Choosing an Elementary School for Your Child

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 2/29/16 7:03 PM

open_door.jpgAll parents want a school that will provide a strong academic foundation for their children. But, this is not all there is to a good educational environment. What is less obvious, but also very important to think about when choosing an elementary school for your child, is how well the school fits your family’s values and beliefs about education.

Know Your Educational Values

When you enter into a school search for your Kindergarten-ready child, remember that you are choosing a school for a child you are just beginning to know. Right now, you know more about your family’s educational values and beliefs than you do about what kind of student your child will become. So, you want to look for a school that you feel will be a good partner in nurturing and educating your child over the coming years. 

When children are four, we do not yet have a full sense of how they learn and what their abiding interests are. These things are revealed as children grow up, especially when they are part of an educational program that pays attention to them as individuals. The best schools have the capacity to get to know your child well and the flexibility to respond to your child’s evolving needs. They will be able to affirm who your child is and how your child learns best. These schools will make the best partners.

Assess Your School Choices

The school’s philosophy and pedagogy, approach to behavior, and curriculum need to make sense to you. This is critical because your ability to trust the school is central to your child’s success in facing the inevitable challenges that learning presents.

Schools should be willing to supply sample materials and on-site experiences to help you get a sense of the fit for your family’s values. Don’t be shy about asking for a school’s policy or approach to such things as homework, recess, discipline, diversity, collaborative work, field trips, service learning, arts classes and other “specials”—whatever is important to you.

Other questions to consider:

  • All schools have range of student profiles in their population—extremely capable, some learning challenges, some social or emotional needs. How does the school support the range of students who attend the school?  
  • Does the school support the whole child? Most schools say they do, but what does that look like at the school? Is there a social curriculum? Is the adult-student ratio one that allows teachers to have time to follow up with individual students? Is there an understanding that time spent helping a child problem solve a social situation is valuable?
  • Do teaching styles and approaches vary widely or does the faculty have a core set of practices they have agreed to use? To what degree are expectations for students consistent across classes in a given grade level?
  • What after school enrichment or care options are available after school? Are there opportunities that will spark your child’s natural interests?
  • When you walk through the school, look at the walls. What is being displayed? What messaging is present? What does this say about the school? Does it feel right to you?

Get to Know A School's Community

Schools should offer you a chance to get to know the key leaders of the school. Having the opportunity to hear from teachers to get a sense of their commitment and excitement will also help you assess the fit. Do the school’s leaders inspire you? Are the teachers excited about things that matter to you? What isn’t being talked about?

The families who attend the school are going to be part of your child’s experience. Elementary schools have a lot of family events, children often have play dates at each other’s houses, and, of course, there’s the birthday party circuit. How does the school describe its own community? Can you picture yourself as part of it? Going to some school events that are open to the public before signing on might give you an opportunity to get a better sense of the school and feel for the families there. Talking to current parents at some of those events is also a great way to get a sense of the community’s overall satisfaction with the school’s curriculum, teachers, and leadership.

One More Piece of Advice

A final piece of advice, as you consider the choice of an elementary school, remember that you are laying a foundation that is academic, social, and emotional—a base on which children will build the story of the rest of their lives. It is a critical time for ensuring their future success. Find a school that understands this and that recognizes that your child is beginning a journey—one that requires skill, patience, flexibility, and care. If you believe you have found that school, then that is the right place for your child!

Topics: Parenting, Private School Admissions

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is head of school at Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.