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How To Survive Kindergarten Tour Season

There is no such thing as a “best” school.

Originally Published: 

It’s that time of year again: The leaves are changing color (or in Northern California, getting slightly less green), Safeway is selling pumpkin streusel muffins (highly recommend), and all across the country, parents of 4- and 5-year-olds are experiencing mounting anxiety about where they will send their children to kindergarten next fall.

Many tours this season will still be virtual, many long-held parental worries about school will be exacerbated by worries about Covid, and, like every other years since the first one-room schoolhouse opened up a second branch on the other side of town, parents will be asking the age-old question “What choice is best for my kid?”

I believe there are some places left in the United States where the decision is as simple as signing your kid up for the neighborhood school. But in many American cities, this is not even close to the case. In my hometown of Oakland, California, parents can choose from any of a whopping 75 public elementary schools. There are dual-immersion programs, Afrocentric schools, and charter Montessoris. And parents with the means to consider private schools have independent or parochial options, old-school or “alternative,” plus a completely separate but parallel set of hoops to jump through: the conjuring of recommendation letters for humans who are just barely out of diapers (“Alex excels at block-stacking and singing the PJ Masks theme song; he will surely be an asset to your school community.”), the arranging of interviews, and in some cases, the undergoing of IQ testing (I happen to give these for a living and cannot stress how little they tell you about a 4-year-old, other than whether she can tolerate long periods of tedium), all in the service of a coveted spot.

A year ago this time, I was right in the thick of this hullabaloo. After 20 years of being a school volunteer, teacher, school counselor, school psychologist, and teacher educator, I have developed a lot of opinions about schools, but being faced with the task of selecting one for my own precious offspring was still full of unknowns. Would only a private school give him the attention he needed after such a disrupted two years? Would the public school down the block, low-performing and underattended by our neighborhood’s kids, fail him?

“Alex excels at block-stacking and singing the PJ Masks theme song; he will surely be an asset to your school community.”

My husband and I talked to parents from a handful of the 75 public schools in our town and dutifully raised our emoji hands on unsatisfying Zoom tours. We read books and articles about equity in schools and wondered if we could really “sacrifice” our child for some collective good. We researched a number of local private schools, some with virtual tour videos that had the production value and complexity of a Christopher Nolan film. We fretted about Covid learning loss and our son’s slow-to-warm-up personality, imagined some faceless kindergarten teacher not wanting to nourish his preternatural mathematical abilities, or worse, not even noticing them. We felt overwhelmed, unmoored, and very detached from the joy and excitement that watching our firstborn transition from little tyke to bona fide student might, in another world, engender.

And then, one day, as we lay next to each other in our bedroom/office, staring at a screen full of other nervous parents drilling a school administrator about arts-integrated instruction, something shifted. We logged off, looked at one another, and quietly crossed over in what felt, at the time, like crossing through the parenting matrix. We had been staring down months of uncertainty and unwanted homework (the recommendation letter! the waitlist-checking!), and instead, we did what in our family is referred to as “choosing no, thank you.” It was like catching a glimpse of the freeway traffic and deciding to take the scenic route, tessering through a wrinkle in overextension. We canceled our remaining tours, left our ability to rank up to five district schools on the table, and, a month ahead of the deadline, enrolled our son in the public, low-performing school down the street, which had no chance of turning us down. It was, even next to when we realized we could just dress our children “next day clothes” instead of PJs, the best parenting decision we have ever made.

As I look back, in one slow motion montage, on the Easter eggs that had been planted in my experiences as an educator and the time I’ve spent learning from all kinds of people about the schools I had to consider, certain themes started to emerge. These are the lessons that allowed me to make a choice that has saved me, in just under a year, immeasurable time, energy, and anguish. I think they could do that for you too.

Kids are not search traffic; they don’t do well when optimized.

When we began our school choice process, my husband and I mulled over the age-old question “What’s best for our kid?” I have worked in many, many schools, public and private and charter, high-performing and not, suburban and urban and everything in between. And I will tell you the greatest secret I have learned from these experiences: There is no such thing as a “best” school. Though I had some kind of delayed reaction to applying this to my own child, but once I did, a great weight was lifted.

One reason that there is no one best is that all kids are different. Some kids are enlivened by rigorous academics; others shrivel under them. Some are intensely clued in to the social aspects of a school; others need one good friend and move on with it. When looking at schools, it might be tempting to conflate best with “most,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. When we first started looking at schools, it was hard not to see every added resource — the maker-space, the new facilities, the low class size — as an automatic best for our kid. But when we really started to think about who we wanted our child to be around every day, what values we wanted not just posted in the hallways but infused in the actions of staff and parents, we realized it wasn’t a more-is-more game.

I’ve known kids of all backgrounds who are very unhappy at the most elite schools, and kids who are really being seen and served at a school that is considered less desirable. I’ve watched parents pull their kids and scramble to get into the best public school or scrimp and save to move into a “better” district, only to find that their children were miserable and misunderstood. Sometimes this happens because, as I said, kids are different and some kids need something else. But mostly it’s because, as we know from research on wealth and happiness, more resources, more comforts, even more enrichments don’t always make people happier and often can end up doing the opposite. Kids are not search traffic; they don’t do well when optimized.

You can’t predict how happy your child will be at a school by how much other people think it’s great

This can be a scary thing for a parent to consider, that you can’t predict how happy your child will be at a school by how much other people think it’s great. But it can also be an opportunity. Kids can be miserable in all kinds of ways, but they can also be successful in many different environments, particularly ones that model lots of different ways to be smart, social, and of value.

