By the time I finished with EJ’s elementary school search, my mom was very surprised it was so complicated. She reminisced on the days when kids simply went to their assigned school. Because of MY experience with that, I had to check out the choices available to my son for his school experience. This post was originally written in 2012 on my old single parenting blog. I’m sharing here as since it was one of my most popular posts and extremely helpful to others.

Several people have asked about my experience leading up to my son starting kindergarten. If you saw Waiting for Superman, my experience was similar except I don’t think my alternative prospects were so dire. Fortunately, I watched the movie after my process but it was still nail-biting and waiting for superman movieconvinced me not to attend the lottery draws. This process was so similar to finding the right college… but it’s kindergarten! I couldn’t believe it, but I also couldn’t just go with our assigned school because:

  1. I was planning to move and did not want to have to pull him out during the middle of school or even after the first year. (my air force brat/divorce kid baggage)
  2. It’s a traditional school, from what I understood, and that’s not the setting I thought he would thrive in.
  3. I wasn’t hearing great things about the school anyway (until after the process of course – they soon launched a school farming project – how cool is that!).

I didn’t even visit the school though. I can’t call whether that was a good decision or not.

This process was so similar to finding the right college... but it's kindergarten! Share on X

Other deciding factors

I knew my son was very friendly, a leader, and had analytical leanings but I wanted to make sure he was heavily exposed to the arts. My first choice for him really was Montessori but we were not accepted into the public Pre-K lottery for either magnet elementary Montessori school, and neither his father nor I could afford private (I researched independent schools before he started preschool) so that became out of the question. Eventually, I prioritized the following characteristics:

  • Arts-Integrated. I was most attracted to arts-integrated because arts was becoming very minimized in traditional schools. I also knew I wanted teachers who taught to various ways of learning.
  • Project-Based. Project-based reminded me of how I did work in graduate school and how people work day-to-day anyway so it seemed like great preparation for the goal of him becoming a productive, working adult.
  • Year-Round Calendar. I preferred the year-round calendar over traditional but was willing to sacrifice that preference for more positive factors that were good for my son. Good levels of community and parent support were important but not crucial.
  • Extracurricular/Leadership. Because of my son’s personality, I looked for clubs, interaction between multiple grades and leadership opportunities in his later years.
  • EOG Scores. I considered end-of-grade (EOG) test scores as a part of the equation but not the strongest factor although seeing academic achievement gaps set off alarms. I considered opinions from multiple parents and friends as well but they didn’t drive my decisions much.
  • Sibling Preference. I thought about my younger son because more likely than not, he would attend the same elementary school as his brother. With sibling preference prevalent in elementary schools, it seemed safe to assume we’ll automatically have that option.

I created a worksheet to help you work through your own school choice options. Feel free to access it below and copy to your Google Drive or download it for use on your favorite spreadsheet software.


1. Narrow Down List of Schools

Once I had an idea of what would philosophically work for our family, my first step was to look at the list of elementary public and charter schools in Durham and choose those within reasonable distance from where I currently live and where I planned to live (central or south Durham). I looked at school review sites including overwhelmingly positive ones, solicited opinions from current parents online and offline, reviewed NC report cards, solicited thoughts about specific schools from staff I knew in the school system, and even engaged in/listened to general talk from everywhere including internet message boards and neighborhood parks. Magnet and charter schools turned out as better options simply because of their flexibility in curriculum and geographic eligibility (i.e. we could move to another part of Durham county and he would be able to stay in the same school).

ONCE I had an idea of what would philosophically work for our family, my first step was to narrow the list of local elementary schools by reasonable commute considering moving plans. Share on X

2. Tour and Interact with Schools

In the winter, I began touring schools. Central Park School for Children was my first tour and ended up being top of the list for my son. I loved the school vibe, many of his preschool classmates already attended there, their approach to curriculum and conflict resolution was great, and the environment was just warm. I had a very friendly interaction with a student in the hallway during my tour and that left a great impression. I knew that my son would thrive there, and I would be able to relate to the parents (some of whom I already knew) and be involved. (2015 Update: both of my sons are in this school and doing well! I’ll do an update before the year is out).

