This is the time of year when many families are thinking fall as they make school choices for 2010-11. Whether you're sending a child off to kindergarten or high school, to public or private, it's important to do your own homework and learn everything you can about the schools you are considering.

"The biggest thing for families to think about is whether or not the school's mission and vision coincides with their own family goals," said Yvonne Gentzler, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. "Start by making a list of criteria in advance. What's important to you? What's important to your child?" she said.

Here are some of Gentzler's tips for choosing a school:

Visit the school's website. This will offer a good introduction to the climate of the school, curriculum, parent organizations and more. Read online newsletters, which often have news about student achievements, community involvement and extracurricular activities.

Attend open houses and request a visit during the school day, preferably with your child. Many private high schools schedule "shadow days" where your child can accompany a student for a day. "Kids will likely be quite honest with their parents about those experiences," Gentzler said. When you're at the school, notice what happens in the halls between classes. Is it chaotic or calm?

Consider class sizes. Some kids will do fine in larger classes; others won't. The most important thing is whether your children will get the attention they need.

Learn about the school's support system: Counselors, special education programs, opportunities for gifted students.

Check out the lunchroom. Especially for younger kids, find out how much time they get for lunch. "Kids who have to stand in line for a long time tend to rush through their lunch," Gentzler said.

Ask about recess. How much time do they get? Is the play area well-supervised?

Find out about transportation as well as the availability of before- and after-school programs for elementary and middle school students.

Talk with other parents who have kids at the school. "Find out what they like about the school, and what they don't like," Gentzler said. "Ask their kids, too."

Talk with teachers. What are the expectations for homework each night? How are behavior problems handled? How do parents receive information about what's happening in the classroom or in the school? Is the school's website used to provide updated information?

Ask about parental involvement. Are there opportunities for all parents to participate in volunteer activities? For many working parents, it's challenging to help out during the school day. Are there evening or weekend events when they can volunteer or projects they can do at home?

Attend a sports event at a middle school or high school. Observe how the coaches treat the players, see how parents and fans conduct themselves during games. Is there a positive sense of school spirit?

Find out whether there is a broad range of extracurricular activities for all students.

Gentzler said that after a short period of initial research, parents should whittle the list down to a maximum of three schools. While most parents make elementary school decisions without input from their child, kids in middle school and high school will likely want to weigh in on the subject.

"Sit down with your child and go back over that list you made at the beginning of the process. Talk about the pros and cons of each school and decide which one will provide the best fit," she said.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Got an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at with "Your Family" in the subject line.