My wife and I have been through assessing and picking elementary schools three times now. I’d like to think that, over time, we’ve gotten better at it, but it’s only in retrospect that we find out if we chose wisely. And yes, we still worry about it, even now, when our youngest is in 3rd grade.
But we have come to realize that the key isn’t picking the ‘best’ school, so much as picking the ‘right’ school for your child. The school that works for your neighbor’s kid might not be right for yours.
A few weeks back I got into a longer conversation with a Brooklyn family about this exact topic. Sakine and Robert’s older child attends their zoned elementary school; they have another child in pre-k. (Details have been changed to protect their privacy.)
With their permission I’m sharing our conversation as it may inform your own thinking. If you’ve chosen a kindergarten for your child and would be willing to share your experience, comment below and we’ll get in touch with you.
Matthew: Tell me a bit about how you chose the school your child attends now? What seemed important to you at the time?
Sakine: We opted for the local elementary school, which is well-regarded. We wanted a neighborhood school that is easily accessible.
We considered the District-wide G&T program, but we wanted our child to have friends in the area. We figured many kids in our neighborhood score highly on these (G&T) tests but do not attend the program, so the achievement level at our local school would be fine anyway, or would not be much different from the G&T program.
Robert: Like many parents we struggled to judge the quality of the school’s curriculum from the outside, so we looked at what we could see, the parent body: Many of them were middle class professionals like us, they seemed to have diverse experiences and backgrounds, so we figured it would be a good school.
We might have been able to afford private school, but probably not for both our kids, and we could not see doing one thing for one child, and something different for another. And as our neighborhood is evolving, it seemed like a lot of the public school parents we’d met could also have sent their kids to Packer or Poly – so it was like “if they’re sending their kids to this school, it’s probably pretty good.”
Matthew: What do you like about your child’s experience so far? Anything you did not expect that makes you happy with your choice?
Sakine: Well, we’re certainly glad to be in the neighborhood. Our child is making lots of friends, and play dates are easy.
Robert: We were pretty clear-eyed going in. We didn’t have illusions about a breathtakingly creative curriculum – neither the syllabus nor its application — or about unfettered access to teachers and administrators. If anything, we were braced for a semi-custodial environment at times, as much caretaking still occurs in younger grades when there’s not a fabulous parent/teacher student ratio. These moderately low expectations were met.
Matthew: What parts of the experience do you not like?
Sakine: There seems to be no differentiated learning whatsoever, other than accelerated homework and the pairing of kids who perform at similar levels. This seems to leave a lot of kids unfulfilled and underserved. This was really surprising to us.
We’ve also been struck that the teachers are not given (or don’t seem to have) many tools for managing behavior and expectations. We recognize that kindergarten is a tough transition for some kids, especially boys. But it seems really important that schools develop common expectations and processes for teachers and families to help kids adjust and settle it. Otherwise there’s this dual impact of not helping some kids succeed, and leaving others semi-neglected.
Matthew: Knowing what you know now, what might you have done differently?
Robert: We definitely would have considered the G&T program more carefully. And we would have looked at non-zoned options in Brooklyn, both in the traditional DoE model and the charter world.
The experience has taught us that we have to dig beyond the surface when looking for a school. It’s the old thing about judging books; to be confident with the school’s approach to teaching you have to read more than the blurb on the dust jacket.