By Ted Peterson
We planned a lot before we began the process of adopting. Besides learning what we could from the classes required under Calfornia law, we made a number of changes in our life as a couple. We quit smoking. I sold my two-seater and bought a car I could put a babyseat in. When we moved into together, we left two one-bedroom condos in West Hollywood, for a three-bedroom, two-bath cottage in the San Fernando Valley. It was -is- far from trendy restaurants and boutiques, but set on a quiet cul-de-sac on a lot filled with fruit trees. The perfect place to raise a family.
What we forgot was to check the local schools.
It’s a pretty seriously stupid thing to forget to look at when you’re picking a neighborhood to start a family. Straight couples buying homes in suburbia in which to breed don’t forget to ask about schools. I mean, even when there’s a pool and a mature blood orange tree in the backyard. Right?
We found a fabulous preschool in walking distance from our house right away, using the trick I found in the book “How To Choose The Right Preschool For Your Child” by Jenifer Wana – just go to the website for NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Child, type in your address and you’ll find all the certified preschools in the area. The author explains that there are plenty of good preschools that aren’t certified by NAEYC, but if they are certified, then they are excellent.
Once that was out of the way, and our son was nestled in a child-centered, nurturing, creative, and needless to say, expensive environment, we figured we could breathe for a while. We went to parent classes at the school, and smiled at the other parents who were nervous about their toddler graduating into the room for two-year-olds, or the two-year-olds coming into the class with the real preschoolers. What was there to be worried about? Even more hysterical were the graduating preschoolers, whose five-year-olds would be going off to Kindergarten. Would they be ready? Would they be scared? What if they had to read and they couldn’t, or they had to go to the bathroom and they didn’t know where to go?
Ian and I gave our support, but inside we were thinking, “Chill. It’s Kindergarten, not a pit of vipers.”
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, you had to be five by October of the year you begin Kindergarten. Mikey’s birthday is in September, which is a great (and statistically popular) month in which to be born. The weather is nice enough for an outdoor party for one thing, and as a child born in February who grew up in the Midwest, I can vouch for the fact that outdoor parties beat indoor parties every time. Most importantly, it seems, you get the advantage of being the oldest one in your class.
I’ve read some articles suggesting that the oldest kids in their grade levels have the best time of it in school. I can imagine. If Mikey wants a car for his 16th birthday, to be the first kid with a license as 10th grade begins, I envision a long summer of mowing lawns. Oh, and I suppose there are other advantages as well.
The point was that we didn’t have to think about Kindergarten for two more years. We didn’t have to research schools, visit them, interrogate parents and teachers and administrators, do the applications and interviews and tests for another twelve months.
But we were wrong.
The age for admission for LAUSD schools has changed from kids being 5 by the beginning of October to kids being 5 by the beginning of September. Mikey wouldn’t be the oldest in his class, he’d be the baby. And I was twelve months behind schedule for researching!
Immediately, I went from mocking the hysterical parents to joining them, firing off calls and emails to them to find out what they knew. I called up my parents, freaking out, to get some good old grandparentish advice.
They told me to chill. So I jumped into research mode.
As I said, we didn’t know much about our local elementary school so we looked into it. Turns out it hasn’t passed the minimum requirements for the No Child Left Behind program for the last three years. So, so much for the safety net school.
Looking into private schools, we found that the majority of the schools we were interested in wouldn’t take children who weren’t 5 by October- “no exceptions.” There’s no reason to apply until next year.
Talking to Mikey’s preschool teachers, they’re happy to keep him on for an additional year, and promise they’ll make sure he doesn’t get bored. That’s a relief, though it doesn’t mean that I’m not researching and applying to schools now.
You see, besides private and public, there’s the third possibility: magnet schools. Magnet schools are specialized public schools which can take students from outside their immediate physical area, thus “magnet.” They also have a largely deserved reputation as being better than the generic one-size-fits-all public schools. The way you get into them is by lottery, but not all applicants have the same odds. You gain points in order to strengthen your odds by a number of factors – having an overcrowded local public school, or one that is primarily attended by minority students, for example – including being on the waiting list.
What you have to do is game the system, apply to a magnet school you’re unlikely to be admitted to, get waitlisted, and then use those points the following year – the year you actually want your kid to start school – to get him in. We applied for a magnet so popular, it accepts 1 in 32 applicants. That makes it twice as competitive as Harvard.
There are still a lot of questions, and not just what will we do if Mikey beats the odds and is accepted at the magnet we applied to. There are so many school in Los Angeles, and so many sites to use for research, that it probably makes sense to get organized now. The problem is that none of the websites tells me what I want to know to filter our choices.
We want the school we pick to be diverse in its student population, and we can find that out. We want good sports facilities and strong academics, and we can find that out. We want our son not to be the only kid with same-sex parents at the school, and we can find that out.
What we can’t find out without two years’ worth of research: at which school are the parents people with whom we’d want to spend five minutes? Based on a little anecdotal evidence we’ve compiled, the better the school, the more horrible the parents.
Fingers crossed we’ll find some exceptions to that rule.