Article / Published Jan 18, 2016

Taking the Stress Out of Choosing a Kindergarten

Let’s face it: choosing schools is stressful for parents. That’s especially true when they’re doing it for the first time, for five-year olds who are still their babies. Sending them off to kindergarten is a big moment. Where to send them is a big decision.

That’s especially true here in New Orleans, where parents have a whole city’s worth of options and most elementary schools continue through eighth grade. Choosing a kindergarten can be a nine-year proposition. Students’ experiences in those early grades can also shape the rest of their educational pathway—so it’s essential that parents are satisfied with their options, and ultimately their assigned school.

Finding good schools for my children should not have given your father and I gray hairs.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have access to much information on the universe of schools that existed, nor did they have many acceptable options from which to choose. Recently, I asked my mom about that experience. “It was really important for us to get you into solid schools, but the process proved to be quite cumbersome at times,” she said. “Attempting to figure out how to navigate neighborhood zones, waiting lists, and selective enrollment processes all for the sake of getting my child into a good school was an exhausting experience. Finding good schools for my children should not have given your father and I gray hairs.”

Keep in mind, that was before charter schools, OneApp and all the rest. Things are easier in some ways and harder in others. It’s a big reason why I’m involved in this work. I don’t want other parents to have to go through all that on their own.

One of our priorities this year has been to help about 60 families make that big kindergarten decision and get their kids enrolled successfully. We began this work by partnering with six childcare centers across the Greater New Orleans area. Many of these providers are unsung heroes for hundreds of families, like Clara’s Little Lambs Preschool Academy, which has been serving families in Algiers for generations (one of our Navigators went there herself). All of these early childhood centers and parents recognized the importance of getting their kids into good schools early on, and have been eager to work with us.

Our goal is to paint a clear picture of the school landscape and help parents make an informed decision about which school is right for their child—not to push them to schools they aren’t interested in. Here are some of the tips we offer along the way:

Know your priorities

Some parents want a school that is very close to home or not far from their usual route to work. Others want their child to go to a specific selective enrollment school or Catholic school. Understanding these priorities is the first step in narrowing the universe of schools to a few good options.

Be ready for trade-offs

It’s not always possible to get everything you want. Going to a higher-performing school might mean more time in transit for your child. A selective enrollment school might be a good option—but it also means a more complicated application process. Where are you willing to be flexible?

Look under the hood

Sometimes parents will rule out schools that have a state letter grade below a certain level or aren’t yet rated. But in doing so, they may miss schools that are good bets; for example, schools where kids are growing at unusually high rates or which show a pattern of improvement but haven’t reached “great” quite yet. The state grades won’t tell you that. In other cases, parents may be attracted to the brand image of a school and not consider others that may be less well-known. We encourage parents to think about the whole picture and visit schools they’re seriously considering to get a better feel for them.

Be strategic in ranking your preferences

We encourage our families to think carefully about the schools they rank in OneApp, the city’s school enrollment system, since they’ll only be assigned one, and it could be any one on their list.

These conversations have illuminated some of the emerging concerns that families have regarding their child’s education. Parents are thinking about issues like schools accommodating students with IEPs, student travel time to and from school on buses, and a school’s track record on growing students who are academically behind. When given access to useful information, parents incorporate it in their decision-making.

As we continue our conversations and assist families as they get their little ones ready for their first day of school, we’ll look for other ways to help, too. Each family brings its unique set of circumstances. We’re excited about the challenge. We’re even more excited at the prospect of getting their kids into schools that put them on the right track from day one, and push them to their highest potential.