How to Choose a Public School in Essex County, New Jersey

Trying to identify the right school for your child can be quite daunting – particularly if you’re in a time crunch and considering buying a home that will assign your child to a particular school. So, where do you begin your search? And how do you know if you’re looking in the right places?

Town Hopper Tours recently spoke with Susie Adamson, a resident and realtor with Keller Williams in South Orange and Maplewood, New Jersey, who has served as a parent leader in her school district (South Orange and Maplewood share a school district) and is currently running for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education (election day is November 8).

While parents have free and immediate access to school test scores, leaning on this type of data is just one piece of a puzzle. “Test scores are one data point and I think a lot people put a little too much emphasis on them,” says Susie. “We all know from our own experience and also through the news about the controversies around standardized tests. They are limiting in what they are assessing. They are intended to take an inventory of how well students are learning the required material in any given time frame but they only test on certain subjects.”

Standardized tests don’t look at art or music or even social studies. “I feel it’s a very incomplete picture of the health of a school and it also doesn’t take into account, as well as it should, the demographics of the particular school,” explains Susie.  “It is well known that test scores are not necessarily as strong where there is a more diverse population socio-economically so I just feel like this is one data point that people can look at but I don’t put a lot of stock in choosing a school based on test scores, or even choosing a district based on test scores alone.”

Susie suggests you look for a school that’s a good fit for your child, similar to how you might look for a preschool. “When people are looking at preschools, they aren’t looking at test scores. They’re visiting the schools, talking to the teachers, and hopefully talking with some of the families.” In addition, Susie advises parents to take a tour of the school. She feels it’s key for parents to meet with school leadership, pay attention to what’s on the bulletin boards, watch how the teachers engage with the students (if possible), check out how the principal treats the students, see the physical layout of the school and how spaces are set up (indoors and outdoors), visit the PTA or HSA or PTO websites and look at what’s being presented, and truly get a flavor of the school. This will tell you more of the story and give you a broader perspective of what the academic community is going to be like.

It’s also important that you talk with parents who have children enrolled in the schools or whose children have recently attended a particular school you have in mind. While newcomers may not know anyone to reach out, Susie is able to connect her homebuyers with residents within the school community in South Orange and Maplewood so that they may share their views since Susie is limited in what she can share. “As realtors we need to be careful about sharing our opinions about specific schools or neighborhoods, beyond the facts . It’s called steering and that’s off limits for real estate agents. And, as I’ve said, the 'facts' or data about a school do not tell much of the story.”

Still, parents working with other realtors, or those not presently looking to buy, can also connect with residents on their own. There’s the old-fashioned way of making friends at a local coffee shop and asking questions, then there’s the more modern approach and connecting with locals online.  Resources like SOMa Swap Lounge, a closed Facebook group where locals can get to know their prospective neighbors, ask questions, and patronize local businesses, may be particularly useful. While the group is private, the administrators will often allow people considering moving to the area temporary access. To do this, send a request to connect, then send a separate Facebook message the administrator and let them know your particular situation (this is a crucial step toward acceptance since the group works hard to keep its members local). Other groups include Maplewood Moms, SOMA Families Meetup Group, etc.

If you’re unsure of what school district a particular home is zoned for there are several tools available to help with this. One of the most popular is a website called GreatSchools.org though Susie advises visiting a school district’s website for the most up-to-date and accurate information. She also says to remember schools can get overcrowded, in which case you may need to choose a different school, despite the school you’re zoned for.  Susie suggests parents buy a home in a community they feel comfortable in and not to get too tied into a particular school. She also says not to get too caught up looking too far down the line.

“You don’t know where you’re going to be in 5-6 years, so it’s not necessary to look too far beyond. Plus, a lot happens in a school district in the course of 5-6 years. I think the average tenure of a superintendent in NJ is around 6 years so the entire administration can change by the time your child gets to high school,” explains Susie, “Having said that, you should feel comfortable with the school district as a whole.”

Alphabetical list of resources in this blog post: