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Choosing kindergarten: where do you start?

Published Jan. 31, 2012

I thought choosing a day care was tough. I wanted the best -- safety, creative and caring teachers, stimulating environment. But I also had to be able to afford it. Finding a place that satisfied all of the above took a lot of research, visits, interviews and pro-and-con lists.

Now I'd like to just hide out there forever. Kindergarten? Huh? Did someone say something?

It's the time of year that parents start scouting out the perfect fit for kindergarten class. Hillsborough County just posted its kindergarten round-up schedule, the dates and times next month where you can visit a school and learn about registration. Pinellas County has been hosting its "discovery nights" at elementary schools since October.

This may seem baffling if you grew up like me and you pretty much just went to the closest school. Your parents did the research before you moved into that neighborhood, and once you were there you followed the feeder system until you graduated. The only choices I remember were public vs. private.

Now you can pick from all sorts of options. Even if you know you want public, you have school choice, magnet schools and charter schools. They come in all different sizes, with various specialties. You child might learn to be a technology pro or play the violin. You can research uniform policies, if that's important. Or you might seek a nature-oriented program with lots of time outside.

Everyone tells you that the best strategy is to visit the schools to see what appeals the most to you. I saw this with day care. We narrowed down our choices to four and the visit clinched our decision. They all looked good on paper -- there was just something about our top pick that felt right.

But what should you even look for on those visits? One mom has come up with a great list to get you started.

Maureen Corbett found an elementary school she loved. Now her daughter, a fifth-grader at the private SunFlower School in Gulfport, and her class are gearing up for middle school, which has all the fifth-grade parents swapping suggestions and tips. Corbett and another mom put together a list of questions to ask when touring schools. Although they are looking for older kids, many of the factors to consider work for younger students as well.

These are some of the tips on Corbett's list:

What is the school's mission? What is most important to it?

How many students are there per grade and per class?

How much diversity is there?

What is the daily schedule?

What teaching approaches are used? Examples: lectures, discussions, hands-on, textbook, projects.

What are the grading policies?

How much homework is typical per night?

Does the school focus on character as well as academics? How?

If public, how does the school approach the FCAT?

What role does technology have?

What is the approach to discipline?

How is bullying detected and handled?

What are popular extracurricular activities?

How are parents involved? How does the school communicate with parents?

What kind of weight you put on these answers is going to depend on your family and your values. I have a couple more years before I need to make these decisions for my son, so I'm just brainstorming right now, but I know we will need to ask about after-school programs or transportation to our day care. That might not be an issue for you. You may want a themed curriculum to bring out a special talent your child has that isn't an issue in my house.

But no matter what, it looks like we're going to have to do our homework before our kids do theirs.

-- Courtney Cairns Pastor

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Posted by Sharon Wynne at 6:04:39 pm on January 27, 2012