what you’re looking for in a school and a community,” Bernstein advises. “A community and school are intertwined.”

Talk to people in the school district that you’re interested in.

Just be sure they have kids currently enrolled in a school in the district. You can often find people on social media, or hit up the park to meet some potential neighbors. “You can learn a lot about town by meeting people who live there and hearing about their experiences,” Simonetti says. “You may also be able to pick up on the culture or values of towns as you speak with people who live there and observe the engagement and interaction of the residents.”

While local residents can offer the pros and cons on the town, consider the source of your information. They may have different motives. “Some people have a hidden agenda,” says Bernstein. “They want you to move there or they don’t want you to move there.”

Lots of websites are out there to help you in your search.

 Check out GreatSchools, Niche, SchoolDigger, and Public School Review. “Start by putting together a list of what is most important for your child. It’s wise to do as much independent research as possible,” says Jeana Cowie, a broker associate/realtor with RE/MAX and one of NJ’s top realtors in Bergen County. “So many tools are available now for research.”

infographic describing choosing school districts in new york

10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a School District in New York

Here are a few factors to keep top of mind when looking at school districts. Of course, the list varies for each student.

What are the class sizes, total enrollment, and set-up of the schools in the district?

Many parents want smaller class sizes so teachers can pay more attention to their children. While no one likely wants 30 kids in a kindergarten class, a class of 32 with a full-time teaching assistant may offer more support. Think about if you want a town with one elementary school or several. See if the town merges with any others in middle school and high school, says Donna Hanson, a realtor with Keller Williams Valley Realty in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. “You may think it’s a positive or a negative,” she says. Some high schools are separate, housing just ninth to 12th grades, while others have high schools that also house lower grades, she adds.

What programs does the district have in place for students with special needs?

Public school districts must provide free and appropriate education to all students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. How different districts and individual schools meet that requirement varies immensely. See if your child’s particular needs fit into the school’s strengths. “Depending on your child’s needs, you may want to ask about whether the services you need are offered in the building or if they’re contracted out,” says Jenny Post, a licensed real estate agent with IN HOUSE Real Estate Group at Signature Premier Properties in Huntington.

What special courses do the schools in the district offer?

Ivy league and highly selective colleges want students who maximize their academic opportunities. If college level classes are available, they want students to take them. So ask if the high school offers AP courses. It won’t be held against students if the school doesn’t offer them though. “Find out what opportunities there are for learning outside of the core curriculum,” Post says. Ask how often they get physical education, art, library, and music classes. If you want your kindergartener to learn French, not all schools offer that. If you’re into STEM courses, see the options.

What arts, athletics, music, and other extracurricular programs do they offer?

Education isn’t just about academics. You want to see what the school offers beyond the classroom walls. It’s important for your child’s social and creative development. Plus, it will help keep them busy (and off the screen) after school. If your child is into lacrosse and ice hockey, make sure the district has teams for those sports.

Does the school district offer bussing?

Transportation options vary. If you’re far from the school, see if the town provides bussing. If not, be sure you feel comfortable having your child walk or that you’ll be available to drive him to school.

What are the school’s hours?

Ask what times school opens and gets out. See if it has half- or full-day kindergarten. Find out if it offers before and after care, if that’s something you’ll need. If you’re a working parent, these questions will help shape your child care. Also, drive past the school at drop-off and dismissal times to look at the parents and kids and decide if you’d fit in, Bernstein suggests. “See if you can picture your family there,” she says. “You want to understand what you’re getting into.”

Is the parent association active at each school?

If you plan to be actively involved in your child’s education, you want a district with an active parent-teacher organization or association. These organizations are made of teachers, school staff, and parents who work together to promote parent volunteerism and raise funds for the school. “A strong parent teacher organization is important,” says Jennifer Boel, a realtor for Christie’s International Real Estate in Ridgewood, NJ, an elementary school teacher, and mother of twin girls in middle school. “They’re the backbone of what brings everyone together. Parents have their children’s best interests at heart. Most of the time, from my personal experience, I have seen them go above and beyond to make sure that teachers, staff, and administrators feel heard and work collaboratively to make their school an enjoyable one.”

How is technology used to support teaching and learning at the schools in the district?

COVID has taught us how important it is for schools to invest in technology for both in-person and remote learning environments. “With the pandemic significantly changing the educational landscape within the past year and teachers and students relying on technology now more than ever, parents should consider how the school sees technology,” says Chistopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education in New York City. While each school and teacher have different approaches, see how the district has integrated technology into its virtual classrooms. Rim says you should find out if the school provides laptops to each student and what web platform (such as Google Classroom) students and teachers use daily to communicate. “Consider how updated the school is with their technology,” Hanson says. “This can be a sign that the district is investing in the school.” She also says you want teachers who are up to date on technology so they can assist the students. “This shows that the district is investing in teachers,” she says.

How is COVID being handled?

Find out the district’s status—whether the schools are completely remote, hybrid, or in school full-time. If students aren’t in school yet, ask about the school’s plans to get kids back in the classroom. Ask if the dates have been pushed back (and how many times) as well as how up to date the ventilation systems are. “Although we hope the limitations due to COVID will be behind us soon, see how a school handled the process regarding in-person versus remote learning as well as how well the school communicated with parents along the way,” Hanson suggests. Find out how each school is enforcing social distancing, what happens if you want your child to be remote, COVID testing protocols for the district, and remote support for students with special needs, Rim says. Also see how the district is handling sanitizing and mask policies.

What is the district’s (and each school’s) retention for rate staff and students?

Happy teachers will stick around. “Having a good mix of retained and new teachers without a lot of turnover shows a school with a healthy environment where the teachers are happy and like to work,” Hanson says. Also inquire about school enrollment trends and of any plans to close or consolidate schools. “Closing even one building can cause big changes in class size and programming,” Post says.


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Stacey Feintuch

Author: Stacey Feintuch is a freelance writer for print and online publications. She has written for ReadersDigest.com, BestofNJ.com, K health, The Boca Raton Observer magazine, The Bump, Care.com, Healthline, Highlights for Kids, HealthyWomen, and other outlets. She has a BA in journalism from The George Washington University and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She grew up in Morris County, NJ, and currently lives in Bergen County, NJ. A mom to two boys, you'll find her at the baseball diamond on the weekends. See More

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