Photo by Sint Smeding on Flickr.

Schools are important. That’s what everyone says, at least. But while much of the public discourse revolves around big picture school reform issues, parents just need to find a good school for their child.

Every parent in the country has school choice to a certain extent, but for the overwhelming majority of them it involves an expensive decision to move to a better school district. Washington residents can avail themselves of that option, and many do, but the bar is radically lower in the District thanks to both charter schools and the DCPS out-of-boundary lottery.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion recently about charters vs. DCPS, but that has little to do with the main decision for most parents: picking a school for their child. Most parents don’t send their kids to “a charter” or “DCPS”; they pick a specific school. There are any number of advocates saying what they think schools should be, parents have to deal with what schools are today.

With this brave new world of school choice, how should a parent choose a school? There is a wealth of data out there, like the DCPS school profiles and DC Public Charter School Board resources. The problem, of course, is that numbers often don’t reflect how “good” a school is. So what should a parent look for?

Here are a few data points that I, and many of my fellow parents, have found useful. It is in no way comprehensive. It is geared to DC public and charter schools, so there is no weighting for cost (if you are considering private schools) or time (if you are thinking of homeschooling).

Nor does it include geographical proximity, as I assume that’s a given (and it should be) in evaluating school choices. Finally, there is an inevitable bias towards elementary schools here, as that’s where my, and the majority of my compatriots’, experience lies.

Here are 7 tips that can help screen school choices.

Wait lists: This may be the very worst single number metric to use to choose a school, except for all the others. After all, you’re not looking for the best overall school, you’re looking for the school that is the best fit for your child. This is doubly true if you have a special needs child, but you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. But, in the big picture, if there’s demand for school A and not for school B, that’s a sign that school A is worth investigating more deeply.

Morning drop off: Schools are at their most open when children are being dropped off. Is the principal out and engaging with parents and students? Does he or she know their names? Is the process orderly? (It won’t be, by the way, but can you find order in the chaos?)

Are the kids eager to go to school? Are they greeting their friends and are parents stopping to chat with each other? A school is a community, not a building. Take this time to chat with teachers, parents, and the principal, if you can do so without getting in their way.

Reach out to them: Drop the principal a note. She’s a busy person, but if she doesn’t respond personally to you within a day as a prospective parent, she probably won’t to an attending parent, either. Your child will almost certainly have an issue or problem of some sort in the many years he attends the school. Do you get a response? Not agreement with your position, necessarily, but an honest engagement with you?

The principal may hand you off to a current parent to answer some of your questions. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s another data point for you to evaluate. How smoothly was it done, and do you feel that you are still being engaged or is the buck being passed? Good delegation skills are important, and this is a chance to see if the principal is ducking you or using a strong parent community as the asset it is.

Parents: The other parents will be your allies and often your friends for the next few years. Are the PTA meetings well-attended? In general, I place little stock in the utility of meetings per se, but they are a good indicator of how many people care enough to show up.  Talk to friends and friends of friends whose kids attend the school. Find the cheerleaders, and find the complainers. All schools have both, and they both have quite a bit to share.

Library: Frankly, this didn’t even occur to me, until a friend of mine, a former DCPS librarian pointed it out. He noted, quite correctly, that the library is a microcosm of the school. Does a librarian greet you, or is the library locked up and only accessible at certain hours? Does the school provide a library budget (some don’t)?

Are the books new, or old and worn out? That’s a good indicator of how involved the school and/or parents are with the library. In these days of test scores, libraries, and especially school librarians, can easily be regarded as “fat” to be cut, to pay for focused reading instructors for student test takers. Is that the school’s priority?

Curriculum: Many parents care deeply about curriculum, and have priorities on this topic before kids even go to school. If that’s you, you probably already have a list of questions written already. If it’s not you, don’t feel left out. But know what you are getting into.

Some schools have strong parental involvement in developing curriculum, some already have it scripted out, and most fall into a spectrum somewhere in the middle. When you talk to the principal and teachers, note if they are engaging in a conversation with you about it, or if they are just telling you what the curriculum is. There are pros and cons about both approaches, but know before you go what you’re getting into.

Finally, don’t bother: As I noted, wait lists are often a metric of a good school, as is an energetic, noisy parent community. So, nearly by definition, you’re not going to get your child into all the schools you’re interested in.

Apply to as many as the DCPS lottery will allow, throw in the charters you have your eye on, and walk away. Just walk away. Many a parent has been driven mad by this process. Don’t join them.

If your child gets into multiple excellent schools, then start winnowing them down. But you’re going to want to keep that to yourself, as other parents are going to view you like a deer that walked in front of the Donner party.

You know what didn’t make the cut? Test scores. Because I don’t care. As a parent, I don’t have to, and I don’t want to. The teacher has my child for 8 hours a day, if they can’t tell me how she’s doing without relying on a yearly standardized test, we’ve got bigger issues. Relying on test scores to choose a school is like picking a spouse based on taking someone’s pulse on a first date.

These are but a few data points I use and recommend to choose a school. Do you have others? Middle schools are coming up for my child, and I’m looking for tips.

Tim Krepp is an author and tour guide, living and specializing in Washington, DC, but working throughout the east coast. A resident of the more fashionable east side of Capitol Hill, Tim has lived in Washington, DC since graduating from George Washington University a few decades ago.