By Natasha Loeffler-Little
As parents, we feel a real sense of excitement when our children say their first words, take their first steps and begin to draw their first real pictures. When they start preschool we’re nervous about leaving them with new people, schedules and social situations and relieved when we realize it passes so quickly. When it comes to starting kindergarten however a spiral of emotions begins.
There is the element of adding up the number of years our children will spend at a given school and the number of hours with after care. It also draws up memories of our own elementary school experiences – despite the fact that the options for programs and education approaches today are vastly different from those we may have experienced. Changing schedules, physical locations and people is a lot to think about.
Kindergarten prompts us to look beyond the play and social skill development we scoped a preschool for, but also we begin to ask big life questions like: how prepared will my child be for life and working skills like reading, math and everything in between? Research has shown that when we approach making decisions – like selecting a kindergarten and elementary school – by relying on our gut feelings instead of having a systematic approach we may be steering in the wrong direction.
In this series of articles, I suggest anchoring the big emotional question of, “Which kindergarten and elementary school is right for my child?” first in basic family logistics, factor in family goals and values and then layer in a Q&A methodology that asks relevant 21st century questions to help you make the best decision.
Step 1: Family Logistics
There are three family logistic categories to look at when prioritizing which school options in your community would be a fit which includes: proximity, special needs, and schedules.
Proximity: where the school is located. If your commute to work is North but the school you think you want to go to is South, think about whether this is feasible. If the school is 90 minutes away, think about the impact to the family sleep and stress levels if you were to make that commute.
Special needs: include anything from learning needs to food allergies. If your child has special learning or development needs and the school doesn’t offer support for this, that is an immediate disqualification. If your child has severe food allergies and the school does not have the policy to manage this, I would recommend that this is also an immediate disqualification. You may also be concerned about exposure to dust, mold or chemical sensitivities. Seeking out the options that provide the support your child needs to have basic safety or learning support is critical.
Schedules: involves taking a look at what the average daily routine is and what capacity each family member has. This is looking at work schedules for the adult family members – when they start and end work. It’s looking at when after-school activities begin and end. It should include how much time the adult family members want to volunteer at the school. Looking at the schedules for the end of the day will require looking at who will take care of your child after school gets out. Some examples include: If you have conference calls until 8 a.m. every morning then a 7:45 a.m. start for school will be tough to coordinate. If you don’t end work until 6 p.m. every day and the school gets out at 11:30 a.m., you have to think about how long and where your child will receive after-school care.
Another element of schedules is to think about how much time you’ll have to sleep and decompress. One thing we didn’t account for originally is how tired kindergarteners are the first few months. This is developmental, as well as part of a major life transition to learning and growing each day. Another is that new and sometimes complicated social issues come up and it takes time to sit and talk them out and let your child process these issues. Looking at how you as a family can support one another through these changes will help keep the peace and everyone thriving.
Step 2: Family Values and Goals
There are six categories of family values and goals to level set on with regards to elementary schools. They are religious (or not) affiliation, work/life balance, community, academic achievements, communication, and financial commitments.
Religious (or not): If having a specific religious foundation to your child’s education is important, then narrowing your search to a school that meets your family logistic needs and religious preferences is in order. The more indifferent you are to religious or not – the more options you have – but it should align with what is important to your family.
Work/Life Balance: This is for you as a family and mainly your child. Looking at the family logistics and understanding how many hours your child will be able to sleep and what time will be spent in a car driving to school is one part of this. If you’re an active family that wants to walk or bike to school then re-visit the proximity question to see which schools meet that requirement. Also, take a look at how much of school is focused on serious academic topics and what the homework requirements and policies are in later grades. If you want your child to have more of a play-based childhood but are looking at competitively academic schools this may be a mismatch. Ask yourself how much free time you want your child to have and how you want them to spend that free time.
Academic Achievements: You may be prepping your child to be the first to go to college or you may have a PhD yourself and be aiming for your child to do the same. How aggressive you get about what they should be able to do at each phase of development and their age is important in deciding which school they go to. How a school can evaluate getting your child on track or accelerating their strengths is also important. Ask yourself – and ask your child- what their hopes and dreams are for how they use their education. Think about the spectrum of skills from reading, writing, math, language, history, science, art and physical education achievements they’re interested in. It may also help to ask your preschool how your child is thriving and where they need additional support. One story a parent shared with me is her daughter did really well with station work but struggled to focus in drawn-out activities. This led her to select a school that had a rotation of programs and rooms throughout the day to match her child’s learning style (and it worked out incredibly well!).
