The Denver Autism Wheel

Researching a new school

Posted on: October 21, 2010

Posting this by popular demand.

If you’ve decided your child is not in the right school, you probably have a set of expectations that are not being met. The first thing to do is write those down. It sounds simple, but it’s an important step. If you are really serious about moving to a new school (sometimes it means a physical move), you’ll want to make sure you know your metrics before you call the real estate agent.

When I started researching, I knew that one of my main concerns was that Chris’ SpEd staff communicate collaboratively with Karl and me. That sounds warm, fuzzy and vague, so here are my metrics: I wanted SpEd who were willing to meet with us for status meetings, not just for the annual IEP review or parent/teacher conferences. I wanted their email addresses, so I could send them information, ask questions, check progress on a particular task. I wanted IEP goals that were finite and measurable (picture where the bar was set that writing an IEP properly was a criterion).

I wanted a clear line of communication with the administration and the principal. If I walked into the office, I didn’t want to see secretaries scurrying to bar the door. I’m not a battleaxe (honestly, I’m not!) or an unreasonable parent who wants the moon for a child who can’t achieve. I want to put the tools at his disposal: that’s really the goal of education, isn’t it? To provide a child the tools for success and help him or her master them: math, science, literacy, critical thinking, time management, research…the more tools in the toolbox, the better life he or she can build. Principals in particular aren’t just the folks behind the big desk in the office with doors. They are the pulse of the school; they set the tone among the faculty and staff; they decide what kind of face the school presents to the public. If a principal makes time to sit down and talk to a prospective family, that indicates a genuine interest in engaging with the public, not just established families, not just certain people, not just the ones who don’t make waves.

I wanted to see the school involved in the community. What does that mean? That means I see soccer teams practicing on the field after school, it means I see yard signs for Cub Scouts or fundraisers around the neighborhood, it means I still see cars in the parking lot at 5:30 in the afternoon. In a larger context, what it *means* is that the school is a focal point for the surrounding neighborhoods, not just because traffic gets really bad for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon. It’s a part of the consciousness. It’s a place where Scouts and sports teams meet; it’s a place where kids play and where grownups throw Frisbees with their dogs on Saturday afternoons. It’s a welcoming environment that still draws in families that used to have kids attending the school…it really is a neighborhood institution with its own gravitational pull: people want to be there even when they don’t have to be there.

OK, so now I know what I want. Where do I go with that? Start at You’re not going to find how many yard signs are in the neighborhood there, but you will find reviews from parents and students. CSAP scores are fine, and you want to see that they’re meeting standards, but keep in mind that CSAP measures *minimum* standards, so it should be a HUGE red flag if CSAP scores are low: that means the academic floor at that school is too low. Look at the reviews. Reviewers tend to be honest. You can spot those with an axe to grind because they will stand out from the rest.

Call the school district. Ask to talk to the Director of Special Education (could also be the “manager” or the “district coordinator,” too, but what you want it the person in charge for the school district). See how long it takes to get a call back.

Call a prospective school and make an appointment with the principal and the SpecEd coordinator. Their interaction together and the way they relate to you will be important. See if they give you a tour of the school, and if they do, see if you get to see your child’s prospective classroom(s).

Talk to other parents. Get on those group lists on our Community page and ask: “Who knows about XXX school?” You’d be surprised how forthcoming, honest and helpful parents with kids at that school can be. We have to stick together, after all…

And when you take tours, keep in mind that public schools don’t have to sell you on their value. They are part of the services we pay taxes to support, and with their shrinking budgets, many school districts have had to make difficult decisions, cut staff and add furlough days to their calendars in the past year (and there’s more to come next year). Having more kids to serve doesn’t mean they make more money. Having more kids with IEPs does mean they receive additional funding from the state, but our kids use the funding the school receives, so it’s not like they have a big incentive to roll out the red carpet for us because SpEd kids bring in the big bucks. Specially trained school staff are not cheap, and the good ones are worth their weight in gold.

Having said that, it’s important to acknowledge that getting a school tour is a gesture of good will on the school’s part. Considering the financial pressure schools have been under to keep producing better results with less funding, the academic scrutiny from lawmakers, the performance metrics they have to meet every year that change every year, a lot of really good schools are doing the best they can, and when you do find the one that fits your child’s needs and your expectations, remember that they need your help, too. Find ways to give back to the school (more on that later).

11 Responses to "Researching a new school"

Hi, visiting from ICWL. Some great tips here. We have been putting our sons name down for schools (he is three) and the one I favour invited us in to have a look around. I know we have two years to go but I was delighted they invited us. You have given me some great ideas and tips here, thank you:) Jen

Thanks for leaving a comment, and I’m glad the post helped! Good luck in your research. I hope your son finds a really good fit. It sounds like you have plenty of time to be sure. Do me a favor and keep us posted on how it goes!

We’re now in October and I’m still waiting with baited breath to see if my son’s Middle School is the right choice.

Hi Maddy: love your blog, BTW; thanks for leaving a comment. Keep us posted on what you find out. I hope it’s the right choice, too 🙂

Visiting from ICLW. This is an informative post. A friend and I were just talking about this, I’m going to share this.

Thanks, mamafog, please do! Thanks for leaving a comment; it’s nice to know it helps. Happy ICLW–

Finding the right school makes all the difference.

Good morning..this is really well written-good good advice..especially for parents new to special ed. But really, ANY parent could benefit from it..

Have you found though.(.this has been my experience) that schools will tell you that they love parent advocates..until you advocate? 🙂
Some days I just want to go in and request jewel encrusted toilets and red carpets for my kids-just to mess with them..and then say..”well if you can’t do that-could I at least have speech and o.t.?”

Thanks for popping by my blog-and yes! Caffeine is a food is the base of my “food pyramid” along with chocolate and other candy…

Great post! I’ve come visiting from ICLW. I’ve added your blog to Kathleen’s and my Autism Blogs Directory. 🙂 Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

Very interesting!


GREAT post! Everyone wants to be an advocate for their children and find the best schools to meet their needs, but its not always easy to figure out how to go about accomplishing that task.

Our son has sensory integration issues and the 1st preschool program we enrolled him in last year was NOT the right fit. Like you, we took the time to clearly identify what we felt our son needed in a school before we started our search and I think defining what “good” meant for us made all the difference. Luckily he is doing well this year and we are really happy with our choice.

Happy ICLW!

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