My husband and I split up tonight to go on two fact-finding Kindergarten missions. Seattle has a “geozone” system where children are assigned to the school in their area. There are also “option schools” which offer alternatives to the geozoned school; these schools tend to have a special focus – anywhere from using a Montessori curriculum to offering bilingual instruction.
My understanding is that you register your child for the geozoned school and then apply for the option school during an open enrollment period. Spots in option schools are secured by lottery. (Oi, this is a whole new set of vocabulary for me!)
I had done the initial research on open houses (cringe of procrastination) just a couple of weeks ago, and fortunately I was right on time. My husband toured the option school a week ago during the day to see the classes in action, and I would go to the option school to talk with teachers and the principal tonight while he spoke with our geozone school staff.
My first red flag came from the ease of actually finding information on open houses from each school’s website. It was clear on the option school’s site but rather nebulous on the geozone school. The receptionist at the Option was able to provide clear information when I called, and the receptionist at Geozone didn’t really know what was going on. I questioned her as to why there wouldn’t be an event for parents who were considering sending their children to kindergarten for the first time. She said that I was welcome to attend the PTA meeting since there would be a whole lot of parents there. Uh oh.
Now I am really sensitive to administrative barriers that keep me from participating in something. I am confident in my experience and abilities to look up the information that I need to get the job done, but I know that the diversity of my city (and my neighborhood in particular) means that there are varying levels of English language proficiency. There are also likely neighbors of mine who are still becoming accustomed to the schooling system here and do not understand all of the educational options open to their children.
So let’s jump to my husband’s visit to Geozone. It was a 30 minute open house to be followed by a PTA meeting. There was no indication that this was a strictly kindergarten event, so he went to enter the main doors to the school. They were locked. There weren’t signs posted or volunteers stationed outside to greet newcomers. Finally, he saw that there was a small group of five or so people in the kindergarten room and joined in. Aha, it was the elusive Kindergarten tour. The second red flag came when he learned that there were sixty students (two classes) in one open space. Now I can’t concentrate when two active little ones are doing their thing ten feet away…I wasn’t sure how a teacher could connect to and engage a classroom full of spongy little minds with that sort of density.
My visit to the Option School was entirely positive. It was an hour-and-a-half presentation from the principal, vice principal, and kindergarten and grade one teachers talking about what makes their program unique. I didn’t see one visible minority parent in the room, and the room was packed. Now I am giving credence to the fact that the family culture and pulse of the evening rituals could very well be different in different households, so attending an event like this might be difficult or entirely off the radar. There could also be issues with child care, and I could speculate several more barriers for my immigrant, low-income, and low-level English-speaking neighbors.
My children are not in preschool, so I don’t know how information about school registration is disseminated across these types of programs. My hope would be that care providers and preschool educators were some of the savviest folks around so they could pass that information along to parents whose kids were readying themselves for the transition to school.
I had the blessing of a strong elementary education with teachers who cared. I had 18-20 classmates. I benefitted from the diversity of instruction – some teachers put a heavy focus on art and music, others assigned projects that built strong critical thinking skills, and one was very keen on rote memorization. It added up to rich schooling.
I am extremely saddened when two schools that are just over a mile away from one another offer radically different experiences for our children. The system isn’t equitable; certain schools are not receiving adequate funding to ensure that each child entering kindergarten has a year of educational experiences that fires him or her up about learning. These are tender, vulnerable minds and deserve the best start regardless of their parents’ ethnicity, culture, orientation, income, or social connections.