I always thought that picking a school for my kids would be one of the easier decisions I’d make as a parent. In addition to two kids of my own, I like to say I have another 36,000 in my care as part of my work for a large local school district. I spend much of my time conveying tips to parents as they search for the perfect school for their perfect little one. What I didn’t anticipate is that I would be faced with this very same decision so soon. My son is barely out of diapers, yet I already feel an insane pressure to shop for elementary schools with a tenacity I was reserving for college!
If it feels like every school within a 15-mile radius is vying for your attention, that’s because it’s true. You have probably been hit with direct mail, targeted text messages (thanks to crazy geo-fencing) and sponsored social media posts encouraging you to check out the latest and greatest charter, private or public school. It was more than 20 years ago that Arizona gave parents the gift of school choice. This means that you aren’t required to send your kids to the school just down the street. This also means that competition between schools for kindergarten students is fierce. The good news for parents is that more than ever, schools are working extra hard to showcase the value of their early learning options.
After watching this competition closely for the last eight years, and now living it first hand with my little guy, here are few thoughts on how to break down your endless options.
1. Ask the right questions
As the saying goes, “Mama knows best!” Regardless of the marketing mix in your mailbox or on your screen, always remember that you are best attuned to your child’s needs. Ask yourself a few basic questions: How will proximity to your home or office impact your choice? Does your child have any special needs or interests? What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a school?
How you respond might help you form a short list of follow-up questions for your prospective choices: Is transportation offered? Does the school help shape the whole child through access to the arts, athletics and extracurricular clubs? If you work, you probably want to know if there are before/after school programs? What do teachers do when students are not learning? What is the plan when students are achieving beyond expectations? All school leaders and teachers should be able to respond to these core questions to help you and your child understand what to expect.
2. Capitalize on connect events
School leaders know that you’re shopping around and want to be able to share what it is that makes their school unique. This time of year, many schools host open houses, meet-the-teacher or kindergarten connection type events to give you the inside look at their program. You’ll have an opportunity to learn more about the school’s culture and interact with other soon-to-be kinder families. These connection events can feel less intimidating than making a cold call to request a tour. You should walk away with a good understanding of processes, procedures and personalities of the principal and teachers. In fact, most parents leave with a pretty good idea if the school is right for their child from the first impression they get of the campus and school staff.
3. Try it before you buy it
Many schools offer impressive preschool programs housed right on their campus. Often taught by certified teachers, these programs provide an ideal chance for you to test drive the school and most importantly, find out if your child likes it! If you already have a preschool you love, see if the school you’re eyeing has any kindergarten kickstart summer camps or readiness weeks. These are another effort to attract new families and be sure your little one is prepared for the first day of school. Most “kinder camp” summer programs not only review the basic ABC’s and 123’s, but also allow kids to go through the lunch line, play on the playground and learn why it’s good to be quiet inside the library. The objective is to give kids a head start on building a relationship with their teacher, peers and school staff, all while relieving any first day jitters.
4. Think local
If you are really at a loss on where to begin, consider the hub of your community – your neighborhood school! Even if you don’t ultimately choose your local school, the principal is a solid resource for first time kinder parents. You may be surprised to learn the role technology plays in the classroom and how teachers personalize the learning experience. Plus, there is that value-add to sending your child to school with the other kids on the block – it builds a sense of community and at the very least, it’s always a good idea to have someone to share in the carpool!