Guide For Choosing A School Option

What Makes a Good School?

Trick question! There’s no one school that’s going to be “good” for every student or family. That’s why, when choosing a school option, it’s so important to make an active choice based on whether a school is high quality, and also whether it is a good fit for your child and family. We hope to help you find the right fit for your child by suggesting what to look for below.

Children craft on a school table

What Makes a School High Quality?

Students of similar ages may learn at different levels and rates, but a quality school should expect all students to work at least at grade level and encourage students to go beyond. Every child should be comfortable going further.

A teen reads her notebook while laying on the grass

Students of similar ages may learn at different levels and rates, but a quality school should expect all students to work at least at grade level and encourage students to go beyond. Every child should be comfortable going further.

Look for: Ask how they adjust teaching for students at different levels. Then ask to see examples of it happening in classrooms. Does the school make excuses about students performing below grade level, or talk about what it’s doing to get them there?

Cool technology, trendy themes and fancy performance halls are great, but the rubber really meets the road in the classroom when teacher-student interactions are resulting in real learning in core subjects.

Look for: Wherever you go in the school, you should see students and teachers actively engaged in teaching and learning. Students should look interested and focused. Teachers should be able to explain why they do what they do, and how they know it works. If they say they’re doing something because it’s “required,” that might be a red flag.

A school should value you, the child’s parent or guardian, as a crucial part of the learning team. They should tell you what your student is learning, how they’re progressing, and how you can help at home.

Look for: Request samples of parent communications, like newsletters or websites, and ask how frequently they follow students home or are updated. Do the communications provide info about what students are actually learning? Schools should provide a variety of ways to communicate with teachers, such as notes, phone calls, emails, conferences, or conversations at pick-up/drop- off. Ask other parents with kids at that school if the school’s leaders and teachers are responsive to questions and concerns. Are they responsive or defensive? School-wide events like performances or festivals are fun and can build community, but shouldn’t replace pointed communication about what your student is learning and how they are progressing.

A school’s leader, whether they go by the name principal, headmaster or Big Cheese, is the foundation of any great school. Without one, even a school that’s doing some things right won’t hit on all cylinders. School leadership matters.

Look for: Talk to the principal and get your own sense of what he or she is like. But also ask parents who have kids at the school whether there’s a lot of teacher turnover, or if there’s a lot of inconsistency in quality of teaching from classroom to classroom. Either could signal problems at the top.

Hear this — test scores are only one indicator of school quality, and not necessarily the most important (or reliable). But if you understand what they mean, they can help you get a sense of what’s going on at the school; so it pays to understand what a school’s test scores says about student performance.

Look for: This can get tricky so visit our Testing Guide to learn what a school’s test scores really mean.

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How Do I Find a Good Fit for My Child and Family?

There are lots of different school types in Idaho. Our Parents Guide to Idaho’s School and Learning Choices can provide details about each type. Any of them can be a good fit for your child and family, so you don’t need to lock yourself into just looking at one type. You do want to think about how well different schools fit your child’s and your family’s needs.

What do you want a school to teach your child, and at what level?
  • Is my child working above, below, or right at grade level?

Look for: A challenging, but not frustrating academic setting.

  • Does my child have particular areas of strength or weakness?

Look for: Enrichment opportunities in the area of strength, or intervention methods that address weaknesses.

  • What is covered besides the basics of reading, writing and math

Look for: Evidence that the school is exploring science, social studies, and other coursework that you and your child value.

  • Is it important that my child receives art, music, physical education or other support classes?

Look for: If these classes are important to you, look for strong teachers in these areas — if they stick around, your child is likely to have them year after year.

  • Are there extracurricular activities that are important to my child that he could only get through school?

Look for: Existing teams or clubs, or an openness to creating new ones based on student demand.

  • Do I want the school to provide religious instruction?

Look for: A private school — public schools cannot provide this.

  • How much and what kind of homework am I okay with?

Look for: A schoolwide homework policy that emphasizes high-quality, age-appropriate assignments.

Kids learn best in different ways and the right school will meet your child’s learning needs.
  • Does my child learn best when he’s looking and listening, or when he’s touching and doing?

Look for: What are students in the school doing most often?

  • Does my child have low motivation for succeeding in school?

