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Preparing for Elementary School: Shopping for a School

Take the difficulty out of preparing your child to attend elementary school by finding the right fit for your elementary-aged child.
 

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Preparing for elementary school: It used to be you had only two choices when it was time for your child to enter elementary school: you could send her to the neighborhood public school, or invest in a private school. But in many school districts today, your alternatives are more varied. Depending on the school system and the state laws, you may be able to pick from several public schools in your district, apply to a specialized public program (like a magnet or charter school), or even venture beyond district boundaries to a public school in a different community. And of course, there's still private or parochial school, if you want to go that route.    

But how do you determine which school is best for your child? Here's where to start:

  • Know Your Options
    First research the elementary schools in your area. Check out:
    • Public schools in your district. Get basic information about community schools at your school district's Web site. (You can also get contact information and other basics by doing a search here.) You should also call the district office to find out if you have a choice in which elementary school your child attends.
       
    • Public schools outside your district. If your state has an open enrollment policy, children can attend public schools outside their home district — if space permits, and if you apply within the designated time period. Bus transportation is not provided, however. Call your school district about out-of-zone policies.  
       
    • Magnet schools. These public schools have a particular focus — such as art, technology, or science — or feature a specific type of instruction, such as Montessori. They may be offered at the elementary, middle, or high school level.
       
    • Charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but are owned by independent organizations, often non-profit. They are exempt from laws that govern traditional public schools and tend to feature creative teaching methods. They still must meet designated performance goals in order to retain funding. Charter schools draw kids from surrounding districts and may have a specialized focus. Like magnet schools, they often admit students by lottery and could have a long waiting list.
       
    • Private and parochial schools. These schools charge tuition and are more selective than public schools. Parochial schools have a religious affiliation, and you may need to be a member of the school's church in order to enroll.
       
    • Consider your child's learning style. Talk to your child's preschool teacher for input on how he learns best. Also observe him in extracurricular activities, like karate or music class, to get a sense of how he adjusts in group settings. Think about your child's talents. If he excels in music or art, you'll want a school that provides these creative opportunities. If the teacher thinks he's academically advanced, make sure the elementary school you choose offers enrichment programs.
       
    • Examine your family philosophy. You may feel it's important for your child to be in a racially diverse school or one that incorporates religion into the curriculum. 
       
  • Preparing for elementary school: Get the Inside Scoop
    To narrow down your remaining options:
    • Talk to parents and preschool teachers. When preparing for elementary school, get feedback from friends and neighbors, or, if you're new to the community, ask your real estate agent to connect you with parents of school-aged kids. It's also helpful to attend PTA meetings at particular schools, to learn about key issues and observe parent-teacher involvement. When you talk to other parents, ask specific questions about their experiences and what they like and dislike about the school.
       
    • Visit the school. Make an appointment to meet with principals and teachers. On your initial visits, leave your child at home so you can gather detailed information about what the school offers and whether it's right for her. Ask about academic goals for each grade. Share specific information about your child with the principal, and find out how the school will support her learning style. Talk to teachers about how they measure individual progress and foster parent communication. If your child has special needs or is eligible for a gifted and talented program, talk to those teachers as well, and schedule an appointment with the head of the child-study team or the special-education services coordinator. Before you leave, tour the school and check out the library and computer centers.

      Once you've settled on a school, bring your child for a visit. But call first, so the principal and teachers will be expecting her. Their warm welcome will go a long way in smoothing the transition of preparing for elementary school for your child. 

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