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Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

Moving: How do you find the right community for your family?

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As many of you know we are moving to New Jersey at the end of the school year, and I took a house hunting/school interviewing trip last week to check things out. While I was on my trip a friend sent me a New York Times story all about how to find the right community and school. The article was called “43 Questions to Ask Before Picking a New Town,” and I found that I was already doing a lot of what it recommended. It’s great to look at prices of houses or ratings of schools or distance of commute, but the article advocates that you do a “values audit.” This is essentially trying to evaluate if you fit in here. Do the people in the community think the same way you do? Are they like-minded? Here are a few points from the article in The New York Times

 “This checklist includes scouting the drop-off zone at schools, eavesdropping shamelessly, figuring out where people swim in the summer, scanning the community’s bookshelves and pestering the local psychologist. The object is to figure out what a community really stands for and whether you would want to be friends with any of the people who live there.”

The article advises:

  • To read online community forums
  • Do in-person reconnaissance (what are the moms wearing to pick up at school? Are they mom? Are they nannies? Are they in yoga pants or work clothes?)
  • How many are natives? Could be good or bad in my experience – sometimes natives are less welcoming than people who just moved to but natives staying could also indicate a good community. For example, the people in State College, Pa., were less welcoming than we actually moved to Manhattan.
  • Libraries – What’s on the shelves? Is it busy? (I’m not sure on this one though. Phoenix has a fantastic library system but I still hate the town.)
  • Caregivers – This takes you back to in-person reconnaissance. Who is picking up at school?
  • Mental Health – Regular old pot-smoking or worse stuff going down?
  • Summer – Do they stay, do they go? Are they using public pools, pool clubs?
  • The Mayor – I love this one. The article says to write to the mayor to sell you on their town.

So for example, my friend told me I didn’t want to choose one particular community near her even though it had good schools. She said I wouldn’t fit in there. She said the wives wear make up all the time, go to the city (NYC) for lunch and have nannies pick up the kids at school. (I met a lady from this particular town on the plane and she said it was pretty accurate. She was a personal trainer, wore no make up but said she only had about five friends in the town.) And I do agree you don’t want to be running with a fast crowd. When we were looking to move here, I called some moms in a Scottsdale school PTA. The mom said to me on the phone I’m happy to talk to you. We will be in Hawaii for the first two months of the summer but then we will be back. She was perfectly nice on the telephone but that told me all I needed to know. I didn’t want to be at a school where most families spent two months in Hawaii vacationing. That crowd was too fast. I don’t want my kids to feel like have-nots, and I don’t want to spend beyond my means. So here are some of the ways that I have investigated:

  1. I called and emailed the schools months ago trying to zero in on the right area. My principal in Georgia told me  four years ago that any principal worth his/her salt would talk to a parent over the phone to tell them about their school.  Here is what I encountered: A. At one district the principal called back and was very friendly. When I told him I needed algebra in the 6th grade for my son and geometry in the 8th for my daughter he told me it was “a race to no where” and he really couldn’t recommend it. I knew I would have a fight there so moving on. B. This principal wrote back and asked if I was working with a real estate agent. I was thinking he had a brother-in-law to recommend. I wrote back yes, we had someone our company had recommended and we had already started our search with her in December. I thought this would satisfy him and he would answer the question. But instead he wrote back what is her name and affiliation? At that point I was ready to write back and ask if he needed to see our pay stub and bank statement to be assured that we were financially qualified to go to his public school. This interaction told me volumes. I don’t want to work with the jerk and I don’t want to be in a community that values money that much.
  2. I read about the school curriculum online. I didn’t follow school websites as much this time because my school here was rated a 10 and didn’t work great for 2 out of my 3 kids. So a 10 doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. But I did look for particular curriculum that I know my kids need.
  3. I went to the schools but didn’t just talk to the guidance counselor and principal. I talked to the receptionist. I talked to the security people. I talked to the secretary. I met the vice principal. I talked to other parents also waiting in the front office. I also observed how they interacted wit the students. Were they respectful to the students and vice versa? Besides examining the curriculum with the guidance counselors I also looked at the physical plants. I toured the schools. The high school’s building is from 1913 but it appeared clean and well-cared for.
  4. I talked to the kids in the community. Luckily, I was staying with a friend who has two middle school boys. They were fountains of information about the community, schools and other students. I had snack with the sixth-grader one day and asked him questions. Do the kids care how to you dress? Do labels matter? How many kids have cell phones? Do the girls wear make up?  I also have a friend there with a third-grader and 4 year old. I went to preschool pick up and then to elementary school pick up. I watched the parents at pick up, listened to the conversations, met some and then had a great conversation with two-third grade girls over cheese and crackers.  Are your teachers nice? What happens if you get into trouble? Do kids get sent to the principal a lot? How are the school lunches? What do you like to do the on playground? What are special things they do at the end of the year? Etc..
  5. Meeting people in the community. We do have friends already living there so I was able to meet people out at dinner on Saturday night and meet people at the church on Sunday morning. I met moms at the school and even ran into people renting a house that we had looked at. The lady was so friendly. I did feel like my visit and my conversations with people, especially the kids, reinforced that we feel that this is the right community.

What type of investigation did you do to choose your town? Do you like any of these ideas? Did you talk to other kids, moms, residents? Did you visit the local church or library before buying? (We did go to the YMCA here before buying. It was a great way to check out people in the community.)  

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