Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Quest for the Perfect Kindergarten

I wrote this post for Durham Magazine's blog after I had gone through the process of searching for the right kindergarten for my oldest son.  With the school application season just beginning I thought I would post it here.  Enjoy!

I remembered vividly the angst of preschool applications just a few years ago. Here I thought I would just sign my 2-year-old up for a school and all would be well. I never anticipated the countless tours, applications, February deadlines and waiting lists. However, I waded in, navigated the system and ended up at a preschool that made my family very happy. We settled in, joined the parent committee and enrolled my second son.  
Soon, I was shaken from my happy, comfortable spot by the knowledge that kindergarten was coming up, and in Durham, that process certainly wasn’t going to be any easier. Not only did I have to figure out where my little boy with a summer birthday would be going to school, but when. Through much teeth gnashing, lots of tears and talks with some very patient preschool teachers, we decided that a year of half-day kindergarten to act as a transitional kindergarten would be the best place to let him mature and really get ready for elementary school.
So, as I toured and eventually decided on one of the few half-day kindergartens around, I watched my friends delve in to the kindergarten process. Shouldn’t the parents just look up what neighborhood school they’re zoned for, walk into the office and sign their little one up for kindergarten? Well, they should, but that’s not what I saw happening. I saw lots of frantic parents going on more countless tours and turning in more lengthy applications. I was not looking forward to it.
Well, my son entered his transitional kindergarten year, and I embarked on that process myself. Of course, I was pretty overwhelmed, didn’t know where to start and I was nervous, wanting to send my son to the best place for him where he would succeed and be happy. First of all, our family loves Durham. This is our home, this is where we fit in, from the farmers' market to the foodie restaurants, we are Durhamites. So, when I saw lots of my good friends with sons and daughters my son’s age moving away from the neighborhoods they loved so that their kids could go to school in Wake County or Chapel Hill, I wondered, "Should we be doing the same thing?"
We decided we loved our home and we wouldn’t leave it. So we needed to look at the schools that we had here. When we had chosen our house, I, being a former teacher in the area myself, toured our neighborhood school and deemed it suitable. However, touring a school with an 8-month-old is not the same as actually sending your little kindergartener somewhere.  I was so afraid that my neighborhood school wasn’t good enough or the right fit for him.
I set out to tour every school I could think of. I toured a fancy private school with a fancy tuition attached, which I loved but could not afford and slipped through the cracks of the world of financial aid by making enough money not to qualify but still not enough to afford the school. I visited several charter schools from the ridiculously far away to the nearby. They were like any other school, they all had negatives and positives. Some I liked better than others. I even started to apply to two schools I never even toured just to give my son a better chance of getting in somewhere.  
Then, as it happens for most moms and dads in my position, I had the meltdown moment. I realized I had missed the application deadline for my favorite school, and I ran in to my son’s transitional kindergarten class, to his teacher, sobbing. She talked me down and gave me some advice and I continued through the process, a little calmer this time.
One of the last schools that I toured was actually his neighborhood school. I was so concerned about touring every other school in town and giving him every option that I could that I didn’t really stop to think about the option that was right in front of me. Turns out that, in my situation, my home school actually turned out to be one of my favorites. I liked it better than a lot of the charters and private schools I had looked at. Fancy that!
So, in the end, I guess my story has a happy ending. When it came right down to it, sure, I would have loved to send him to that fancy private school. Part of me really wishes we had gotten into that super-creative charter school. But we’re happy. In a little less than a month, my first little boy will start all-day kindergarten at our neighborhood school. He will go where our neighbors across the street go and, fingers crossed, he will have a fabulous year.
Looking back, I find myself with an interesting perspective. My former teacher brain says, "Gosh, if everyone in Durham would just go to their home base school, then those schools would have a ton more involvement and lots more resources and Durham schools would be strengthened." However, when you’re a parent, your heart comes into play. That was my baby, and I was going to send him to the school that would be the best fit for him no matter what we had to do.  
If I had any advice for parents with little preschoolers who are about to embark on the same journey, I guess it would be to do what’s best for you. Wade in, look at your options and you’ll eventually come out the other end. The culture of our little city is one of deep thinking people with big hearts from a mix of backgrounds. So, there’s a lot out there. Be open minded. Look in some places you might not have thought to look and, most importantly, don’t judge other people for their decisions because you know how hard the decision was for you. It’s an individual choice for each family.
Oh, and please don’t talk to me about middle school. Not just yet ...

As far as options, this is what I found:
  • Neighborhood schools: You could go to the school you’re zoned for or put in for a transfer if you have a good reason, like commuting to work, proximity to child care or sibling's school.
  • Private Schools: There are private schools that range in philosophy, from religiously affiliated to those known for their academics to those with specific ideals like Emerson Waldorf or Montessori. Most of them have tuitions that start around $8,000 to $10,000 and go up. However, they do have need-based financial aid programs for those who qualify.
  • Magnet Schools: These schools are under the umbrella of Durham Public Schools. They also include a variety of philosophies and frameworks. You apply to them via a central lottery. These can be difficult to get into, and it can be beneficial to start the process in pre-K for those magnet schools that have pre-K options. These schools are free if you get in. 
  • Charter Schools: These schools are publicly funded but privately run. Therefore, they have a bit more flexibility with their philosophies. Students are admitted through a lottery system for each individual school. Waiting lists can be very long. (Personally, we were 425th for one particular school.) These schools are free if you get in.
To start the process:
  • Go to any DPS kindergarten/magnet school information fairs that you can find
  • Schedule tours for any school you’re interested in as early as November or December of the year before your child will be attending. However, some schools don’t start tours until January
  • Pay careful attention to application deadlines. While some schools have deadlines as late as March, the one that we missed was early January!
  • Remember to tour your neighborhood school and put it in the mix as a possibility.
  • Stir Crazy Moms' Guide to Durham has a School Information Series you can search to find some information. SoDu Parents Posse has a supportive group of Durham moms that can help you answer any questions.
Good luck!

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