Ask for: An explanation of how the school engages students, sets clear and challenging expectations for students, and regularly monitors student progress.

  • Does my child have physical, mental or learning challenges?

Look for: Appropriate facilities, people and resources in place to support your child. Detail your child’s need for the school and ask how they will provide support.

  • Does my child have behavioral challenges?

Look for: A discipline approach that you agree with, and open lines of communication between the school and parents.

Your decision may not hinge on a school’s social scene, but don’t ignore it either.
  • Does my child feel strongly about attending school with current friends or neighbors?

Look for: Those kids!

  • What do you want in a school community?

Look for: A level of student diversity and parent involvement that fits your values. Try attending a parent support organization meeting to get a sense of this.

  • How involved do I want to be as a parent?

Look for: Opportunities for parents to get involved by volunteering in the school, serving on decision-making councils, or fundraising.

Don’t dismiss these factors in the name of getting your child the best possible education. Over the long term, stressing your family’s finances or schedule is not likely to be sustainable.
  • Do I need to focus my search on a certain area because of where I live or work?

Consider: Attending school close to home has definite advantages, but the right school might be worth driving to, if you can swing it.

  • Do I need the school to provide transportation?

Consider: Is transportation available?

  • Am I willing to consider a non-standard school schedule?

Consider: Some schools offer extended school days or years, which you may think is a good or bad thing.

  • Do I need before- or after-school care?

Consider: Are programs available, how much do they cost, and what do kids do during them?

  • Am I willing to pay tuition?

Consider: The right private school may be worth paying for. Just make sure you understand all of the costs before you sign a contract.

  • Do I want/need to keep my children together?

Consider: The grade range offered by the school and whether it can meet all of their needs.

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What Are My Choices?

Idaho is full of learning options – of all types. We believe that providing information about Idaho’s many – and growing – learning options can help parents make better choices for their families. More information about Idaho’s School and Learning Choices can be found in our Parents’ Guide.

All students in Idaho are zoned to a neighborhood public district school and have a right to a seat in that school. Idaho allows open Enrollment, which offers students and parents to choose another traditional public school if it seems like a better fit (and the school has space). All public district schools are tuition-free and follow state-established guidelines for standards, safety and evaluation. They are operated by locally elected public school boards, and receive money from various public sources (local, state and federal). Read More

In 2016, the Idaho State Legislature passed House Bill No. 570, which established the Local Innovation School Act. It gives local school boards the authority to create new innovation schools that are held to high academic and performance standards, but are allowed to operate independently from most state and local school district rules and regulations. The act allows for innovation through a carefully managed pilot for up to 10 innovation schools around Idaho each year for five years. Read More

A charter school is an independently run public school that is granted greater flexibility in its operations in return for greater performance accountability. The “charter” establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals and accountability metrics. As public schools, charters are free and open to all families. Charter schools are schools of choice. Students and parents have to make a proactive decision to attend a charter school. If the school does not meet their needs, they can leave and find another school that does. Read More

Magnet schools are public schools that draw students from across a particular school district. Each school has a special focus, such as the arts, language, or science and technology. Unlike charter schools, a magnet school is part of the local public school district. But unlike traditional district schools that draw students from specific boundaries, magnet schools exist outside of zoned school boundaries. Read More

All religious and parochial (mostly Catholic) schools are private, but not all private schools are religious. In Idaho, a private school is any school that doesn’t receive public funding (home schooling is not considered a private school). Religious schools are private schools that teach through a religious lens (in Idaho, these schools are often Christian) and incorporate faith into the curriculum. Parochial schools are religious schools that are part of a specific parish (such as Catholic schools).

These schools charge families tuition, which are set by each school and vary wildly. Private and religious schools may also receive outside funding from grants, religious institutions, fundraisers and donations. Read More

Online schools are conducted entirely online — students do not attend a traditional brick-and-mortar school, but instead work with instructors and other students via the Internet. Some online-only schools supplement their classes with tutoring centers where students can get face-to-face help as needed. Students who are most successful in online programs have strong support at home from parents or others invested in their child’s education.

Blended learning schools challenge students at their own level, combining individual and small group instruction in the classroom with powerful, interactive online programs.

