A checklist for changing schools
Your new PCS orders are in hand and you’re slowly checking off the calendar days until the movers arrive. Moving is never easy, and when you have school-age children, moving is even more emotional and difficult. We asked dozens of military families, including school psychologist and parenting expert Becky Harris, to generate a parent’s PCS checklist for changing schools.
2-3 Months Before You Move
Hunting and Gathering Stage – Once you know where you are moving, your housing location may be determined by the schools in that area. Here are some suggested resources to gather information on schools, district policies, and other parents’ insights into what’s really going educationally in your new area: the Internet – start here!
- Search Facebook and other social media for PTO/PTA groups. Ask LOTS of questions and let them know you are a military family. Many other military parents who read your post will be glad to reach out and pull you into the fold.
Choosing the Right School – This is the toughest part of moving with school-aged kids. You have to determine which school is right for them without so much as a walk thru, an introduction or seeing classrooms/teachers with your own eyes. Here are a few critical questions to ask yourself about your child’s education and proposed school:
- School type – Do you want public or private school? Why?
- Transportation – Will you transport your kids to school or will they ride the bus?
- Before and after care – What programs are available at the school or nearby?
- Extracurricular activities – What activities does the school offer? What do they cost? Does the community offer supplemental programs?
- MOST IMPORTANTLY – Will the school be able to meet the educational needs of your child?
Compare Your Schools – Compare curricula of your current and new schools, as there often are major discrepancies between different state education systems. Your new school may be far more advanced or behind your current one. You need to know if your child will struggle to keep up or be ahead of peers and thus bored in the classroom. Position your child for success – prepare for curriculum change!
- Visit state, district and school websites for grade-level curriculum objectives.
- Collect and review important schoolwork showing your child’s academic aptitude.
- Compare current schoolwork to curriculum in new school. What type of math are they teaching? Does the school use Common Core or has it opted out?
- Plan a conference for your child’s current teacher or counselor to review the new school’s curriculum. Ask for their impression on how your child’s skillset compares to likely expectations at the new school.
- Contact the new school to discuss curricula similarities and differences. Call the school guidance counselor; s/he will help you understand potential weaknesses in your child’s competencies.
- Ask the new school how new students who are behind/ahead of current grade-level objectives are handled.
The Teacher(s) – Educational continuity is at risk each time a military child – no matter what grade they are in – moves to a new school. Traditionally, this continuity of care and knowledge only comes from staying local. Teachers are the key to continuity in your child’s education; ask them to help posture your child for success.
- Teacher-to-Teacher Letter – A great preemptive idea is to have your child’s current teacher write a letter to the new teacher – even though you don’t know who it will be. This is a perfect venue for teachers to share information about your child’s learning methods or insight into behavior. (Read more about a Teacher-to-Teacher letter here.)
- Meet with the your child’s current teacher before you PCS. Take lots of notes at a parent-teacher conference before you PCS! These notes will be critical when you advocate for your child’s education or services at the next school.
- Administrators – Ask your current school to explain procedures for withdrawal and forwarding your child’s records to the new school.
Education Binder – Compile a binder that is home to all of your child’s important documents, including:
- Report cards
- Schoolwork samples
- Assessment results
- Teacher comments
- Conference notes
- Individual Education Plan
- 504 plan
- Shot records
- Speech or occupational therapy evaluations/summaries
- Letters from teachers (to teachers), including specialty teachers (music, coaches and art teachers, for example) if applicable
- Test results (Cog AT, Iowa Assessments, reading readiness, SAT)
Click here to download your free Operation Dandelion Kids Education Binder.
Know Your Rights – Military families have rights and responsibilities regarding children’s education. It’s up to you to understand these rights and responsibilities. Don’t leave your child’s right to a good education in the hands of a stranger. Own it!
- MIC3 – Start here! Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission is fighting to level the playing field for military family education.
- The School Liaison Officer’s job is to help parents navigate the local school system. Contact the SLO right away if you have any concerns about your transition. Be assertive and thorough when explaining your situation.
- Special education rights – Free Appropriate Public Education is a guaranteed educational right of children in the United States with disabilities. Schools are required to provide disabled students with an education, including specialized instruction and related services that prepare the child for further education, employment, and independent living.
