Kindergarten, Here We Come…

Just when did getting your kid into kindergarten turn into a process more like Kindergarten 2 applying to an Ivy League school or the CIA?

I asked myself that the other night as my wife and I sat in an auditorium with about 50 other parents of prospective kindergartners looking to attend our local public elementary school. We had all gathered there for an hour-long information session led by one of the school’s kindergarten teachers because, in 2014, you don’t drop your kid off at the front door of your local school the morning of the first day of classes in September. That might have flown back when I entered kindergarten at Wildwood Park Elementary in Puyallup, Wash., back in 1973. But not in Oakland in 2014. Try that today and you will be persona non grata at the school’s next pancake breakfast fundraiser.

Needless to say, things have changed when it comes to getting your kid into school. For starters, there was this information session that my wife and I and those four-dozen or so other parents that were stressing to various degrees about their kids’ upcoming education were attending. I don’t know if it’s residue from “No Child Left Behind” or too much information from the Huffington Post’s parents site, but it seemed to me that the moms and dads of today are worried about, well, everything.

And I do mean EVERYTHING, including:

–When do they start testing for the “gifted” program? [Because every parent, me included, thinks their kid is “special” in the good “special” way.]

–The daily schedule, and what things like “sharing”, “exploring” and “auto shop” mean. [OK, I made that last one up. Although learning to change spark plugs would probably do my daughters more good than sharing toys, and thus germs, with 26 other five-year-olds.]

–How many locks are on the school gates and what members of Seal Team Six provide security around the playground.

But the only question I really cared about was the one I asked. The school is the closest one to our house, which in my day meant that that was the school you went to. That is not necessarily the case these days.

“So…how does it work for admission?” I asked. “I’ve heard there’s a lottery…”

Oh yeah, the school lottery system.

Rarely has there been a greater discrepancy in levels of proposed awesomeness between two things with the same name as the state lottery and the school lottery. Here in California, we have commercials showing a guy coming out of his front door in the morning, presumably in some place like San Diego, and it’s snowing. Why? Because he was able to buy a gigantic snow making machine after he won the state’s Super Lotto! And hey, isn’t buying your own personal snowmaker just the first thing that any insta-millionaire should do with his winnings?

But…mention “school lottery” to parents of prospective students and you’re likely to get a raft of reactions ranging from “How can we rig this thing?” to “Maybe we should just move to Australia?”

Our local elementary school is very good. And with very good schools, such places are popular with parents who want the best education for their kids. And because of this, Oakland, like many other school districts around the country, has adopted a lottery system for determining what kids it lets into its hallowed halls of education. And the thought of losing a slot in a very good school, like ours, is enough for some parents to start considering selling the minivan in order to pay for tuition at private school.

Things aren’t likely to get to that point for us. Our school basis its enrollment first on whether the incoming kindergartner has an older sibling and then on whether the kid lives in the neighborhood. After that, it’s lottery time. We are less than a mile from the school, meaning our odds are pretty spot on that Maddo, our five-year-old, will get in there this fall. I was so happy when the teacher said this that I nearly jumped up and shouted, “USA! USA! USA!” when she said it.

The questioning went on for about 45 minutes longer. By the time the meeting was done, half the parents had left. I presume they boogied out early in order to get out of having to help fold up and put away the chairs we had sat on. So much for their involvement in the parent-faculty club.

The next morning, my wife took a tour of the school with a bunch of other parents. She came home raving about the place, and with an application in hand. Yes, an application. For a public-school kindergarten. We had to list things like our top six school choices, whether our daughter was a twin, and our own highest levels of education. You would have thought we were trying to get early admission for Maddo into the University of California system. Thirteen years early, that is.

This is just the beginning, too, of what will be eight months of meetings, calls and stress leading up to Maddo’s eventual public-school kindergarten debut on September 2. To start with, although the odds are very much in our favor, we won’t know for sure about Maddo’s school placement until March. The next two months are kind of like that period between Election Day and the president’s Inauguration, only without knowing who’s moving in to the White House.

And, even though we have most of winter, all of spring and nearly all of summer ahead of us, we need to get cracking right now on what the hell we are going to do with Maddo before and after school.

Since kids’ school times never correspond perfectly with parents work schedules, we need to line up some sort of before-school assistance to get Maddo to school, and something else for the two or three hours between when her school gets out, and we get home. This isn’t the 1970s. School buses don’t go everywhere like they used to, and there aren’t too many latchkey five-year-olds walking home these days.

As I thought about this, I looked at my wallet. And I knew that the financial gain I had planned on from not having to pay Maddo’s preschool bill was going to be miniscule, at best. Public school may be “free”, but no one is going to watch your kids before and after they leave the school grounds for nothing.


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