In the civilian world, families tend to know where they want to live and then see what the school districts are like in the area, deciding on public, private, charter, or homeschool accordingly; or they know where they want their kids to go to school and then choose where they live based upon that information. It’s obviously far more complicated than that for military families navigating housing and school choice in the face of PCSing. This challenge can be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, you don’t get to decide where the military sends you. But you have more flexibility regarding school choice than the average non-military-connected bear. The trick is to use that choice to your family’s greatest advantage.

Your gut instinct is likely to mutter to yourself whatever your branch’s version of “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” is while diving into the abyss of information overload. Before you start swimming in those deep, scary waters, here’s some guidance to help you better focus your school search.

Ask yourself, “What does my child need to succeed and thrive in school?” If you forget every other question on your list, let this one guide you. Does s/he need support services or special education? Access to a gifted and talented program? Does your child do better in a smaller setting with more one-on-one attention? Are extracurricular activities or sports an important part of the school experience for your munchkin? Sure, you may not get the whole laundry list. But it shouldn’t stop you from shopping around for as much of it as you can manage.

Ask your military-connected network about their experiences with schools where you’re headed. Have your friends connect you with their sister’s husband’s half-brother’s second wife who enrolled her kids at the local public school. Take advantage of social media; you can even find Facebook pages dedicated specifically to individual military installations. But this advice comes with a warning: Keep in mind that one person’s good or poor experience with a school or school district does not necessarily paint an accurate picture of how that school would be experienced by your child. A hundred parents with horror stories? Take heed. One angry mama who had a hard time fighting for her baby? Perhaps reserve judgment, at least for the moment.

Ask prospective schools to “meet” with you. Geography may be a bit tricky if you’re in-between places, but there’s no reasonable excuse for why someone can’t make time to speak with you about the school and to answer any questions you may have. (And if they do consistently fail to be responsive to your requests for information, well, then that’s valuable information in and of itself, right?)

During this whole process, we suggest keeping a running list of questions at the ready. Are there other military families at the school? If not, what (if anything) does the school have in place to make sure that any needs unique to military kids are addressed? What are the school’s standards/expectations for a child in whatever grade your child will be entering? How flexible and accommodating are they or are they willing to be when dealing with a child who will no doubt be transitioning from a school with different standards and expectations? What extra resources might be available to help a child get caught up or, conversely, to provide enrichment if they come into the school ahead of where their classmates are? How does the school handle discipline and behavior in general? How involved are parents permitted and/or expected to be? Are parents welcome and included in activities and invited into the classroom? Are parents expected to bake five thousand peanut-free, gluten-free, flour-free, egg-free, taste-free cupcakes every month to raise money to replace the one-ply with two-ply in the faculty bathrooms?

Do you have dozens more questions we haven’t referenced here? Ask them with no apologies.

Ask to speak with people who aren’t paid to be PR spokespeople for the school. (Maybe don’t phrase it like that, but you know what we mean.) After you’ve gotten the school’s “official” position/response to your questions, take advantage of any opportunities to speak with teachers, parents, and students. See if you can connect with Parent Teacher Organization reps or attend a school function if distance and availability permit. Do the teachers seem positive and passionate about teaching? Are the parents actively involved? Do the students seem engaged in their education?

Choose vetted resources for your online research. You don’t need fifty internet tabs with stats, surveys, news clippings, etc. all open concurrently when there are reliable and well-curated sources of information already available to you.

GreatSchools provides ratings and school quality information as well as actionable, research-based parenting information as it pertains to children’s academic and social-emotional development from pre-K through 12th grade.

School liaison officers are the school-related points of contact for installations. They can help you identify your school options, answer questions, assist with the transition, provide additional support during deployment, facilitate referrals, and advocate for your child’s educational needs.

Check State Plans reports on the statewide educational goals and standards of each state, with validation from outside experts. While this resource won’t tell you about that specific public elementary school down the street from your new home, it can provide you with an overview of any differences you’ll find from one state to another.

Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission addresses key educational transition issues encountered by military children. Check out their fantastic resources on everything from ensuring a smooth transition to knowing your rights and more!

Military Child Education Initiative is a resource-rich source for parents, students, and professionals who work with military-connected children.

Choosing where your child will attend school is an important decision. But it’s not one you have to make alone when there are people and resources at the ready to help you find what’s best for your family.