What to prioritize when moving for schools?
September 21, 2022 1:21 PM   Subscribe

I need to move to get my son into a decent middle and high school this year, and I'm having trouble balancing all the factors, and am curious to hear how other parents (or kids!) viewed their decisions in retrospect. Here are the trade-offs as I see them currently:

1. Housing: School quality vs. real estate investment. The great school means living in a small apartment or buying a cheap/older condo. The meh schools means having the chance to buy a house.
2. Neighborhood/transit: Safety vs. walkability/familiarity. We are used to a dense environment but I'd like my son to be in a safe area where he can have more independence to walk around at night. I also HATE driving, so suburbs would be a massive change of lifestyle for me.
3. Culture/potential friend group: Quirky vs. high-pressure/conformist. One school option likely has more intellectual/artistic/activist types; the other one likely has more high-powered moneymakers who might be more conventional and less accepting of our quirks.
4. School quality. Big fish vs small fish. Some school options are FULL of very smart kids with high grades/APs/etc. Other school options would put my son at the top of the class, but with a smaller peer group and possibly fewer resources. Eg - at one school he could be taking all honors classes from 9th grade on; at the other school, he could only take honors math and then a few APs in 11th/12th.

Help, overwhelmed with the factors to consider!
posted by haptic_avenger to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is there one setting where you can be more involved to support him than in other areas? (I am thinking of a reduced commute, for example, so you can help with homework or dive to events.) My understanding is that a large driver of student success is genuine parent involvement.

Does he have friends anywhere? Social supports are more important than ever: if he's so miserable that he completely checks out, dreams of a 4.0 will never be realized.

I mean, it really depends on what you consider to be "successful": good grades? Happy? On track for an Ivy?
posted by wenestvedt at 1:36 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Re: real estate investment, without knowing where you are, it's impossible to give detailed advice, but if you're thinking of living somewhere for high school (i.e. only for a few years), and you would need a new mortgage to buy, it's not obvious that anywhere in America is a great real estate investment right now. Rates are high and prices are falling. The Fed's stated goal is to induce a correction in the housing market. Renting is not cheap right now either, so I'm not saying buying is a bad idea, but I would not count on huge appreciation over the course of a high school education. I would ignore this issue. Focus on schools, lifestyle and affordability. Forget the investment aspect.
We are used to a dense environment but I'd like my son to be in a safe area where he can have more independence to walk around at night.
I'm not sure why there is a "but" and not a "because" in this sentence. You want what you want, and it's your right to prefer a suburban or rural lifestyle, but by far the #1 danger to kids in America is the automobile. All things being equal, the less time they spend in and around cars (i.e. the less time they spend in suburbia), the safer they will be.

More food for thought in this article.
posted by caek at 2:05 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: You want what you want, and it's your right to prefer a suburban or rural lifestyle, but by far the #1 danger to kids in America is the automobile.

I could not agree more, but unfortunately some options are in a sort of hellscape combination of both high crime and arterial traffic; or super tall condos (dense) surrounded by surface parking and stranded between two interstates (unwalkable!). So a quieter suburb with sidewalks seems like possibly the better solution.
posted by haptic_avenger at 2:24 PM on September 21

Fair enough. I'm imagining NYC when I think "dense" but if your dense option is like Atlanta (or pretty much any city in America that is not NYC) then it will admittedly not provide your kid with more independence than suburbia.
posted by caek at 2:28 PM on September 21

For the "school quality" point you may be interested in the responses to this previous question how much do good schools matter, really?

I am not a parent so will refrain from weighing in on that side, but I will say that my parents tried to get me to attend a "good" school in a more affluent area for grades 8-12 and I absolutely was not having it. As I recall, it took just about two weeks of near-meltdown fights every school morning before they got the message. I wasn't even particularly good friends with anyone at my original school, just stubborn and unwilling to accept my parents' unilateral decision that we were apparently somehow "better" than the kids I grew up with. Many years later I now understand better the anxieties that led them to make that decision, but I still think I did the right thing by pushing back (and I think I turned out OK, despite only taking 1 AP class in 12th grade.)

Your circumstances are different than mine were in a couple significant ways (I was slightly older and probably had developed more personal autonomy; I was in Canada where, as I understand, public schools are generally more consistent in quality/funding across the board than the US) but I guess what I'm suggesting is for your son to be involved in this process too, if he isn't already - where are his friends going? does he have any specific interests that would be better supported at one school, that would make him, personally, excited to go there? etc
posted by btfreek at 2:48 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]

Respectfully, the time to ask this question was ten years ago. I asked a version of it when my kid was four. I’m assuming you’re already in a pretty crappy school district (otherwise, moving seems kind of pointless), so I guess my question is what you hope to achieve. Do you want to put your kid in a better position to get into college? Keep him off the streets? My other question would be, is your kid smart? Because if he isn’t, moving to a better school district won’t magically make him smarter. And if he is, the biggest priority should be nurturing that. As I mentioned in that previous Ask, I went to statistically terrible schools, but throughout I was lucky to have individual teachers who were spectacular. I probably achieved more than I would have in a better statistical school with average teachers.

One consideration I haven’t seen mentioned yet is his social life. Kids in affluent suburbs tend to be pretty classist, so a kid living in an apartment or condo is probably gonna get a fair amount of shit. If your kid can handle that, cool, but if he’s at all fragile, it could be pretty damaging to his self-esteem, and possibly even to his relationship with you. I do think suburban schools will have more quirky kids than you’re expecting, but even among punks or theatre kids there’s likely to be some unexamined assumptions about class.

I will also point out that the dense urban neighborhood/suburban sprawl thing is a false dichotomy. There are plenty of inner ring suburbs with highly rated schools AND walkability and transit.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:01 PM on September 21 [7 favorites]

I grew up in a terrible school system and scrimped to raise my kids in one of the best school districts in the country.