Soon after that tour, Durham Public Schools had their magnet school fair where all the system’s magnet schools displayed their students’ work, had teachers and staff available to discuss their approaches and a few schools even had students share their experiences. Ironically, I visited most schools except the one I ended up choosing! FYI – they had a magnet school fair in November 2015. But you can now contact schools to tour.

After visiting Central Park, I chose to also tour Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary, Sandy Ridge Visual and Performing Arts Elementary, Voyager Academy (charter), Global Scholars Academy (charter) and R.N. Harris Integrated Arts/Core Knowledge Elementary. When I toured, I paid special attention to:

  • What was going on in classrooms and in the hallways with students, teachers and staff?
  • How students interacted with me and each other? I watched students I saw in the hallways and in classrooms. If I saw warmth and friendliness in some of the students, it made me more comfortable with the school (it was the only thing that impressed me at one charter). When I didn’t see that in students, I didn’t feel connected.
  • Information provided during the tour and who was providing it. Each tour was different with some led by students, teachers, principals, parents or a combination. My favorite tour was student-led.
  • What was the feel of the environment? What was on the walls (like student work and other posters)? What was on some floors? A few schools had boxes of used Capri-suns on the floor. It took a while for me to realize what they were for (fundraising). I also looked at the cafeteria food, the library, etc. I was impressed with one charter school’s full commercial kitchen and their intent behind having it – most charter schools do not have kitchens and offer catered lunch from outside (if anything).

A parent friend convinced me to tour RN Harris with her. It really wasn’t on my radar but it sounded okay so I went to check it out. We took all of our kids too just by happenstance (normally we did not have kids on the tours just so we could fully pay attention). The tour really blew me away! I enjoyed the student interaction, the principal impressed me with her commitment to the school and the classes we visited actually caught EJ’s attention. It had my desired curriculum and teaching style preferences. It was just on the traditional calendar which was not what I desired for my son or our family.

Academic Achievement Gap

Mid-way during the process, the academic achievement gap really got on my radar. My son is African-American and I started noticing wide disparities for African-American boys on EOG scores for schools that had high overall EOG scores on their report cards. I began asking questions

Why does this gap exist in your school?  I started getting so frustrated with the answers to this question, I stopped asking. In one school, I received about five totally different responses from the five members of staff and volunteers that I asked. Many blamed socioeconomic status but didn’t go deeper into what it was about family financial status to make kids not do as well in school as others.

What are you doing to address the gap? I was much more impressed with how some schools addressed this. One school told me a very comprehensive approach they had recently implemented. Then again, I don’t know if they were just throwing everything at it to see what would stick? Regardless, it showed commitment to the issue. There were some school administrators I decided to email since I had already visited their schools and didn’t think to ask while there. Again, stark contrast in responses which really showed me who I was dealing with. I was most impressed when one head of school offered a phone conversation to discuss and did so over the weekend. He presented the most comprehensive attack of the issue including diversity training and ensuring proper credentialing for teachers.

I also reached out to schools outside of my search that had nearly no academic achievement gap and essentially asked what was their secret sauce. They all responded and mainly credited their commitment to ensuring kids understand the material. Practice, practice, practice as well as deep exposure to a variety of topics and subjects. Fortunately, one school I applied to matched this criteria and philosophy too 🙂

3. Apply for top choice schools

There was nothing lost by applying to charter schools so I applied to the ones I most desired, and included Kestrel Heights since they were adding an elementary school and we had ties to the program (but it was really far away from where we lived at the time). Since Global Scholars Academy had a late application deadline and a very small amount of chairs, I decided to wait before applying there and ultimately did not apply since EJ was accepted into a great school.

