Speed Dating Seattle Schools

TOUR: an activity in which you go through a place in order to see and learn about the different parts of it

It’s February in Seattle and love is in the air.  Young singles are looking for someone to buy them flowers.  Old marrieds are looking for meaningful ways to honor abiding love.  And, parents of children who will be eligible for kindergarten in the fall are trying desperately to fall in love with a school.

Each February, hordes of anxious Seattle parents try to choose a school based on a speech from the principal, an hour spent wandering the hallways trying to decipher best guess spelling, and a few brief classroom observations in which the children act about as natural as you would expect them to with a steady stream of strangers analyzing their every move.

I spent last Thursday morning at Son’s school giving tours to prospective parents.

In Seattle, schools like the one Son attends are “option” schools.  Unlike neighborhood schools, nobody is automatically assigned to attend.  In order to get in you have to request admission.  First preference is given to students with a sibling at the school and second preference to those who live within somersaulting distance.  Remaining spots are assigned based on a lottery.  If your child’s butt gets one of the 26 mismatched chairs clustered around hand-me-down tables, it is cause for celebration.

The touring parents look stressed.  They are fretting about making the “right” choice and about whether Lady Luck is on their side.  Should they put our school in their number one preference spot or the Spanish immersion school?  What about the school with the Montessori track?  Can they skip their option school form altogether and just go to their neighborhood school?

The hype around the lottery and the unpredictability of school assignments can make parents lose sight of the reality.  We have an embarrassment of riches in Northwest Seattle, with several wonderful elementary schools to choose from.  It’s a first world problem…selecting the best from the good.  

Each school, like each student, is different.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.

Each school does their best to describe their philosophy and approach in a quick speech before the tours.  Each school is unique, but the presentations aren’t.  It’s like reviewing resumes for drastically different employees who all claim to be “detail oriented” and “collaborative.”  If school tours were a drinking game where you took a shot every time someone said “differentiate” or “whole child,” you would need to have your stomach pumped after each one.

The Seattle School District kindergarten registration system feels a bit like speed dating.  You spend a month rushing around trying to pick the right one based on a limited and somewhat generic interaction.

Some schools are like handsome men in pressed shirts.  They have bright, clean hallways and tidy, organized classrooms.  They make a charming first impression.  They turn your head with the evenly spaced and level art on the walls.  Your pulse quickens with longing when you see the color coded organization systems and kids gathered attentively on the rug reciting members of the “at” word family.

Our school is not that school.

Our school is a surfer dude who likes poetry; his hair is askew, his jeans are faded, and his unicycle has a flat tire.  The relaxed confidence and honesty is refreshing, but you can’t help but notice the sand tumbling out of his shoes onto the floor.  He’s a bit of a mess, but he is also warm and comfortable.  He is smart and compassionate.  He understands his place in the world and earnestly believes he can make it better.  You want to listen to him strum a guitar by the fire.  Ideally, shirtless.

Our school is that school.

It’s hard not to blush with pride when prospective parents see what you see.  They see kids learning in creative ways.  They see teachers making time to teach children compassion as well as addition.  They see classrooms made for touching and doing.  They see a safe place for kids to learn who they are and where they fit in the world.  Some parents see the earnest guitar playing poet by the fire who understands that life requires a range of skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test.

It’s equally hard not to feel defensive when prospective parents look at the school and see an undesirable option for their kids.  They scrunch their nose at the weird cafeteria smell.  They look with pity at the bleak hallways in need of paint.  They point at the Dia De Los Muertos artwork still on display three months later.  They reference the less than ideal math scores they found on the district’s website.  Some parents see the sand on the floor and can’t get past the grit.

It’s not for everyone.

Maybe dating is the perfect analogy.   You might fall in love with the surfer poet.  You will appreciate his compassion, treasure his warmth, and embrace his independent thinking.  You may not, however, choose to let him balance the checkbook.

You might fall in love with the smartly dressed guy in the button shirt.  You will appreciate his consistency, treasure his dependability, and embrace his organizational systems.  You may not, however, be able to avoid rolling your eyes when he reveals a PowerPoint presentation with sales projections for the upcoming bake sale.

Nobody is perfect.  Nobody can be all that you need.  So you choose the traits that matter most to you and exercise patience with the other traits that are part of the package.  The same is true with schools.

There are a million questions asked: How is the art curriculum?  Physical education?  How active is the PTA?  Will my child learn to ride a uni-cycle?  Does the school have a strong principal?  Technology funding?  Diversity?  How does the school deal with the wide range of learning abilities found in a typical classroom?  Do they sit on exercise balls or chairs?  Do they use formal titles or call teachers by their first names?  What are the test scores?  Class sizes?

I’ve been there.  I’ve asked those questions and more in my quest to pick the perfect school for Son.  This year, I’m filling out entrance paperwork for Daughter.  It’s much easier the second time around – partly because you would have to pay me a great deal of money to voluntarily drop my kids at two separate schools but also because I’ve learned that the questions I should have been asking were:

  1. How can I help you?
  2. What should I be doing at home?

Every school needs help implementing their vision and schools where the time and talents of the community are used effectively are great places to be.  But, schools can’t do it all.  There will be things you will need to do at home to make your kid a well-rounded student and citizen.

So, ask your speed dating questions.  Consider spicing tours up with a “differentiation” or “whole child” drinking game.

Then, go with your gut.

Chances are the school your kid goes to is going to be great, and flawed, and terrific, and terrible no matter what you write on that form.




4 thoughts on “Speed Dating Seattle Schools

  1. What a perfect post about this topic. I love it. As you know, we are in the same boat and I so appreciate your point that the question we all should be asking is “How can I help you?” Thanks for this, Kristina!

  2. It doesn’t end in February either. Thanks for giving this stressed out first-time mom of an only daughter some much needed perspective.

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