Few experiences will test parents like kindergarten. Many find it hard to let go as their young child leaves their arms and goes into school for the first time — no longer a toddler, but officially a school child.
“I try never to forget that starting kindergarten is an enormous milestone in your child's life. It ranks up there with your child falling in love for the first time, their wedding day, even the day of their birth!" said Jessica, a beloved kindergarten teacher of more than 20 years. She makes a point of calling every parent after the first day of school to tell them how things went.
“Kindergarten" is an old German phrase that translates to “children’s garden," where children spent their time playing and singing with other young ones in preparation for their education. Nowadays, kindergarten is square one of elementary school instruction.
Of the three million U.S. children bound for kindergarten next year, more than half will go to full-day kindergarten programs, while others will attend shorter, half-day programs that were once the norm. Either way, registering comes first, and takes place well before the first day of school. This is going to sound very Tiger-Momish, but parents should get a kindergarten plan in place when their child is about two years old.
There are a couple of reasons to look so far ahead. First, young families often move before when their children are toddlers in order to enroll them in a particular school. Also, preschools frequently feed into particular elementary schools, so beginning at this stage can be the easy way to get your child enrolled in your top choice.
For parents who choose to send their kindergartener to a typical private school, registration is often a component of the application process. School visits and tours tend to happen in the fall before the kindergarten year, and applications and accompanying deposits are made in winter (or sometimes earlier; check with each school).
In competitive school districts, parents should apply to several schools. And they need to be aware that there is often much more required than just an application. Schools may request a student evaluation form from her preschool teacher, letters of recommendation from someone connected to the private school, a parent observation form, financial aid application (typically in February), child and parent interviews, and possibly an E.R.B. test, which are falling out of favor. Acceptance letters are usually sent out in the spring.
_Follow this link to find out what four words you should never say at a parent interview._
Many parents send their child to kindergarten at a private school as a way of holding a place for the school’s upper grades when admissions competition heats up even more. If you can afford it and you live in a highly competitive area, it’s not a bad strategy. I put our son in a “two’s program" to hold a place for him for the following year, which, in turn, set him up to enter the elementary school at the end of preschool. It’s also much easier to fill out a kindergarten application than a high school application.
Various factors may play a role in determining when a child starts kindergarten. For example, most independent schools have birthday cut-off dates in August or September, meaning that children must turn the required age by this date to enroll in kindergarten. Public school districts have cut-off dates, though theirs typically range from August through December, depending on the state.
Gender may also be a factor in kindergarten admissions. It's not uncommon for private schools to encourage — or even require— families to wait until after their son’s sixth birthday to begin kindergarten. One family with a July-born boy was told to wait a year to apply for kindergarten, but the following year he didn’t get in.
_If your child isn’t accepted into a private kindergarten, read these tips on handling rejection from a private school._
If you are considering sending your child to private school, ask the administration what its age policies are and weigh your child’s birthdate, gender, and maturity as well as your own family’s work and home needs as you make your decision.
One teacher, who taught at some of the nation’s most elite private schools, said that where she taught, the schools wanted kids to attend with their peers and that "redshirting" was greatly frowned upon. Some parents get caught up in age advantages and disadvantages as they compare their child to his peers, but all children are different — a four-year-old may be more mature than a six-year-old — and the really important consideration is the school’s policies and recommendations.
Another kindergarten option is public schools with unique programs, such as a magnet or charter school with a dual language or STEM curriculum. Typically, these schools are open to families within a small geographical region, and then fill the rest of the openings through lotteries.
One Denver family, who at the time had a two-year-old, applied to a new dual language magnet elementary school with a pre-K program for 3-year-olds. Their daughter was accepted to the preschool because they lived within its geographic boundaries, and eventually entered the kindergarten automatically.
“We really weren’t very anxious," said the mother, Crissy. “But now there are wait lists. We were kind of lucky." She said that she heard the mayor was making inquiries about sending his son there, but he didn’t live in the right area, and his chances of getting in through a lottery were nearly impossible.
There are students who may encounter a more atypical registration process. For instance, Hunter College Elementary School in New York City is for academically accelerated children. Applicants are “assessed" by a school-approved tester who uses a sort of Stanford-Binet test, for which parents pay $350. There are usually more than 2,000 applications for 50 spots.
Registering kindergarten children for their zoned public school should be straightforward if parents have all the necessary requirements, which usually includes a birth certificate, immunization records, and the child.
_Check out our guide to enrolling your child in a new school for more information._
One Southwest town decided to centralize registration and held a come-all event at the local outlet mall. It was a disaster.
“We waited there for an hour, and it was really, really hot and jammed," said Lauren, a mother who participated. Other families waited four hours. The worst part? They had to do it again at the school.
Another mother, Sharon, a teacher, went to her local, highly regarded public school. She said she filled out “a bazillion forms" as a teacher spoke to her. Her daughter, four years old at the time, was so composed that they didn’t believe she was entering kindergarten.
“She’s very mature. They kept asking her her birthday."
Once in kindergarten, you will be amazed at what your child learns.
“In kindergarten, besides all the Common Core expectations, kindergartners learn how to share, lead, compromise, question, respect, follow, how to clean up after themselves, and how to self-advocate, and how to feel confident in themselves," said Jessica. Her school administration asked her to teach another grade, but she fought to stay in kindergarten.
“It's a good reminder for me to re-examine how much I love this age and see how much I value teaching four-, five-, and six-year-olds," she said.