The stress of moving is multiplied when you have school-age children. At times it can seem that finding the right school is as hard as finding a place to live, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s a step-by-step guide to make the process of finding a school go more smoothly.

Do Your Research

As soon as you know you might be moving, start networking with families in your potential new community. See whether there are any email groups you can join. Contact parents with kids the same ages as yours and ask each contact for a few more referrals. Ask for contact information for the parent organization and reach out to those parents, too.

Ask parents which neighborhoods are known for strong public schools. Try to cast a wide net rather than settling on just one area. Most communities have several family-friendly neighborhoods.

Once you have several neighborhoods in mind, start researching schools. Consider setting up a spreadsheet with facts such as enrollment, student-teacher ratio, test scores, and other data, such as the diversity of the student body and the percentage of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunch or English-language instruction. Check out the curriculum. You’ll probably find a link on the school’s website.

Before you let yourself fall in love with a school, make sure you can afford a house in the attendance zone.

Once you have narrowed your list to a manageable number, start planning a trip. Make appointments to visit the schools in those neighborhoods. Tell the secretary you would like to take a tour and to speak with someone on the leadership team.

Pay a Visit

When visiting schools, bring a list of questions. Take notes. Soak up the environment. Do teachers walk the halls with their heads held high? Do they smile and say hello? If they walk with their heads down, it could be a sign of tension between teachers and the administration.

When you peek into classrooms, look at the students’ faces. Are they smiling? Are they engaged? Or are they bored and angry?

Step into the restrooms. Are they well-maintained? Is there soap to wash your hands?

Check out the cafeteria. What’s the atmosphere like? Is it a happy chaos, disorderly and loud, or a structured environment?

How many parents do you see? Do they wear nametags? Do they smile and say hello?

Reserve judgment until you have toured all the schools. Then sit down with your spreadsheet and look over all your observations.

Consider Your Options

One school may emerge as your top choice, or you may have two or three favorites. Contact additional parents, asking deeper and more specific questions. Follow up with an administrator by phone or email if you have further questions.

If your child is older, consider letting her visit each school you would be comfortable with. If a trip is not possible, let her visit the schools’ websites. If she uses email, think about letting her exchange messages with students whose parents you have contacted.


Dos and Don’ts When Searching for a School

Do think about your current school’s best qualities and search for schools with similar qualities. For example, if your child excels in music, look for a school that emphasizes it. Your child will make a smoother transition if he is able to continue doing what he enjoys.

Don’t cross a school off your list because a few parents say it’s a “bad school.” Do your own research and make up your own mind. Different parents want different qualities in a school.

Don’t rely on a real estate agent’s insistence that a particular community has great schools. His children may be long grown, or he may live in another district. He doesn’t know your definition of a great school. And, he’s trying to sell you something.

Don’t assume the school with the highest average test scores is the only school good enough for your child. High-performing schools can have a pressure-cooker environment that’s not right for everyone. Schools with greater diversity and lower overall test scores often have excellent gifted and honors programs or other options that may be a good fit for your child.

Do keep an open mind until you have visited a school. Every school is unique, and the only way to get a feel for it is to walk the halls.

Do focus your networking on parents whose kids are currently in school. Schools change over time, and parents whose children are grown may not be familiar with the current situation.

Do allow sufficient time to find the right school for your child. Some families start out in an apartment before committing to a house and a school district.

Do remember that the parent organization is a great resource for families planning a move to the area.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.