Idaho has ever-increasing access to online and blended learning schools, connecting children around the state with an accredited education. Some online learning schools are operated as public charter schools, while others are operated by public district schools. Read More

Alternative schools are public schools for at-risk students in grades 7-12. Students must meet eligibility criteria for alternative schools, but once they do they have the chance to earn a high school diploma in an environment that is tailored to their needs. Many of these schools focus on career tech programs such as health sciences, information technology, manufacturing, and hospitality and tourism. Read More

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Pay Them a Visit

There’s no substitute for getting in the school to see for yourself what’s going on. But in order to get the most out of your school visit, you’ll want as much information as possible about the school ahead of time. Below are ways you can get your basic questions answered so you can spend your face time on asking the questions most important to you and your child.

Spend time on school websites and social media pages.

Look for: Has the information been updated recently? Are there news stories about things the school is involved in? What are they touting on social media? Just the recent sports scores, or are they highlighting students’ academic accomplishments? A school that puts some effort into its online presence is demonstrating that it cares what families know about it. Also look for parent- or student-led websites about the school — those can give you insights into the larger school community.

But not just any parents…ones who have had recent experience with the school. Listening to your elderly neighbor’s memories of the school when her kids went there might be good for neighborly relations, but won’t be that helpful in assessing the school today. But if you find a parent whose kids have attended in the past one or two years, and who will give you both the positives and the negatives of their experience, you’ve struck gold. But beware of anyone who seems to have a grudge against a single staff member at the school — that person may not be your best source of unbiased information.

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How Do I Enroll?

You’ve done your homework and narrowed down your list of schools, so now it’s time to work on getting your child a seat in one of your top choices. If you choose your neighborhood public school, there’s little left to do but register, which is when you’ll provide proof of residency, immunizations and such. Check with the school to find out when registration opens.

But if you’re not picking your neighborhood school, you’ll need to make sure you know the key enrollment dates for the school(s) you’re hoping for, such as:

  • The date enrollment windows open
  • Application and financial aid deadlines
  • Lottery dates for public magnet and charter schools
  • Testing dates, if required

Do your research online, but also ask when you’re visiting the schools – things can change and websites don’t always get updated with the most recent info. Be pleasantly persistent in following up with schools you haven’t heard back from yet.

Finally, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – there’s competition for spots at some popular schools, so you’ll want to have a backup plan in case your first choice doesn’t work out.

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Testing Guide

About Test Scores

Currently, Idaho’s public school students take a variety of standardized tests, the Idaho Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT), Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI), Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), American College Testing (ACT). Some schools also use NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments and other nationally-normed assessments to measure student growth, too.

Test scores can be helpful as you’re trying to compare schools, but they can also be misleading, so it pays to invest a little time in understanding what the two basic test score types – Achievement and Growth – represent.


Achievement score represents the percentage of students in a school who reached certain levels of proficiency (e.g. basic, proficient, and advanced) on an academic standard. Be aware that this measure can be influenced heavily by how well-prepared or otherwise advantaged students already are when they come to the school.


Growth scores measure not where students are at a given point, but how fast they are progressing towards an academic standard.

Thinking About Test Scores

Achievement or Growth? While both types of scores can communicate helpful information, in general, Achievement scores tell you more about the students in the school, whereas Growth scores tell you more about what the school is doing with those students.

Tests measure the past. No test is perfect, so test scores can never be a perfect measurement of what is going on inside of a school, and at best, they’re a look at what has happened in a school – not necessarily what is currently happening. If there have been major innovations, leadership or staffing changes, or other interventions, test scores may look different in the coming years.

Test scores are just a starting point. You should absolutely take test scores into consideration as you’re narrowing down your list, but they are no substitute for a more thorough investigation through school visits, interviewing teachers and administrators, and talking to other parents whose children have recently attended the schools you’re considering.

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About This School Choice Guide

Many parents in communities all across the country consider all types of schools before making a decision, but often find the process overwhelming.

Many thanks to Ginger Spickler at Memphis School Guide and Beverly Tyndall at Public Impact for allowing us to use their content to create this tool for Idaho’s parents. They were right when they decided it shouldn’t be more difficult to find good information for choosing schools than it is for purchasing a toaster!

Special Thanks To: