Well, usage does change! You likely used near to because that is what you have heard in your region. Several of the on-line dictionaries list near to as being equivalent to near or close to, though the majority of the cited examples seem to use it in the comparative or superlative forms (nearer to the door, nearest to the wall). It seems to me personally that the adverbial usage of near to rather than near is very common in the US nowadays (maybe less so 50 or 60 years ago when I was in school and they didn't let us put a preposition like to at the end of sentences either). It is a little difficult to understand why close to should be OK and near to should not, in any case.
Yes, variants of "from" follow the same pattern. Here is a table I find handy for reference: http://www.alphadictionary.com/rusgrammar/prepgen.html
How can we tell it should be the definite article here? I answered "a school", and was marked wrong. On reflection, "THE school" might be slightly more likely - especially between people who both know the area, but is there anything that odd or implausible about saying: "a school"?