When to Start the School Search

We all know kids start kindergarten at age 5.  So choosing a school should happen the year before kindergarten…right?  Unfortunately the ‘when to start’ question is complicated and depends a lot on your risk tolerance.  Here are some different scenarios:

If you are planning to attend your neighborhood public school, then there are no requirements or paperwork to fill out before your child is 4 years old.  The only complication in this situation is that some parents take advantage of pre-K programs at their local elementary school, such as “Bright Futures.”

One parent whose children attended the Bright Futures program at Bache-Martin told me:  “The Bright Futures program gave us the opportunity to connect with other parents and really invest in our neighborhood.  We learned a lot about the school before we had to make our kindergarten decision.  Bright Futures is separate from Bache, but it gives you a head start on understanding the school.”

Applications for private school start the fall before your child would enroll – a full year before kindergarten.  What complicates the private school option is that most have pre-K classes.  Applications for these spots begin when the child is 3 years old.

When we started looking at schools, my son was 3 years old and I thought we were early.  We quickly realized that if the private school had 3 kindergarten classes, for example, they often had 3 pre-K classes.  There is some attrition and there are spots open for the Kindergarten classes, but most of the kindergarten spots are filled by the pre-K kids.  Being risk-averse parents, we decided that we would apply for pre-K to guarantee a spot for Kindergarten if he got in.  So the application process (after gathering information and making decisions) started August of the year my son was 3 years old.

If you are planning to lottery into a charter school or out-of-catchment public elementary school you will have to fill out applications generally by October of year before kindergarten starts.  The catch to this option is whether you feel you need a back-up plan.  You will often not find out about out-of-catchment area public schools until the spring, sometimes as late as May.  With this option you don’t necessarily have to start the process too early, but you may want to have a plan B if you’re not much of a risk-taker.

For many parents, looking at schools starts when the children are 2 years old.  (Allow for all out-of-Philadelphia readers to gasp here)  That gives you some time to research schools before applications to pre-kindergarten are due (at age 3).  I’ve gone through the process and it still sounds crazy to me.

Did you take a different path?  Let us know in the comments section!

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