Parent Research: Top Three Reasons Parents Choose a School
In a recent blog on parent research, we revealed findings of a study by Galapagos which indicated that 68 percent of parents complete research before choosing a school for their children. We also shared that, of that 68 percent, 43 percent research for an entire week or more on school websites, via school tours, or by getting advice from family or friends. That’s a lot of research time, which tells us that school choice for parents is extremely important.
But there’s one thing we didn’t tell you: What are these parents looking for?
Before we give you the answer, let’s take a look at a rather unique study completed by The Education Alliance for New Orleans through Tulane University in 2015. To provide some background, this study was completed in New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was the catalyst for big change for school choice in the New Orleans area. And, while New Orleans is a city unlike any other, this study is relevant here because it went beyond simply asking parents what was important in school choice - it evaluated their stated preferences to validate (or invalidate) their survey response.
Post Katrina, attendance zones in New Orleans were completely eliminated, giving parents the option to choose any publicly-funded school, regardless of where they lived. The schools were given letter grades (A through F) and parents then participated in a centralized matching system called OneApp, where they ranked the available schools by preference. This ranking followed the survey by Tulane University asking what was important to parents when choosing a school for their children.
Overall, the results of the study suggest that, at times, parents overstate the preference for academics, and that, while New Orleans families do prefer schools that have a stronger academic ranking, they also prefer extracurricular activities, and even more so, convenience, as school choice can impact a family financially (consider transportation, child care, etc.). So, while a parent might rank academics as their top priority, they may give greater preference to a school with a letter grade B that is closer to their home, versus a school with a letter grade A that is a bit farther away. This convenience issue is especially important with families of elementary-aged students.
Much of this makes sense, as we know the purpose of choosing a school is to ensure your child is as prepared academically as possible. However, we know that there are other factors, such as drive time, that play a vital role in choice for many families.
What our study revealed about parent choice factors
Like the Tulane University study, the Galapagos study found that academics and convenience were very important factors when choosing a school. Yet, when looking at all grade levels (K-12), neither were number one. The study of parents with children in these grades showed that safety & security was the number one reason for choosing a school, with convenience next, and academics rounding out the top three.
When we slice the data by age group (high school, middle school, and elementary), we see some movement in the order of choice factors:
So now what?
If we had to guess, many of your current communications to families are focused on academics, with a sprinkle of athletics as well as other important programs, such as fine arts. But are you telling a consistent and repetitive message to prospective families about convenience and the everyday focus on safety and security? Does this research have you thinking about ways to beef up these areas for your district to attract more students?
Safety & Security
When it comes to safety and security, the first thing you likely think of is the safety of the actual buildings: secure entrances, safety drills, etc., but what about the feeling of safety and security that comes with programs and efforts to promote belonging and inclusion for all students? Peer-to-peer programs, anti-bullying programs, and other school culture initiatives can drive change in these areas to ensure all students feel like they have a place in your district, are valued, and make connections. While many school districts have these programs, cultures continue to struggle leaving room for you to improve these initiatives and promote safety and security in your district beyond the obvious secure entrances.
The busy schedules of today’s families make convenience a top priority. Before- and after-school care programs, free bussing to area day care facilities, and half-day enrichment programs ease the burden on families and they begin to think of you as their partner, versus something they have to work around. Many districts offer these types of programs and the convenience of these programs should be incorporated into your promotions. We also encourage districts to think outside the box to attract additional students with programs like free before- and after-school care for children of staff members. If you have teachers and other staff driving into work from another town, their children may attend the school where they live and not your district. Bringing in just a handful of these students to your district could be well worth the cost of providing free care.
Your district’s messages should be thoughtful and deliberate, sharing programs and focus areas that are important to parents. Don’t lose the academic focus, as it continues to be a major driver in school choice. However, continually promoting offerings that bring added convenience to busy families and peace of mind that children will feel safe. These are invested parents who want to feel confident that their students have an important place inside your buildings.