What ended up making the biggest difference for them is that they grew up and were schooled with kids whose families cared about education, and who could afford top dollar in real estate.

Going to school with others where the common understanding is that education matters, reading matters, improving yourself matters...it created a world for them that they now as adults they very much appreciate.

Their classmates are electricians, plumbers, PhDs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, pro baseball players, actors, White House personnel, financial big cheeses, Google and Apple geniuses...but the common theme is they are passionate and care about what they do.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:21 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

You might also want to consider topics discussed at recent school board meetings (or on the relevant facebook pages) in your decision.

In addition, you might want to consider some sort of "metric" of teacher happiness/morale. Perhaps you know teachers in each district and can ask them for their insight. Alternatively, you could find statistics of percentage of teaching positions unfilled at this point, teacher salary, or per pupil spending. Or look for opinions shared on social media.

IMHO I would give serious consideration to the district that seems to have the more productive relationship between the adults in the community: parents, teachers, admin/ staff, local politicians).

I think it's also worth considering whether or not your son is in a demographic that is not well served by a particular district.

I also think there is a large value in attending a school that is a good social fit.
posted by oceano at 3:29 PM on September 21

This is what I'd think about:

Is he a child that's very peer-driven or is he more into his interests than his social status? (or anything else, those are random either/ors.) If so, don't set him up for failure on that score.

Are his interests likely to lead him to highly competitive pathways? Arts-focused? Sports-focused? What's he passionate about? I agree with an above comment that kids who are into Good Stuff are strong allies for kids who are also into Good Stuff, or could be. Good stuff could be academics or arts or whatever, as long as they align.

How important is teaching quality to him? I mean it's important to everyone, but my eldest child will learn at least 50% less if the teacher is disengaged. My younger child goes to school to hang out with his friends and then casually educates himself on Khan Academy or via the text book.

Which schools and neighbourhoods can you just eliminate right off? It is very romantic to "do everything for your child and live in a studio apartment" but that's like, if you have a genius cellist going to the high school in Fame; if you have a bright but not off the charts middle-of-the-road child, it's okay to factor in other needs and choose a good option.

Can you visit schools and just walk around when they are getting out and get the feel of it? Same for walking around neighbourhoods?

Don't wreck your finances. Set a baseline of affordability and don't waver on it. If that eliminates an option, then it does.

My guess is you'll come down between two options. If they are both decent and doable, maybe let your child have the final say. A child who chooses the highly competitive chool or who chooses the quirky smaller school with fewer course options may sort it out better than a child who's been pushed into the 'best' option.

Also, middle school is short. If you rent for that period (and it makes sense for you financially) you have a second option to move for high school.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:44 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

This question can be so variable based on where you live....

A few points you might not be considering:
-Some suburbs/parts of suburbs are walkable.
-Some have access to public transportation.
-In some suburbs, the driving is much less stressful than urban areas--easier parking for one.

For school options--if you value education and support your child's academic achievement, your kid will likely be fine wherever they end up, barring major issues of crime, etc.

I've known a few families who moved to a certain town based on the great schools, and they ended up sending their kids to private schools. Financially, private school might not be an option for you, but that might be worth looking at, some of them do have financial assistance.

Another point--there are variances in quality of schools w/in the same town--middle school could be great, high school not so much or vice versa.

Good luck.
posted by rhonzo at 5:46 PM on September 21

I think children do best when
- They feel loved by family and peers
- They feel capable of achieving

I went to a school above my family's income bracket and was psychologically bullied by the mean rich kids there. It was brutal. I would be wary of putting a child into an environment where peers would be unkind / classist / unaccepting.

I did always feel very capable in terms of academics and extra-curriculars, so I managed to keep self-esteem by achieving in a few areas. I would want to put a child into an environment where their strengths are seen as an asset and they have opportunities to excel and feel proud and capable. Whether that's through academics, music, sports, wood shop, art, whatever, I would just put them into a place where their particular strengths are nurtured by teachers and valued by peers. That would be different for each child.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:18 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

I don't think you should move.

Keeping your kid in a school environment with friends and possibly an existing support structure is a big plus.

If you're concerned about advanced academics, pay for supplemental help or enrichment, and then when your kid is old enough in a few years, enroll in a dual-enrollment program at a community college. They're some of the best bang-for-the-buck around, and kids with good college grades on their transcripts already start with a massive university admissions advantage.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:30 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]

I went to a tiny, expensive college prep middle school through ninth grade and had a great educational experience, but left to go to my terrible local high school where I didn't learn a thing because the social life at the college prep school was so stifling. I was able to be me at the terrible school. I don't regret it (well, I regret the fact that terrible public schools exist at all), but it kind of depends on your kid.

I also did community college, then transferred to UC Davis (and graduated cum laude). The dirty secret of universities and colleges is that they love community college students because they have already had success in a college environment, are more focused, and rarely drop out.

So there are ways to make up academics in your local two year college system is decent. You can't really make up friends and experiences though. Just my 2 cents.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:43 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to say that I think these are really difficult decisions and that there isn't really a standard metric where one of those things should be universally weighed above the other. There is just you and your family and you will need to make the best decision you can. There are compromises for most people, unless you are extremely wealthy and even then there are some 'costs' that are probably associated with that. One thing I found helpful was to consider that we don't have to make the best decision, just a good one (I read this in another mf question about housing options!). Also, I have moved a few times with kids (younger kids) and the difficult thing is that you can't really predict how your family will turn out in the next few years. It's all new, right? So you won't know exactly what you need in 5 yrs time, and that is ok.
posted by jojobobo at 4:04 AM on September 22

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