Posted: 12:11 am Thursday, May 15th, 2014

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

By Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

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.)  


We basically dropped a pin on a map where we worked (we work 2 miles apart from each other) and drew a 5 mile circle, discovered which schools in that area were decent, and went neighborhood shopping.  Voila! Candler Park.  Been here since Kindergarten and about to be eighth grade, all APS.  Love it here.  Great place to raise kids.  Sure, no public school fits perfectly.  But it does a more than adequate job and we, Mom and Dad, fill in any gaps.

The best thing is that we live in community where most folks' lives don't revolve around being parents, which is exactly style.

If you think you'll be there long past your kids live with you, which maybe you won't, pick a place that suits you, within reason, and things will work out with the kids.  Otherwise, if you're only going to be there a few years then make it as comfortable for the kids as possible, since they're more sensitive to repeated uprooting.


Whoa, T, you really did a LOT of research!  When we moved to Atlanta, our cousin was our agent, knew us well and knew where my husband would be working, and suggested several options.  I fell in love with a house, and that was that.  Communities change, and if you're involved, they change in directions that you like. :-)  But then the school district we moved to changed, and we made the decision to go private.  We've loved it. I don't remember checking out the denizens, we just drove around and tried to imagine myself living there. I guess we lucked out. :-)  At the time, we only had one, and he was less than a year old. 


I think you are on the right track. I've lived in NJ and can tell you that some if the nicest people I've met were from there.

My kids were in elementary school when we moved to NJ. I spoke with the principal at their school and the PTA people. I also called the high school and asked what the typical problems were in that school. The principal was wonderful. She explained that affluent communities can have top rated schools, but also students with too much money and not enough supervision.

I became comfortable knocking on doors of potential neighbors. I would ask basic questions, like how many homes were dual income, what the neighborhood kids did as a group, what social events the neighborhood had, and many questions about the schools and community. I would look for bikes, big wheels, scooters, and play sets in yards. I found that talking to people was the best way to find my fit.

Don't feel like you need the perfect fit, you'll probably fit in just fine in several areas. And maybe you can ask what the school does for kids who have been previously accelerated, instead of asking for the specific math class. You might be surprised to learn that your son can take part in something even better than the particular class you want him in.

I was very happy living in the Northeast, and I'm very happy living in the South. There are so many nice bedroom communities in NJ, you can probably just trust your gut.


Do you realize that there are lots of dads that are actually involved in their kids' lives, and might actually be dropping the kids off at school? Would you care what they wear or is that cattiness restricted only to the women? So what if a mom is made up or goes to a trainer? That is going to impact your decision?  I swear you make up your own problems. Making decisions based on how people look and where they vacation is so beyond shallow.  


Actually those are great tips for moving anywhere, not just to another state.  We are moving (or trying to) now, just within Marietta, and I should definitely try some of these.

We did talk to one person who told us they were moving partly because their neighbors were very 'blue collar'. I was very taken aback as I realized that this was a horrible thing to this family. Really made me not want to be neighbors with someone that looked down on 'blue collar' types.


Wow! You did waaay more than I did when moving.  I mean we did look at things like home values, crime statistics, registered sex offender lists,  and schools. We also went to potential communities in the evening and at night. You will be surprised at how some neighborhoods that look good in the day time, look real questionable at night when all the residents are home. 

Like you , we do talk to people that will be potential neighbors  when we went to look at houses for sale. That more than anything told us a lot about the community. Unfortunately, we did do this this go round and now live in a quiet subdivision where none of the neighbors talk to each other. The kids (and there a many) rarely play together and when they do, they only play with the kids that do to their schools...there are a lot of choice programs, charter, and private schools here. I thin that part of the problem is that there are people from all over the world living here and they just don't trust each other.  We miss Marietta


Wow, bad timing on the changeover to the new format for commenting, huh, TWG - a serious topic with needed answers and not many people have figured out how to make the change to comment...