Most of my clients start a home search with a wish list of their wants and needs for a new house. As the search continues, most folks learn that there is usually not one perfect house that has everything on their list! Instead, what often happens is that house hunters figure out what’s most important to them, what are “must haves” and what are “nice to haves.”
For clients with school-age children, schools are often very important to their home hunting. And sometimes clients find a potential house in a non-preferred school zone. But the good news, there are options for happy endings - the right house, the right school.
I had a chance recently to talk to Emmy Renquist, Durham Consultant for SchoolUpWake, a consulting company that provides families with the knowledge, research, and clarity they need to make the best school choice for their children.
Q. When parents reach out to you during a home search, do they usually start with “here’s a neighborhood we’re interested in, what are the schools like,” or “we’ve heard great things about this school, what neighborhoods feed into that school”?
It’s actually about 50-50 in our experience. Of course, with the housing market being so competitive right now, we do get more calls saying, “We found a house in our price range in this neighborhood, what can you tell me about the schools.” It’s a little harder these days to be able to pick one neighborhood and be assured you can find a house there.
We often get very specific questions, “I’m working in RTP and want to live in south Durham - what are the school options there?" Or, “Our child is currently in an IB program or Montessori setting, what schools offer those programs?”
Q. What is the biggest difference in our Triangle school systems that people from other states might not be aware of?
For sure, one is that we have county-based school systems and not municipal-based or township-based. Many people moving here are used to much smaller school systems, so just navigating the options in a county wide school system can be daunting. On the other hand, magnet schools in DPS, including options for year-round schooling and dual language immersion, as well as charters help to provide more school choices for new families moving to the Triangle.
But having all these options is really great for house hunters because it means that if you find a house that’s not in your preferred neighborhood, it’s still possible to find a good option through a magnet or charter that can work for your family.
Q. How should parents start their school search?
We always encourage parents to visit the schools they’re interested in or schools in the neighborhoods they’re interested in. We discourage anyone from making a decision based on Internet searches that provide scores for individual schools. Those scores are not indicative of the big picture of a school in our experience.
Talk to the administrators, meet other parents; if possible, talk to some teachers. Check out PTA involvement within the school. Touring the school will give you a sense of the overall atmosphere. For each family, these are the non-quantifiable elements that are really important in choosing the best option for your child.
What parents view as a “good” school varies. It can be school size, class size, school location, elective options, amount of outdoor time. It’s really a personal decision.
Q. I know you specialize in helping families considering a move to Durham and you can help them navigate the Durham Public School (DPS) district. There are big changes coming, right?
Yes! Durham is revamping its entire magnet system, starting with elementary schools for the school year 2024-2025. Through its Growing Together initiative, DPS is committed to increasing equity, access, and diversity in the school system, and they hope to cut down on transportation time.
To meet those goals, DPS will divide the county into five districts, each with magnet options. There will also be one more Montessori option. In addition, every school will have access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), Arts, Music, and Global Language as opposed to those being magnets.
There will be year-round school options in each region, along with Dual Language Immersion. District-wide, families will be able to apply for Montessori and International Baccalaureate programs.
Q. This sounds really great and seems like it will provide more school choice options. Is there a downside?
The only real downside I can think of is that the initiative has started with elementary schools but the middle and high school planning process will begin in the fall, so it can be harder for families to make decisions if their children are either already in middle school/high school or if they will be there in the next few years.
Q. So bottom line, what do you want parents to know as they look at houses and school options at the same time?
In the end, each family is different and each family will decide what’s best for their family, both for homes and schools.
There’s not necessarily a perfect house for you out there, nor is there a perfect school. If you recognize that there’s a certain amount of give and take in the process, you will end up with a house and school that work well for you.
Emmy Renquist is a Durham native with a background in education and a passion for Montessori education. She has a B.S from UNC-CH as well as a Master’s in Education. With her husband serving in the Air Force, Emmy spent time living in different parts of the country and working in public schools in southern Maryland. She brings the knowledge she gained in navigating unfamiliar school systems to help families moving into the Triangle to align their principles and values with what our schools offer.