School Stories: Never too early to start the process

JoAnn Rasmussen is a writer, wife, mother, and domestic diva handler to her soon-to-be Kindergartener, Claire. JoAnn writes at her personal website The Casual Perfectionist, and Mile High Mamas, the Denver Post’s parenting blog. Feel free to follow JoAnn on Twitter (@casualperfect), where she enjoys having real conversations with her imaginary friends via a magical handheld device.

How old is your child and does she require special accommodations in school?

My daughter, Claire, just turned 5-and-a-half, and she just celebrated her “Pre-K Graduation.”  Last school year, she missed the cut-off date for being a Kindergartener in Jefferson County by about a month.  Although she’s more than ready for Kindergarten, the guidelines and the corresponding date on her birth certificate say otherwise.  We knew we’d have an extra year of preschool, and I didn’t want her to be bored when she did finally make it to Kindergarten.

Fortunately, a preschool program close to us was the perfect fit.  They kept her engaged.  They kept her challenged.  They let her shine.  If her Kindergarten class is half as good, I’ll be thrilled.

Speaking of Kindergarten classes, I was shocked at how early one needs to start researching this in Colorado.  When Claire was born, I was never once asked where I’d be sending her to school.  “When did she eat last?” or “Is she sleeping through the night?” or “What is that smell?” were the top questions.  Little did I know that other new moms were putting their babies on Wait Lists for schools!

But, they were.

By the time I started the process, I felt like I was far, far behind.  Some of the schools in our area that get glowing reviews were out of our reach, with hundreds of kids listed before us.  I thought Wait Lists like this only existed on the East Coast or in movies! (No offense to anyone on the East Coast or in movies.)

Which school did you ultimately choose, and would you consider relocating or driving a long way for a school and why?

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, I went to school in the nearest town, which was miles and miles away.  I rode the bus every school day for 13 years.  (Uphill both ways…)  It made for long days, but it was a relatively convenient, economical option.

The situation we have here is slightly different.

Because of where our neighborhood school is (just a smidge over a mile away), we qualify for The Bus List, but because of where the bus-stop is located, I’d have to drive or walk her there anyway.  According to the schedule, it would take her 20-minutes to get to the school.  The fact that there’s now an extra fee to ride the bus, coupled with the fact that minutes are precious in the morning, and a 3-minute drive wins, hands down.

Because of all of this, I knew that I was going to be getting in the car to drive Claire to school anyway.  And, if that’s the case, I felt I could be picky.  I drew a 2-mile radius circle around our house and researched the schools that fell within those boundaries.  Some great options just outside that radius popped up, so I didn’t discount them, but I weighted them all accordingly.  (Can you tell I’m a spreadsheet kind of person?)

Then, I researched, and researched, and visited and researched some more.

When I started this process this over a year ago (yes, for real!), I discovered Charter Schools.  They are Public Schools with more of a Private feel.  They have no tuition fee, unless it’s a full-day Kindergarten class, yet they have control over their own budgets.  They request more parental involvement, but that was on my To Do List anyway.  They were each a little different, but the philosophies, curriculum choices, and structure seemed to be a perfect fit for us.

They have a wait list, but the spots are filled at random.  Everyone in the county gets an equal shot at being chosen.  This was the perfect option for the slacker parent like me who had no idea to put her newborn on the wait list on the way home from the hospital.

Moving purely to put our child in a specific school district was not an option we were willing to consider.  Luckily, it’s one that never even came up because of the awesome Charter Schools within the shaded portion of our map.

After all the research I did, I narrowed our choices to five schools.  I filled out and delivered the application packets, and the random drawings were held.  As luck would have it, the school at the top of our list chose us.

This process takes us up to 8th Grade.  What about High School and beyond?  Well, in all of my research, I stumbled upon a High School in our area that sounds intriguing, and they have an old-school wait list that isn’t a mile long yet.  Yes, it’s true; I became the person who put her daughter on a wait list for High School before she was even in Kindergarten.  I know that lots can change between now and then, but it feels good to have options and know what they are.  I’ll keep my finger on that pulse and react accordingly.

As it stands now, I think I’ll wait until she’s successfully navigated 1st Grade before scheduling the Harvard Campus Tour.  (Ha!)

Who did you ask for advice and how much research did you do on your school choice?

An invaluable resource for me in this process was the director at our preschool.  Everyone who goes through her door goes on to Kindergarten eventually, so I knew she’d be the one to ask, and she was!  She’s the one who tipped me off about Charter Schools, and she had compiled packets of information about all the surrounding Elementary Schools.

I also used some great online resources for getting information on schools: Great Schools and  School Digger.  (Online review sites are what they are, so you’ll have to sift through reviews that may not fit your needs, but these are great places to start!)

I got the “inside scoop” from parents at various schools.  I found not only answers but the questions to ask!  I took special note of how I was treated on the phone or via email or in person when dealing with the administrators at the schools.  I looked at test scores, but also took into consideration other factors.  (Straight test scores rarely tell the full story, in my opinion.)

After I narrowed it down, I set up a personal tour of the schools to check it out for myself.

What information made the biggest impact on your decision?

For me, it was the feeling I got when I stepped in the door of a school.  Although it was in a column on my spreadsheet, it’s not something that can be explained.  It has to be felt.

2 comments

This was fun to read. I’m familiar with all the work you did to find a great kindergarten for Claire. This post will help parents who are just starting off. It’s great motivation to start early, do your homework, and weigh your options. The peace of mind is worth the spreadsheet.

What a great guide for parents of young children. Well done!

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