Communication: There are two things to consider with communication and your child’s elementary education. The first is how you want the school to communicate with you and the second is how you want your child to be able to communicate to the world. Take a look at what your day-to-day communication as a family is like or how you operate at work. Ask yourself if you’re ok with official quarterly updates or require at least a weekly reminder and update on what’s happening around your child and what’s coming up for events. Think about what works at your current preschool and at work when there is a problem and how that gets solved and who gets involved.
For your own child think about how you want to prepare them to communicate as an adult. They will spend the majority of their day at school and be learning from other kids and their teachers when they aren’t with you. Think about what kind of support would help your child achieve being a strong communicator and whether the school(s) you’re looking at share the same goals and have an infrastructure in place to make it happen.
Child Care: Depending on what your work situation is and if you have family close by, there’s a strong chance someone is going to be taking care of your child some or all of the time when school gets out. The first question you have to think about is safety. This is about the staff and space where the care is provided. If it’s on campus your child stays in the same place whereas off-campus care requires someone else to transport your child. Stop and think about how comfortable you are with that.
Next, think about whether you just need a babysitter or someone for your child to play with or someone to stretch his/her mind. Look for programs or people that meet those needs. Child care may also be looking at live-in care or nannies. There are sites like Care.com that allow you to set up interviews and background checks. If you’re thinking about a student or part-time flexible help consider how reliable you need your care to be (for example, if they have overdue homework and have to cancel on you last minute will you be ok with that?).
Comparing costs in dollars and time in these different situations is also recommended. A highly qualified nanny runs $20-25 per hour where a high school student may be closer to $15 per hour. However, the reliability of the high schooler to drive, be consistent and follow directions is lower than that of a career nanny. Look at what you need to manage your own stress as well as what your child needs up front.
Financial Commitments: When I say the words “financial” and “school” it elicits a variety of responses but what is consistent is that it’s a charged conversation – happy, frustrated or passionate – but always emotional. For this exercise, it is not how you feel about money but about personal priorities. The two basic financial commitment angles are looking at what you can afford and what your family wants to do with money. The piece often missed is how else you plan to spend your money to provide support for the other values listed in this section.
For example, if you want your child to be bilingual but don’t want to be in a public immersion program – look into the cost of tutoring and how often language tutors are used in a week (typically it runs $25 an hour and should be at least twice a week plus working on the homework together in between). If your school doesn’t offer PE every day or year round you will want to look into other sport activities and how they align with your schedule (for example dance ranges from $75 a month to $130 a month; jiu-jitsu runs $75 a month; soccer is around $50 for 4-5 week programs). If being a strong reader is a family goal for your child then looking at library access and reading programs or on-going reading support at your school or off-campus options would be in order.
If you haven’t already – do the math and compare costs. If your family values and goals are only available at a fee-based independent school or achieved by piecing together a free public school with extracurricular activities and aftercare – add them up to see what makes sense. From personal experience, I can tell you that even when a family member is firm against having to pay for school – if you’re paying to achieve your family goals one way or another – when you write it down and add it up it becomes a very logical decision.
Step 3: 21st Century Elementary School Q&A
The final step is to bring your vetted list of family logistics and values to the prospective schools you’ve prioritized. Below is a recommended list of questions to ask and evaluate. With this I have two specific recommendations to help you make a grounded decision:
First, tour the school and ask your questions when your child is not present. As discussed in the introduction the goal is to make a grounded decision and not one from a “gut feeling” or emotional place. A friend gave me this advice when looking for preschools and it’s held true in other settings. If your child is sick, having a bad day or did not get enough sleep – they won’t be in the best spot to evaluate a new situation themselves. If the school meets all logical family needs but your child is having a bad day and says they don’t like it – you’re apt to not choose based on guilt for a place your child doesn’t seem to have a positive reaction to. Spare yourself the first time around and make it an adult only evaluation.
When asking friends for recommendations get the context as well. You’re not going to only do this Q&A process with the school. Chances are extremely high that you’ll ask a friend or neighbor what their experience was and what they would do in your situation. Some of the best feedback I had about schools in our community were from friends. However, I was careful to ask about overly positive or overly negative feedback and what else was going on. I had someone share that they felt the school was behind in teaching math skills. I then checked the Common Core curriculum and realized that the school was on target. In that case, the individual just had different academic goal expectations and they didn’t align with the Common Core. In another case I had someone who was really optimistic about how much parents were volunteering at their local public school, but found out that because she didn’t work she was in the classroom two to three times a week herself but other classes didn’t have enough parents with that schedule and her situation made her uniquely optimistic.
