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 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. Start your school research here on Memphis School Guide, saving your favorites as you go. But once you have a short list, it’s time to pay them a visit. We’ll tell you what to look for below.

What makes a school high quality?

Students of similar ages may learn at different levels and rates, but a school should expect that all students are working at least at grade level and encouraged to go beyond. Those who are ready should be encouraged to move ahead.

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,” consider that 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 go home or are updated. Do these provide info about what students are 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. 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.

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.

Look for: Talk to the principal and get your own sense of what they/re 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 trouble at the top.

All public school students in grades 3-12 in Tennessee take the same standardized test, the TNReady, as part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). For more information on TNReady and standardized testing, visit the state’s website.

Much of the content on this page is adapted from the Picky Parent Guide, which you can download free at their website. Thanks to the authors, Bryan and Emily Ayscue Hassel for letting us share their great ideas with Memphis parents!

How do I find a good fit for my child and family?

There are lots of different types of schools locally. 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 beyond
  • Is it important that my child receives art, music, physical education important or other support classes?
    • 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: Which of the two are students in the school doing the most of?
  • Does my child have low motivation for succeeding in school?
    • Ask for: An explanation of how the school 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 significant 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 are you looking for in a school community?
    • Look for: A level of student diversity and parent involvement that fits your values. Try attending a PTA 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-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

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 to get as much info on the school ahead of time as possible. Below are ways you can get your basic questions answered so you can spend your face time on the trickier questions.

Start here on Memphis School Guide to narrow down your list based on location, school type, test scores, cost, parent reviews, or whatever else you’re looking for. (Save your favorites as you go, and we’ll update you when there’s new info on them.) Then spend time on your favorite schools’ 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 too? 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 insight 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.