Tough choice: Kindergarten decision deadline nears
Sending a child off to school for the first time can be a memorable day for a parent.
In the Verona Area School District, the number of choices for parents of soon-to-be kindergartners can be almost overwhelming.
In addition to each neighborhood school, there are three charter elementary schools and a dual-immersion Spanish program. Though the Spanish program is full for this year, the deadlines for deciding among the other schools are next week.
“It’s not like just putting your kid on a bus and sending them to Verona schools,” VASD director of community services John Schmitt said. “You’ve got to say, ‘I have to decide this, this or this.’ For some families it’s a wonderful thing, and for others it’s like ‘How do I know?’”
The district’s adventure into school choice began in 1995, when a group of parents took advantage of new state legislation that allowed for charter schools by opening New Century Elementary School. One year later, another group opened Core Knowledge, a K-8 program.
Those two were alone until 2010, when another group of parents decided to start the Verona Area International School. The three charter schools, along with the four area attendance schools, all offer different formats for learning, even though all must meet the same performance benchmarks.
“We realize in the district that kids are different,” Schmitt said. “There’s different ways to get to the same outcome, and we want to embrace that and support that.”
As the Feb. 14 deadline for choice applications nears, administration officials are getting ready to sort through all of the requests and look at how many they have, compared with the number of open spots at each of the charters. Often, there are more applicants than available spots, such as last year, when VAIS expanded by 22 students but had 38 applicants.
Prior to holding a “lottery” to fill spots, the district prioritizes putting siblings in the same locations. After that, it tries to get a balance of free/reduced lunch and special education students among all of the schools (within 3 percent of the other schools for free/reduced lunch and special education within 5 percent of the other schools). That often means, for example, that minority students will get priority, as each of the charters has traditionally been unbalanced in that aspect.
“We want the schools to look similar to the other schools,” Schmitt said. “We didn’t want all of a sudden one charter school that has no free and reduced lunch or no special ed kids.”
If spots remain, the district assigns numbers to everyone else and pulls numbers out of a hat until spots are filled, followed by creating an ordered waiting list. While there is not a choice between specific area attendance schools – students must attend the neighborhood school they are zoned in –
Schmitt said choosing those schools instead of a charter is still a conscious decision parents have to consider.
“If they’re attending one of those attendance area schools, that’s a choice just like attending a charter school,” Schmitt said. “By making that decision to say, ‘I’m going to leave it alone,’ they’re actually making a choice.”
Current K-7 students also have an option to change schools, but openings at the charters are much more fluid for those grade levels. The process for those changes follows a similar pattern as the kindergarten choice, though sibling preference is moved to the bottom of the three priority areas.
And while Schmitt is often asked by nervous parents what school would be best, he defers to the parents who know their children and the school sites themselves to explain their mission and teaching styles to be sure every student gets the best education possible.
“It depends on your individual child’s learning style, what you value as a family, what you want to have as they grow up,” he said. “You have to make the call.”
Read about each school: