Change is a big part of any divorce. When you have children, dealing with change can be one of the most difficult parts of the divorce. No matter how many times people tell you that “kids are resilient and everything will be okay” it doesn’t make it any easier. The truth is, most kids handle divorce well especially when their parents are able to successfully co-parent. Nonetheless, there is one change that no amount of co-parenting can make easier. That is changing schools. Most families only have one residence which means that at least one parent will need to find a new home. If that new home happens to be in the same neighborhood as the former family residence, then changing schools should not be an issue. More often than not however, one parent moves to a residence that is zoned for a different school than the children currently attend.
So what do you do?
Ideally, you would speak with the other parent about your new residence, what schools are zoned for the new residence, how the children are doing academically, and whether changing schools is in the children’s best interest. Life is rarely so simple.
If two parents share joint legal custody and cannot agree on what school their children will attend, the decision will be made by the Family Court. In California, the courts treat a change in a child school just like they would treat a change in a child’s weekly visitation schedule. That is, the Court considers the circumstances of the case and makes a determination of what is in the best interest of the child. Put more simply, the Court will decide whether it is in the child’s best interest to attend School A or attend School B.
The process will go something like this. One parent will file a Request for Order seeking permission to enroll the child at a new school. The court will calendar a hearing date for the motion and will send the parties to Family Court Services Mediation prior to the hearing. If the parents cannot come to an agreement in mediation, the mediator will issue a report that sets out each parent’s position and provides a recommendation for which school is in the child’s best interest. There will then be a hearing and the Judge will decide where the child will be enrolled for school.
At this point, you are surely wondering what facts are important to a Judge who is making such a decision. You’re in luck because I am going to provide the “Top 5” factors most Court’s look at when making a decision about school enrollment.
- Consistency and Continuity: This refers to keeping the child enrolled in their current school. In most cases, Judges are reluctant to change a child’s current school unless it is necessary. The longer the child has been enrolled in the school (or district) the more important maintain consistency is for the student.
- Child Sharing Schedule: The Court will look to the child sharing schedule to see how moving schools will impact the children’s week to week lives. If the parent who has 70% custody of the children is the party who wants to move the school, then the Court will give that great deference. This is similar to custody orders where one parent has all of the school weeks days and the other parent has all of the weekend days. It is obviously more important to the parent who has the children during the week to be close to their school.
- Academic of Student: The Court will look to how the child is performing in school. If the client is getting good grades, is involved in school activities (clubs, student government, sports, etc.) the Court is less inclined to change that child’s school enrollment.
- Academics of the School: The Court will also compare the two schools academically to see which is the better school. Greatschools.org is a website that ranks schools on a 1-10 scale, posts standardized test scores, contact information, and comments from parents of current or former students. There are other resources online that provide similar information. We have had many cases where when all other factors were equal, the Court chose the school with the better test scores and academics.
- Distance/Travel: In San Diego this is a huge factor. It would be less of a factor for parents in smaller cities. The Court is reluctant to change a child’s school if it will result in them spending hours each week commuting to and from school. Sometimes this cannot be avoided by choosing either school. We have found the Court usually defers to the parent who has the children more often during the school week. This is tied to factor number 2 above “Child Sharing Schedule.”
This list is not exhaustive. Just like families, every case is unique so there may be other factors the Court determines are more important than those listed above. These include special needs of the children, location of extracurricular activities, or certain benefits available through a child’s IEP that are not available at another school. That is why it is so important to speak with a qualified family law attorney about your case.
Feel free to contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding changing a child’s school enrollment. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.