Many of today’s parents remember their earliest years in school as simple times. They went to the closest public elementary school or to a private school their parents chose. Kindergarten was a rewarding and meaningful experience: Play was encouraged; they made their first real friends; they learned how to tie their shoes.
But placing their own children in kindergarten now feels vastly more complicated. While every community is different, school systems across the country are now offering a bewildering array of choices. There are traditional neighborhood schools, private and parochial schools, and brand-new charter and magnet schools beckoning. To make matters more complex, exceptions like transfer permits enable children to go to an alternate school in or outside of their district, and lottery systems allow enrollment at a school based on luck of the draw.
The numbers reflect the changed landscape. In the 10 years between the 2003–04 and 2013–14 school years, enrollment in charter schools tripled nationally and the number of magnet schools increased by more than 50 percent. All of the nation’s largest districts are now offering more options for selecting schools, and nearly all states have an official state policy that allows students alternatives beyond their neighborhood school. This situation is compounded by the many parents who move each year to be zoned for specific schools or districts.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggesting that kindergarten can have impacts on children throughout their lives has raised the stakes for parents to make the “best” choice for their child. This increase in pressure can further long-standing inequities tied to access and education. No matter what a district offers or a private school provides through scholarships, families that have been marginalized by income, language, or ethnicity have a harder time accessing the resources to explore options for their children.
Over the last several months, Edutopia reached out to parents around the country to hear about their experiences evaluating and selecting kindergartens. We share the stories here of parents whose first choice didn't work out, who chose a school outside their neighborhood, and who navigated districts with a myriad of options. We realize their stories do not represent every viewpoint or experience and recognize that parents with fewer choices are often harder to reach.
We’ve also included a spotlight on effective programs, an article from an expert, research on key questions you might have, two checklists to organize your approach (School Impressions and 3-Step Kindergarten Planning), and a glossary of key terms. We hope all of this gives you a foundation to start from as you prepare for your child’s first year of school.