Last year was the trial run. I breezed through the elementary school tours without a care in the world, knowing that I didn’t have to actually act on what I saw in the schools. I typed out a long and largely incoherent run-down of what I saw in the schools, not worrying about where my son would fit in. I had another year!
Now, of course, it’s the real deal. Now I have two weeks to fill in my top six (yeah, I know, there are only six) choices for where he’ll end up and get. Oh joy! Happily, even with the more critical sight of September 2012 looming, I found much to like. And if I’m totally honest, I actually like the schools even better this year than last. Some parents are more organized than I am, even down to rating the coffee. If you still want to get a tour in, you can. School tours are available during school hours after April 15, by appointment only. Call the school directly for an appointment. If you just want to get to it, here you go. (pdf)
** TIP: When picking up forms at the BOE offices, don’t just breeze in and pick up the form at the front desk. Ask for the office in the back, with the Kindergarten forms. They are yellow. Not white. They say Kindergarten right at the top – not Elementary School. Apparently, I looked too unfrazzled to be a Kindergarten parent, and the woman at the front desk tried to give me the other form. Let my folly be your time-saving information! **
Other parents I know around town are spread out in all the elementary schools, so I’ve been able to get the good, the bad, and the confusing out of them this year. Just about everyone is happy, but those who aren’t admit that it has as much to do with the child’s personality as with the school. Here’s the unscientific impression I’ve gotten from public forums, people I know and trust, and my own visits to the schools:
Bullock: Airy and bright. The parents and teachers were enthusiastic and welcoming. What attracted me most was its focus on the Responsive Classroom and the “book buddies” program that the Kindergarteners have with 5th Graders. Other things that sucked us right in were the Music and Art rooms, combined with the clear excitement those subject teachers displayed. The art program has its own kiln, and the music room is spacious and filled with keyboards and drums.
Another advantage at Bullock is that its teaching staff has the most experience with the Lucy Calkins program that all the schools now use. If they are going to use it, administering it properly is a must.
A disadvantage at Bullock is the lack of a principal. Kathy Lindsay, the interim principal, is an experienced administrator, and very knowledgeable about the Montclair schools. However, not knowing who will lead the school while my children are there is a missing link.
Nishuane: The clear advantage to Nishuane is that it is only K-2. As the principal points out, it’s about “Little People, Little Problems.” Considering that I fully intend to use the buses, knowing only younger kids will be on the bus is a relief. Also, Nishuane’s focus on phonics (FUNdations) is attractive, at least to these two old school parents. Another unique aspect of Nishuane is that it is the only place that a child can receive Mandarin with a live teacher, and that track can continue through Hillside, middle school, and high school. The Mandarin teachers are wonderful, and I think I learned some Mandarin just from standing in the bright and cheery room. It’s that impressive.
The size of Nishuane (six to seven Kindergarten classes versus two or three in other schools) may seem intimidating to some parents with quieter kids. Together with Hillside, these schools almost triple the size of any other elementary school. And even though it seems like the children are catered to and shepherded when necessary, the size may disturb some parents. Also, the options for the Creative and Aesthetic classes are magnificent, but could be seen as overwhelming. Perfect for some kids, intimidating for others.
Northeast is the most computer-connected school. Not only does it have computer labs, but it also has 55 traveling iPads that are used by all grade levels. We even saw the music teacher checking a class of trumpets, trombones, and other brass instruments for proper tuning with his iPhone. I believe this is the only school with classes in brass instruments. (Can someone confirm or correct me on this?)
The principal is enthusiastic and seems excited about the school and the teachers. The Global Studies/Magnet coordinator is also very enthused about the school. The staff and parents at Northeast make a great effort to emphasize the three opportunities for playdates during the summer prior to school starting. And while the other schools also have an ice cream social, I think Northeast is the only one to emphasize three summer playdates. Smart marketing for nervous first-time Kindergarten parents. Northeast also utilizes Montclair State students to teach Spanish to Northeast students. This augments the Salsa and Rosetta Stone programs that all the schools use.
Bradford’s connection to Montclair State University is well-established, thanks to its Magnet theme. There are student teachers in many of the classrooms, and the children benefit from the additional adult presence in the classrooms. First year teachers, as well as student teachers, have a mentoring professor from MSU come in once a week. Students take trips up to Montclair State for their Field Day as well as for special field trips.
Bradford supplements its language program with high school students who come in to work with children after school. (Northeast also has this pilot program.) With a dedicated music room and a large art room, Bradford is able to emphasize arts along with its Peacemakers program and general curriculum.
Bradford was the only school in which I saw Special Education students active in the hallway. My friend and I were approached in the hallway to practice introductions with a student and his aide. I also noticed several other very positive interactions in my short time there. I was impressed by the efforts.
Unfortunately, my tour of Edgemont was cut short, so I wasn’t able to see all the classrooms in action. I liked the new principal, and I also like that Everyday Math is not the curriculum focus at Edgemont (nor is it at Watchung). They use some of the concepts, but it’s the Houghton Mifflin system.
In the Kindergarten classrooms, we saw busy students – some more directed than others – working on various projects. As the principal said in the pre-tour talk, the Montessori style provides freedom for children’s quirks with self-directed opportunities. The Kindergarten music class we saw was practicing with its Maypole, and there was even a rock band rehearsing. A Kindergarten rock band!
Edgemont has a dedicated science teacher with a dedicated room. And each Kindergarten classroom has two full-time teaching assistants as part of the magnet, to help facilitate the Montessori method. Another way in which Edgemont fulfills its magnet is with the Montessori Peace curriculum.
Watchung, as the Science & Technology Magnet, has all students take science lab classes as half-classes while the other half goes to the school’s amazing Greenhouse. So every week kids get some form of extra science lab – whether it’s technology or living science. To earn its Blue Ribbon designation, Watchung showed achievement for three years in a row. And to give time to reading, the school makes sure to do one-on-one reading assessment with students. As with the other schools, the Lucy Calkins system is used. However, the math is the same Houghton Mifflin curriculum that Edgemont has.
When asked about recess during the cold winter months, a parent explained that there is an optional walking group that gets exercise if the playground blacktop has ice. This allows for children who need more active recess time to get moving. Something else attractive to some parents is that the after-care at Watchung separates the older kids from the younger kids in the cafeteria. I know a few parents who are concerned about their Kindergartners spending four hours after school with worldly fifth graders.
Watchung also allows older grades to take elective classes, like extra music, during lunch-time. This is a nice option for students who have directed interests and/or prefer organized activities in their downtime.
Overall, my greatest concern about the school system comes from hearing the various principals talk about district-wide programs and events (Lucy Calkins, a morning meeting, having a get-to-know-you summer playdate, anti-bullying programs, school-wide announcement shows) as though no other schools do this. Don’t the principals get together for a monthly coffee-talk meeting or something? They should. I’ll host – and I’ll serve Peet’s Coffee! (It’s on sale at ShopRite this week.)
As I mentioned last year, choice creates stress. Few other districts offer choice about where to go to elementary school. And some school districts don’t provide busing for distances under the state requirements (two miles for K-8) at all. While this process puts pressure on parents who feel the need to make the correct choice, it also allows interested parents to get to know each school – and by extension, the entire system - a bit better. Make sure to complete the request forms and register your Kindergartners by the end of April!