2-4 Weeks Before You Move
Information About Your New School – Parents should find out as much as they can before PCSing. Know the right questions to ask in order to best manage expectations and alleviate anxiety for both parents and child.
- School calendar – Ask for the school calendar right away. It will list important dates you need to know.
- Registration requirements – Every school is different but most schools require PCS orders, proof of residency and immunization records.
- Summer hours – Call the new school and learn its summer hours. This call will help you plan a tour and when to register. Many schools are closed or have limited hours during the summer.
- Appropriate placement – Gifted and Talented and special needs programs often differ between schools. Procedures for choosing classes at the secondary level also may differ from your current school. Utilize the district and school websites to determine the options based on your child’s specific learning needs and the procedure for appropriate placement.
- School choice – Does your new district have magnet schools, language immersion programs or the ability to attend schools outside your residency zone? Know the available choices and transfer request procedures.
- How does the new school handle new students with IEP/504 plans?
- How does the new school handle new students with documented academic struggles?
- How does the new school handle new students academic discrepancies?
- How do they program for Gifted and Talented students? Not all schools are equal when it comes to curriculum or testing.
- Speak with a grade-level teacher and/or counselor to get a feel for the school climate and available programs.
- Does the school offer a way for your child to connect with a peer before school begins? Another military family is great but any welcoming family will do.
- Specialists: If applicable, contact appropriate specialists (i.e. speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, reading specialist, counselor) at the new school to share your child’s story and discuss continuity of care.
- Secondary students: understand transferring credits, graduation requirements, ranking and how to determine appropriate academic placement.
When You Arrive at Your New Location
Contact Your New School – Once you arrive, get on the phone and be ready to get to work.
- Register as soon as possible. Bring the education binder with all your important documents.
- Tour the school with your family.
- Visit parks, playgrounds and local establishments to meet other parents and students. Introduce yourself, ask questions and seek other military families.
- Ask about the school’s procedure for reviewing and implementing a new student’s IEP or 504 plan. Schedule any necessary meetings to review your child’s IEP or 504 plan.
- Ask about procedures for parent/teacher conferences.
- Contact the PTO/PTA representatives to get involved with the school, including open houses and volunteer opportunities.
The Community – Once you’re settled with a few boxes unpacked, dive right into the community. As parents, we are never happy unless our children are happy. Getting them involved and connected is the best way to ensure a smooth transition.
- Scour Facebook and other social media for groups connected to the school.
- Contact your base/post School Liaison Officer and get connected with military families in the area.
- Find clubs, community groups, recreation centers/pools and church organizations to connect with immediately. Also, seek base/post groups and clubs to forge new friendships quickly.
- Don’t be shy. Parents need to be involved within weeks of arrival at their new location. There will be a ton of information and insights you WON’T have access to unless you make yourself available and start connecting.
Although this list has been developed for CONUS moves, much of it is also applicable to DoDEA schools and international schools.
Organization and preparation are keys to a smooth school transition. The loss of support, routines and social networks associated with changing schools can be challenging for both children and parents. Being prepared for this transition is your best chance to ease the anxiety of changing schools. Start early and be sure to follow up when you arrive. We all know we aren’t happy in a new location until our children are happy and settled.
Military families live bittersweet lives. Our world is turned upside down when we are forced to relocate: we are forced to make new friends, attend new schools and find new ways to fit into strange places. It’s so incredibly hard sometimes and this life is not for the weak. However, the sweetest part of this life is the adventure of moving to new places, meeting new friends and experiencing life outside our comfort zone. Don’t forget to enjoy the ride with your children as you navigate the ups and downs of military life. Remember, we’re in this together!
When Things Get Tough
Research has shown that the more positive attitude parents have about relocating, the more positive the children will be. Children tend to learn by example, so put on a good front if you can. If you’re struggling, don’t struggle alone. There are people and services available and willing to help you. Contact Military One Source to speak to a professional online, on the phone or in person. It’s completely confidential. Or pick up the phone and call a friend who understands how challenging this life can be. Do whatever it takes to find support because you have to be your own strongest advocate before, during and after a PCS.
*A previous version of this checklist appeared in Military Spouse Magazine.
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