By Andy Hinds
This is the time of year when many parents of soon-to-“graduate” preschoolers are quietly freaking out. Until now, the idea of your babies going to elementary school had been like some distant, futuristic fantasy/nightmare. Now it looms large, imminent, and fraught with ramifications that seem likely to cascade throughout your precious progeny’s lives.
It’s the real deal. The big leagues. Kindergarten.
Although September is still seven months away, deadlines for school applications are fast approaching. And where to send one’s children to kindergarten can seem like one of the most agonizing decisions a parent must make. There are so many choices, and each one has its potential pitfalls. If he goes to the progressive charter school with small class sizes and yoga breaks, will he be isolated from the “real world” experience of typical public education? If she attends your neighborhood school, will she be terrorized — or worse, recruited — by the wild ruffians you see re-enacting “Lord of the Flies” at the local playgrounds? If you send them to the prestigious private school, can you still afford groceries? If you homeschool, how long can you expect your sanity to hold out?
Let’s assume that you have ruled out private or homeschooling. It’s still not going to be simple. San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) offers a large (and sometimes overwhelming) menu of options, including magnet schools that focus on specific areas of study, typical public schools in other neighborhoods, and charter schools, which are authorized by SDUSD, but are run autonomously and embrace a wide variety of educational philosophies not necessarily sanctioned by the District.
The deadline for applying to a SDUSD school outside of your default “zone school,” is Feb. 15. Unless the schools (you can apply to three) you apply to are magnets or “atypicals” (in which case other hoops may require your timely perambulation), you would then simply wait, perhaps gnawing your fingernails and developing an embarrassing facial tic, to hear back in the spring. Applicants are selected randomly, on a space-available basis, with weight given to considerations such as what the applicant’s neighborhood school is, where his or her siblings go to school, and so forth. Charter schools also use a lottery system to choose who may enroll, but they have a wide range of application windows, as well as policies regarding who is given priority.
But you already know all that, because you are an Engaged Parent who wants to make sure your child goes to the school that is the best fit for him or her. You have studied the District’s “Neighborhood Schools & Enrollment Options” catalog, perused the website (sandi.net/page/902), peered deeply into the abyss of the charter school universe, talked with your friends and neighbors, argued with your spouse or co-parent, and toured so many schools that they have become a blur of social philosophies and pedagogical perspectives.
There is, however, one school to which you have perhaps not given serious consideration. The one down the street from you.
Last year, almost 45 percent of SDUSD students went to schools other than their neighborhood one. Although there is virtually no evidence that “school choice” has provided overall improvement of school performance in any district, there have been studies suggesting that students who “choice out” of their local school perform slightly better on standardized tests than their peers who stay in their neighborhood. Thus, Engaged Parents who care about their kids’ educations may assume that sending their kids anywhere but the neighborhood school is the responsible thing to do because, duh, Automatic Performance Enhancement. To me, though, there seems to be a chicken-and-egg aspect to this phenomenon. Did sending the kids to a school outside their neighborhood cause them to perform better; or does the fact that they are the type of parents (engaged, involved, organized) who would think to choice into a different school (and follow through with it) make their children more likely to succeed regardless of where they go to school? When I ponder this, I can’t help but wonder if the positive effect these Engaged Parents could have had on their neighborhood schools had they enrolled their children there would have been more meaningful than the dubious benefits of “choicing out” (additionally diluted, certainly, when nearly half the District’s students are doing so).
When I set out to write this column, I wanted to encourage parents to do tours and classroom visits at their neighborhood schools, rather than dismissing them out of hand because of their middling test scores, “scary” demographics, or the allure of a boutique school that seemed perfect mostly due to its exclusivity. I called and emailed principals at several elementary schools in Uptown neighborhoods, hoping to get information I could share about arranging tours, and offering them space to pitch their schools to parents. But I don’t need to tell you how to get on the sandi.net website or make a phone call to your local school, Engaged Parent. And the principals who graciously responded to my requests offered pretty standard District Talking Points about their schools, the kind you can read in the “About” page of their websites.
When I cold-called McKinley Elementary in North Park though, I ended up having a 10 minute conversation with the woman who picked up the phone, Elementary Assistant Terri Freese, about how McKinley has gone from a school at which many of the locals turned their noses up, to one that parents from other zones now clamor to get their children into; this due to a number of factors, including their adoption of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but also to the now-legendary involvement of their parent and community supporters. And Ms. Freese didn’t simply have pride in her own school. She told me that she often gives McKinley tours to parents from the nearby Thomas Jefferson Elementary zone, and instead of trying to recruit them, she tells them to take a look at all the exciting developments happening at their own neighborhood school. This naturally warmed the cockles of my heart, since (full disclosure), my twin kindergartner girls go to Jefferson (I mean “Thomas Jefferson Elementary IB STEAM Magnet”!), and I’m a founding member of Friends of Jefferson, our fledgling parent/community club and school foundation. McKinley’s success has shown that Uptown’s neighborhood schools can be excellent, and it serves as an inspiration to those of us who want to help provide that kind of environment for all the children in our area.
Ultimately the voices that really matter to those in the throes of school-shopping are parents who have made their decisions and seen them play out. I spoke to a number of parents who had considered all their options and decided to send their kids to the neighborhood schools, and several themes emerged, including the importance of community building and the realization that test scores don’t tell the whole story.
Explaining how she decided to send her daughter to Alice Birney Elementary, her neighborhood school in University Heights, elementary school teacher Sarah Mirgoli, told me, “Her dad and I chose our neighborhood school because it’s an IB school with rigorous academic standards as well as ‘special’ classes in art, gardening, and P.E. in which the students participate once a week. [These classes are subsidized by extensive fundraising each year.]”
“We also chose this school because we both like the sense of community and belonging,” she continued. “I wanted my daughter to have the same type of school experience that I had where children walked to school and felt like part of a community. It’s also easy to volunteer and participate in activities when the school is just around the corner.”
Amy DeVaudreuil, an attorney, Jefferson parent and vice-president of Friends of Jefferson, also described her decision-making process to me.
“I approached the decision to send my daughter to our local elementary school like I approach many other decisions in my life – with research, note taking, list making, creation of a binder … and found that many of my preconceptions about what I thought I wanted in a school for her were not ultimately critical in the decision. It was necessary that her school have caring teachers, dedicated leadership, inquiry-based learning, internationally focused curriculum, physical education and art instruction. Factors I thought would be significant, but were not: API scores, school rankings and class size. The question that I kept coming back to was — what do we want to be her ‘norm’ — as in, what experiences do we want to occur that will inform how she views the world, and the answer led us to Thomas Jefferson Elementary. I am very happy with our decision.”
I’m not against school choice, and I know there are legitimate reasons to send your kids to schools other than the one around the corner, even if that reason is as nebulous as whether or not it’s “the right fit.” I just wish that every parent who is researching schools all over town would look at their zone school as well. Take that tour. Visit a class in session if possible. And most importantly, talk to parents of students there. Ask me about Thomas Jefferson IB STEAM Magnet, and I’ll talk to you all day about the ways in which enrolling there has been rewarding for my whole family. Seriously. Ask me. You can find me at facebook.com/friendsofjeffersonelementary or firstname.lastname@example.org.