Questions to Ask
- How does the school fund itself?
- How many times a year are funding events held?
- What is the average class size?
- Are there aides available in the classroom?
- How does the school communicate with parents? How often?
- How do teachers communicate with parents? How often?
- If there is a problem at school with my child, how is it handled and communicated to me? Is just the teacher responsible for this or are there other staff available to manage issues when they happen?
- How does the school work to empower children to resolve conflicts?
- Do you offer enrichment opportunities for parents and families as well as the students during instruction? For example parent education in transitioning to kindergarten or handling tough topics?
- What is the seating arrangement and options for flexibility when working with students?
- How is technology embedded in the classroom? What technology access or programs are available to students at the school?
- Are there learning buddy or reading partner programs available? How does that work?
- Where do students eat?
- Is there a cafeteria?
- How are food allergies handled?
- How does the school measure student progress?
- What is the homework policy? What is the average hours of homework by grade level?
- How does the school identify if my child is struggling? Or ahead?
- Are standardized tests used? How are the results used? How do you interpret them at the administrative and classroom levels?
- What support is available for a struggling student? For an advanced student? Can you provide examples?
- Is there a way for my child to map out the school and meet their peers before the first day of kindergarten?
- What type of physical education is offered?
- What art, drama, music, or other enrichment programs are offered?
- What language programs do you offer? How often is the language offered? If it is an immersion program, what is the success rate and how long are children expected to remain in the program to be successful?
- How does the PTO/PTA fund itself?
- How much money has the PTA brought in the past 3 years on average?
- Who runs the PTA?
- What does the PTA fund and is it shared across the school? How often is each project
- offered and how long are they sponsored? For example is the music class funded by the PTA and only available to a certain grade and only from September to January? Is PE offered once a week does this funding only last until March?
- What ways can and do parents volunteer?
Diversity and Inclusion: You mention “diversity” and often people just think of race. A modern approach is to think about a broader definition that includes socio-economic, gender, race, identity and more and how the school handles making it an inclusive environment.
- How many children have attended a preschool before starting kindergarten here?
- What is the split of the gender and race of the school?
- How is the leadership, staff and teacher race and gender split?
- How many parents are available to volunteer on a regular basis in each classroom?
- What is the school policy on the whole family being involved in events and volunteering from parents to grandparents?
- What types of community projects is the school working on to volunteer or build?
- How is bullying handled? Physical, emotional and social media?
- Does the school have values that are aligned for a modern diversity and inclusion program that will help my child thrive?
Before and After Care Options:
- What time does school start?
- What time does school end?
- How many minimum days are there in a year?
- Is there after-care offered on minimum days and parent-teacher conference or teacher workdays?
- Do you offer before school care and what time does it start?
- Do you offer after-school care and how late does it go?
- Does the school manage the before and after school care program or is it another company? If managed by another company make sure you ask the same questions about discipline, food, food allergy handling, time for homework, time for play, staff certifications and emergency preparedness that you would ask of the school.
- How are children signed in and out of the care program?
- How much does before and after school care cost?
- What other options are there for after-school care available nearby? How far are they?
- What do they cost?
- What enrichment does the aftercare program offer?
- Do the children get fed at the aftercare program?
Health and Safety
- What immunizations required?
- Do you have lockdown safety mechanisms and processes in place?
- What has the school done for emergency prep from earthquakes to tsunami to other natural disasters?
- Are the facilities professionally cleaned?
- What is the formal illness policy for the school?
While our babies’ growing up and becoming more independent is full of exciting and somber emotions, making the decision about where they begin their elementary experience can be systematic. By outlining specific needs or logistic constraints and then solidifying the family values you can ask the right questions and process the information to make the best decision.
Best of luck in kindergarten hunting!
About Natasha Loeffler-Little
A Sea Crest School parent and lifelong resident of a small community which her own daughter is now a part of – she’s seen a micro-ecosystem of public and private education change over the years. In the past year, she also had to make the decision about where her daughter would go to kindergarten. Initially, she was the emotional mom basing it on her own experience. What she found was the old adage “but we want better for our children”. As an executive at a leading provider of software in Silicon Valley, she had a firm understanding of what space, communication, and goals worked best for her, what was trending for our future work environments and what she wanted for her daughter. Looking at which school to pick based on this lens instead of “what worked for me will work for her” led her to advise friends and neighbors of her approach which are outlined in this article.
To learn more about admissions at Sea Crest School, please visit: seacrestschool.org/admission