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Choosing an Elementary School

February 14, 2017

Contributor and photosanity founder Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick shares her thoughts and advice about choosing your child’s elementary school.


Last week, we talked about choosing a pre-school for your child. This week, and over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be tackling elementary school, including pre-K. First of all, let’s acknowledge right off the bat that, depending on where you live, elementary school admissions can be a stressful and overwhelming process.

This is particularly true in large cities like Brooklyn where it’s not always a straightforward situation of simply sending your kids to your local zoned school. What I’ve seen in Brooklyn is that many people bought houses way before they had kids, so school district was not a priority in their real estate search, and many families cannot or would prefer not to move into a neighborhood with better schools.

Nor do they have to. If you’re willing to deal with some uncertainty, other public options include charter schools, non-zoned district schools, and G&T (gifted and talented) programs. And of course, there are also independent schools.

Here are three things to keep in mind when choosing an elementary school for your child:

1. Go With Your Gut. You can pore over the statistics and ratings, read the online reviews, and talk to other parents. However, the most important thing is to visit all the schools you are considering (including ones you may not be sure you’re considering) and go with your gut on how you feel about the school for your child and your family.

At this point, while it’s still hard to tell what sort of learner your child will end up being, and what kind of strengths and interests they’ll want to pursue, you will have some idea of whether they will do better with, for example, a little more structure or a little more open-endedness. Do you think they’ll benefit from a strong science, languages or arts program? Is it important to you that there is an active parent community? How about racial or economic diversity? A good after school program?

Will you and your child feel more comfortable at a larger school with more resources and programs, or a smaller school where everyone knows each other? Would you prefer a neighborhood school you can walk to, or are you willing to travel a little? (Note that unlike preschool, I think that a good elementary school can be worth a little inconvenience in terms of location. Getting there won’t be as hard as commuting with a preschooler, and while the school bus might still seem daunting right now, it quickly becomes an excellent option.)

It’s helpful to talk to current parents at the school, bearing in mind that those who volunteer at the school open house are likely the most enthusiastic. Also remember that if you hear different experiences from different parents at the same school, think about which family is more similar to yours as far as personalities and values, and whose opinions you are therefore more likely to share. A school that is great for one child is not necessarily going to be great for your child, and vice versa.

If you can, meet the fifth graders at the school too – some schools have them present as part of the open houses which I think is so smart and helpful!

2. Keep an Open Mind. In NYC, the elementary school application process is sort of like college applications. In fact, some would say it is more stressful! Due to the nature of the process, you want to keep an open mind, apply to a wide range of schools, and don’t get too attached to any one particular school as your first choice school. Rather, it helps to have tiers of choices – first tier, second tier, and your “safety” third tier.

Joyce Szuflita of NYC School Help urges parents not to rank all their choices against each other. Ok, you do have to rank your district school choices in relation to one another for the application, and the same is true for G&T options (if your child qualifies). But there is no need to rank, say, Charter School A against District School B against G&T School C and Independent School D until you start getting offers. Then you can decide which is your preferred school out of the offers you receive at any one time. It’s worth mentioning that there is usually a “trading up” process over the summer as waitlists move and new spaces open up.

3. Look at Your Biases. We only know what we know, and we have all had certain experiences growing up that shape our beliefs today;  I’ve found that this is particularly true when it comes to choosing a school. If you went to a really large school and had a hard time finding your way, you likely believe a small school would be a better choice. Or if you have great memories of walking home from school with your friends, you might be hesitant to consider a school that is further away. If you went to a white, upper-middle class school, you might have an unconscious bias against a more racially and socio-economically diverse school that has a lot to offer. If you went to private school, you might have a hard time considering public school.

It’s hard to unpack these biases, but it’s worthwhile to do so if you can as it opens up more options for your child.

A Note About Pre-K: Pre-K is a bit of a weird in-between year, depending on where you live and how your local schools handle it. For example, here in NYC, a spot in a public pre-K program does not guarantee you a spot in K or above at the same school (unless it is your zoned school), and many charter schools don’t offer pre-K. And pre-K spots are sometimes more limited, so you’re not guaranteed a pre-K spot at your local zoned school. As a result, some families decide to keep their child in the same private pre-school for a year, rather than moving them to a school that they may only be at for a year, while others opt for a local or universal pre-K program, knowing that it will only be for a year.


Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents. She founded Photosanity to help parents find joy & connection through photographing their kids. Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5.

Alethea has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity.com and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.