Finding a kindergarten

My advice for parents looking for schools for their soon-to-be kindergarteners; Look at and apply to everything.

Right now in Arizona, there are tons of education options: public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling -- which makes making a decision -- HARD.

Our grammar school search began when our son was 3. A friend had toured a small private school for her older children and she thought it’d be a good fit for us. It’s a small school with one class per grade and a focus on social interaction. “They learn to read in the desert,” my friend enthused. “I think you guys would love it!”

Not knowing how any of this stuff worked, we went on a tour. We saw lots of bright kid-made art on the walls. Kids were, indeed, learning to read one-on-one in the desert while others played. One on one! Outdoor time!  In a math class, about 6 students were gathered around a three-dimensional shape and a bunch of cubes discussing volume. “This is the way math should be taught,” said my husband excitedly. 

We went to another traditional school orientation soon after and saw how other highly-recommended schools operate; Nothing on the walls that could be distracting, lots of book learning, advanced classes, no computers.

Our son is artistic and expressive, loves to learn but has a hard time focusing.

At the end of our limited search, we decided the small private school was our perfect fit and we need look no further.

So we took another tour when our son was 4 and applied for the following year.

And then we waited and imagined how the next year would play out: school performances, playdates, etc.

In March we got the call…we didn’t get in. 

We did have a “backup” school; our neighborhood public school which focused on Spanish immersion (our son goes to a Spanish immersion pre-school). A lot of kids from my son’s class were going to the same school and he’d get to continue his Spanish, I reasoned. But I still worried that it wasn't quite right for us.

Then during the end-of-the-year student/teacher conference, my son’s teacher said our son would probably benefit from smaller class sizes. “He doesn’t do any work unless a teacher is sitting right next to him. He needs a lot of attention.”

Shit. 

By this time, most people were settled on which school their kids were attending. We got lots of suggestions, Montessori, other private schools. “It’s kindergarten,” people would tell us. “It’s not really a big deal.” 

But these early years are when my child is going to develop his feelings about learning, make friends, spend the next 5 or more years of his life. To us, it seemed like a big deal.

We eventually visited a school with religious affiliation recommended by our pediatrician and a few other acquaintances. One we wouldn’t even consider early on because we’re not religious. But the classes are small. They teach technology and have a great maker space for older kids. They have a uniform, with a patch, which my son loves. We took a tour, my son sat in on a class. We all really liked it…and so we filled out an application, and passed the application test — but because of our late entry, they are now full for next year.

So what we learned about this whole process:

First, there’s a lot of competition for spaces in small schools. Don't be afraid to really let your chosen school know that they are your number one choice. Write thank you notes after visits. Check in periodically and remind them how interested you are. 

Also, kids grow and change a lot between the ages of 4 and 5, and you might not know at application time exactly what your kid will need. 

My advice: Look at several school options, keep an open mind, and tell yourself, "it's only kindergarten."

The countdown:

  • Look at different schools about 2 years before you think he'll be attending
  • Start applying to schools in the fall/winter of your child's last year of preschool (usually October or November)
  • You'll generally find out if your were accepted, waitlisted or denied around March
  • Waitlists vary. At some schools, waitlisted students have a great chance of admission. At others, it's basically an empty gesture. The admissions person should let you know if it's a valid possibility, or if you'd be better of focusing your attentions elsewhere.

To kinder...or not to kinder?

If your child's birthday is after August 31, you'll have to wait an extra year to enroll in kindergarten. Many kids in my son's class who had summer birthdays decided to keep their children in preschool for one additional year before starting preschool, even though technically, they were eligible. Some parents want their kids to have an age advantage and be the oldest in their grade rather than the youngest. I heard that some feel like an older kid will have an edge in sports. Some parents were concerned their child was too sensitive, immature or too small -- and would benefit from an extra year. 

Some elementary schools

  • Public schools - Madison and Scottsdale public schools are some of the best in the state. On the plus side, they have a diverse student population and many now emphasize different skills like foreign language immersion, STEM skills, arts, etc. On the bad, they are Arizona public schools, which are woefully underfunded with no sign of improving.
  • All Saints - A private school with a beautiful campus, small class sizes and a rigorous education that doesn't exclude technology. Kindergarteners learn to code and middle schoolers use power tools to build go-karts. Preschool - 8th grade.
  • Desert Marigold Waldorf School - A charter school with a hippy vibe stresses learning in a nurturing environment, practical skills like gardening and building and lots of outdoor time. The best students to have around if you're stranded on a desert island. They have classes from early childhood through 12th grade.
  • Desert View Learning Center - A small private school that focuses on tailoring an education to the child's individual needs. Count on lots of parental involvement. K - 4th grade
  • Phoenix Country Day School - A friend toured this school guided by an unflappable 6th grade student, which, she said, was the best advertisement she could imagine. Small classes, expert facult and a state-of-the-art campus --  it also has a tuition to match.  K - 12th grade.
  • Veratas Academy (A Great Hearts School) - Kids learn Latin and French and get a good, traditional education through high school. 
  • Villa Montessori - Stresses student-led education and research. Classes meet as a group, but then the child (with guidance from the teacher) creates their learning plan for the day. The school is from preschool to 8th grade. Camelback High School has a Montessori track.