The tricky thing about applying to Durham choice schools was you could only list two choices. Word on the street was the first choice is the only one seriously considered – it’s rare to get into the second choice school (though it has happened), especially when it was a highly desired program (such as one of the Montessori schools). I didn’t want to waste my choices so I had to be sure about which school to put in the top spot.

I chose RN Harris as number one and Sandy Ridge as my second choice. Though Sandy Ridge had a lot of the elements I wanted, including being year-round, it was brand new and right down the street from where we lived at the time – a place I knew we would move from. The maturity and geographic centrality of the RN Harris program were more appealing and drove it to the #1 spot.

I also applied to Holt Elementary, the year-round school closest to our home. 2015 Update: This process has changed. Parents can no longer apply to magnet and year-round schools separately.


4. The Wait

It took several weeks for the lotteries to happen. There’s almost always a guarantee that a lottery will take place for all the schools I applied to. I celebrated the end of the process, then occupied myself with other projects while we waited. As I mentioned before, I did not attend the actual lottery and just waited for notification. Some schools notified me nearly immediately over email, for others I received a letter, and one, my favorite, didn’t bother with notification at all (BOOOO!).

5. Make a Decision

So first I have to say, we’re fortunate that we were accepted anywhere. We have friends that were not accepted to any schools they applied to. EJ was initially accepted into my top magnet school choice  R.N. Harris and the closest year-round school Holt. I chose Harris!

The day before he was to start at Harris, he received an invitation to join one of the charter schools (which was already in its second week of class). I was excited, shocked and then went into full research mode again. I reached out to parents I knew with children at the school and received some great advice. My decision came down to Harris having a more mature program. At that point in my life, a mature program worked better for our family life than one where the school was trying to work out its kinks and me trying to find my place within that… too much chaos for that time – our first time in elementary school. It may work for others, though. One mom was excited about the chance to help form the culture of a new school. At another point in my life, I would have been excited about that too, but not at that time.

Final Tips

1.Write down your desires and needs for your child’s education and your family’s role in it. This is the key to the whole process if you are going to do it. There’s no point in pursuing an arts magnet if your child has absolutely no love for the arts. Or, if your family has relationships with families in your base traditional school and it seems like a pretty good program, going through this process may be a moot point.

2. Attend tours with other parents and discuss your thoughts with each other. There may be some things you don’t catch that other parents will and vice versa. You may get a certain feeling about a school and think “maybe it was just me/my imagination” but then hear a parent say the exact same thing and realize you were right – confirmation! (TRUE STORY)

3. Ask questions. Many people I toured with did not ask questions even though they had concerns written all over their faces. Take the time to speak up, even if you just wait until after the tour. Even if you only have time to do it over email or with a phone call – be sure to contact the principal or director and get your concerns answered. No one will speak up for your child like you will.

4. Visit your top school(s) multiple times. We visited three or four times before EJ started at RN Harris. It would have been more if we attended the spring fair. Take your paperwork up there instead of sending it in the mail. Go to the upcoming school performance, carnival, fair or other event that shows more of the school’s personality. These are events open to the community so you would be welcomed. Recently I heard a suggestion to volunteer and/or get involved in PTA before joining a school. If it’s a definite that your family will be joining the school, by all means – go for it.

5. Take advantage of community resources. One of the things I love about Durham is the sheer amount of community support for families. I participated in Parent & Family Advocacy and Support Training (PFAST) provided by the NC Cooperative Extension at the beginning of the school year. It quickly helped with navigating and communicating within our elementary school.

By the time EJ was in kindergarten for nearly two months, he was in love with it! He was making new friends, learned so much new material including some of the French language and violin, and became a stronger reader and writer. His class was very diverse and he really was learning so much socially including more about limits (great lessons to have at his age). I was excited about what we would do together with this school (you know I’m getting involved). I really wanted him in a public school so I was happy we were part of a great one.

2015 Update: This excitement didn’t last long :-(. I’ll do an update soon with what happened and how we ended up at Central Park for first grade.


Feel free to leave questions or comments about your process in the section below or contact me directly.

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