As the New Year rings in, parents of the more than 530,000 California children entering Kindergarten this coming fall are embarking on a journey of finding the right school. As any parent will do, they’ll search tirelessly to find the best possible place for their child; a place that balances academic rigor with creativity and expression in a nurturing learning culture that will both challenge and inspire. It may feel overwhelming.
For parents looking for some guidance in this search, Sherry Adams, co-founder and education visionary behind Stratford School, based in California, provides a few helpful tips.
Ms. Adams says she hears a common theme among the parents of more than 6,000 Stratford students at 23 campuses. “Parents are seeking a learning environment that embraces the genius of childhood while providing academic excellence. They want a balanced curriculum where the basics of reading, writing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are combined with fine arts, foreign language, and physical education. Beyond academic excellence, parents of today are seeking a learning experience where their child’s unique talents and passion can be nurtured and appreciated. Just as important,” she continues, “children are all beautifully unique and school philosophies are just as diverse. That means the best solution can be different for every child and family.” So, where is the best place for your child?
A quick search of schools in your area may show all kinds of choices. Educator and parent Allison Wilson, curriculum and training implementation specialist at Stratford School, says the search for her own children turned up a spectrum of possibilities including developmentally appropriate/play-based, language immersion and more. “Isn’t it great to live in a community with so many options for young learners?” she said. But how can we narrow the list?
Ms. Adams recommends parents start by leaving the methodology to the teachers and administrators and focusing on their child’s needs, the school, its teachers and culture.
Know your child’s temperament
- What engages your child’s interest? What are they passionate about? What makes them unique?
- Does the school understand child temperament? Does it offer a curriculum that supports your child’s interests and needs? Does the faculty see children as unique individuals and, if so, what do they do or say to support this?
Studies have shown that kindergarten readiness is closely related to temperament. Wilson provides a personal example. “My oldest child is strong-willed, has a vivid imagination and a serious obsession with music. She also thrives on routines. We knew a program with a daily schedule would support her needs while still allowing for her interests and talents to grow and flourish. We chose a school with daily music time to allow her the opportunity to sing to her heart’s content.”
When choosing a school for their child, experts say parents look for a school culture that includes a balanced curriculum, where students are free to explore and eventually master skills and concepts that include the full spectrum of critical thinking and STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) in a supportive, welcoming environment with caring teachers and staff. In short, a culture of curiosity, openness, possibilities and strong leadership.
The role of culture
How important is culture? It’s crucial, according to Roland Barth, founder of the Principal’s Center at Harvard University. Barth says school culture “has more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the president of the country, the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal, teachers and parents can ever have.” (Click here for more information.)
Ms. Adams says that at the school level, upholding culture involves everyone, every day. That means maintaining an underlying mindfulness of respect, excellence, collaboration, care and connection. “I can speak from our experience at Stratford School,” said Ms. Adams, “I see the results of a successful school culture with my three grandsons that attend Stratford School. By empowering extraordinary teachers with a rigorous, balanced curriculum, combined with a dose of compassion and care, we expand upon a child’s natural curiosity to master what they don’t understand and explore whatever fascinates them.” She recommends that prospective parents ask the tough questions, talk to friends and coworkers, and spend some time at each potential school before making a decision.
Explore options and learn the school’s philosophy:
- Does everyone in the school share the same philosophy and communicate it clearly?
- Beginning in kindergarten, how does each grade level prepare your child for the next step?
- What do they say about the academic and social culture of the school environment?
- What can you learn about the leadership of the school and what role do students play in the school’s success?
Tour the schools
- Does the school allow your child to attend the tour? By all means, bring them when the opportunity arises.
- Does your child feel welcomed or invited to participate? Even if they are shy and decline at first, the point is they were asked, and that can make all the difference.
- Can you see your child happy in this environment?
Time for some honesty
“Once you’ve done your school work, weigh your options,” Ms. Adams concludes. “Trust your judgment and the perspective of your child. When you decide, there is a world of exploration and discovery ahead. Enjoy the journey.”