Another phenomenon I observed, having all of these personal discussions about schools and then attending their public offerings, was that just like you cannot book by its cover or a Tinder date by their profile pic, you cannot judge a school by its website. Many high-demand schools talked a lot of game about things that we knew firsthand were not as good as they seemed, and lower-demand schools tended to downplay or omit completely many attractive qualities. We learned that these so-called perception gaps between schools that have the money and culture of good PR and those that don’t are pervasive and impactful and saw them as opportunities for us to get a greater return on our effort.

On a tour of one progressive private school, which was riddled with parent-pleasing educational buzzwords, I knew from both parents and teachers at the school that the curriculum they were lauding was not applied very rigorously, and from spending time on the campus that the racial diversity numbers they were quoting did not include many Black or Latino students. When we toured our eventual school, before the pandemic, because we were already unreasonably worried about sending our child there, the tour had been scheduled at the same time as a fire drill. The principal, though not unkind, bore no resemblance to a real estate agent showing us around a premium listing, as the private school administrator had. No one said the words “project-based learning.” Yet I knew from parents that the school had an incredible social and restorative justice program. I knew that it had one of the most experienced reading interventionists in the area, a neighbor, designing its literacy support program. I knew that the teachers were incredibly loyal to the principal, a factor that my years in schools told me was more valuable by a mile than the principal’s ability to perform for parents.

Kids can be miserable in all kinds of ways, but they can also be successful in many different environments, particularly ones that model lots of different ways to be smart, social, and of value.

Sure enough, within days of starting kindergarten, my son came home with a wealth of evidence that his school was full of wonders not posted in the parent newsletters. He taught me sign language, casually mentioned a daily “running club.” When I dropped him off each morning, at a chain link fence that might have turned off some potential customers, I watched the principal, standoffish to some adults, check in with the staff about what they needed, greet each child by name, and guide the skittish ones in with the care and confidence that only the best educators possess. There were sweet moms (and surprisingly, lots of dads and a few grandpas) from all walks of life in the pickup line for me to talk to in multiple languages, a local arts nonprofit that led weekly dance classes for all of the students, a top-notch librarian who taught the children about various cultures and true history and how not to be afraid of getting a shot, a peace corner where my son’s teacher expertly diffused an early conflict my son had about friendship monogamy. None of these things were mentioned on the tour or listed on the, I’ll admit, somewhat janky website. No one had tried to sell us this, which made it all the more precious.

The final thought that coursed through our sleep-deprived brains on what would be our last school tour, though, had nothing to do with our child. It was: What did we want our experience to be, as parents? I knew, for example, that research shows not only that diversity, of all kinds, has academic and social benefits for children but also that adults who spend time in diverse circles are better at innovating and solving problems. When we looked at all those Zoom boxes, we saw mostly other white couples; a mom and a dad. Also, we heard a lot of entitlement about what the school should provide, which makes sense given what people were going to pay to send their kids there. We understood that the same culture of homogeneity, competition, and perfectionism that we didn’t want for our children was also going to be quite exhausting for us. On the one hand, if everyone on the tour looks just like you and your family, you can bet their kids will too. If an agro dad is mansplaining test scores to the principal, you can bet his son will be reminding your daughter, years down the line, that she didn’t make the cut off for the gifted and talented program. If the staff seems to bend over backward to accommodate parents, you can bet they are putting parent perception ahead of student well-being in some of their behind-doors decision-making. If every student-work display in the hallways looks like a gallery exhibit, you can bet your child’s imperfections will be noticed and promptly corrected.

Aside from where we lived and what kind of work we chose to do, our school choice was one of the things that would impact most whether we divested from or surrounded ourselves with this culture. But we also “chose no, thank you” for us, no, thank you to experiencing house envy at every playdate, to missing out on learning from parents who have different traditions and life experiences as ours, to being expected to devote an incredible amount of money and time, which all of our friends whose kids go to private or high-performing schools seem to be constantly asked to do, to prove that we’re involved in our child.

This is a stressful world we live in, a lot of the time. And some of those stressors are optional.

At our school, you cannot assume that parents will be able to build an endless diorama of a California mission with their child on a week’s notice. They ask very little of us, are happy when we are engaged, and consider it their responsibility, not ours, to get our child through school. My son eats school lunch now. In California, it is free for all students as of this year. He is trying new foods, though not all of them (a giant corndog!), I know, are fresh or organic. More importantly, because of the demographics of his school, most of his classmates get school lunch too. I think about this when I clean up after dinner each night, about how in another world, if we’d kept riding that endless anxiety train, which you can bet your ass loops back around for middle school, high school, college, ad infinitum, bought into the myth of the one best school, I’d be begrudgingly packing his lunch for tomorrow. I’d probably feel preemptively embarrassed, imagining the healthy bento boxes of his classmates, or not packing it and worrying about my kid being teased for being the only kid in class who didn’t bring a lunch, feeling like he didn’t belong.

A year ago, I had no idea how much this small thing would mean to me, how happy it would make my child. I didn’t know a lot of things, and I still have a lot to learn. But I do know that sometimes things aren’t really as hard as we think they are, as hard as people say they should be. This is a stressful world we live in, a lot of the time. And some of those stressors are optional. In an otherwise intense transition, the simplest choice may also be the best one. What could you do with the time you’d save avoiding the school-choice spiral and instead picking the school nearest to you or the one a few miles away that would make you sweat to get and stay there? There’s no wrong answer to this question, only the right one for you.

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