Shalom Kita Aleph: Choosing the right elementary school for your child

Open houses for elementary schools are almost over in Israel, and registration is right around the corner. Our oldest is in kindergarten (gan chova) this year and we are searching for a school that would be a good fit for him and our family. He has two younger brothers and while we are open to the possibility of sending them to different elementary schools should the need arise, we would ideally like for them to be together, both on a logistical level and as a bonding experience for them. With the knowledge that switching schools is a difficult process, a lot of parents are feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing THE right one. Having gone to a number of open houses not too far away from our home in South Jerusalem (five down and one to go!), naturally, we have seen all the schools put their best foot forward to sell themselves. Many friends have told me that they all sound the same and it is hard to pick up on nuances. So, with all of Jerusalem virtually open, how does one choose a school?

Here are the top 10 factors you should consider when making such an important decision for your child (I realize this list is specific to Jerusalem, I believe many of the criteria are applicable to the rest of the country as well).

  1. Religious level – Just like the gan system, there are three different streams of schools: Mamlachti (secular), Mamlachti Dati (religious) and Haredi. Within each stream there are also differences. For example, the “religious” track has some schools that are coed and some that are single sex. There are also “Torani” religious schools that add more Jewish Studies hours (for an extra fee) and tend to be more right-wing religiously. Each family should choose the stream that most fits their family’s religious ideology. These are very formative years and ideally one would like the school to complement what one learns at home instead of providing conflicting information. It is also easier to send your child on a playdate to a friend’s house and not have to worry about differing standards of kashrut and general observance. It will be easier for your child to talk about his or her Shabbat experience in shul or going to the beach when friends have similar stories. Peer pressure, for better or worse, is something your child may face in school and if the peers are similar in this regard, life will be a little simpler.
  2. Location – Having a school that is accessible is very important. There will be drop off and pick up every day and at some point, your child will most likely be going to and from school on his or her own. When choosing a school, a question to ask is, “how will my child get to school?” Is the school within walking distance? Is the school a short drive away? What about in traffic? Does the school have parking nearby? Is it close to public transportation? Is there a hasa’a service (private transportation) — and do I feel comfortable putting my child on one? Keep in mind that a hasa’a is an additional cost. How will it work with my daily routine of getting to work and/or dropping off my other children in their frameworks? In addition to physically getting to and from the school, remember that, for most schools, kids will live close by. That means that a lot of your child’s social life will take place in that area and you will be the one taking your child to and from playdates, until he or she is older and independent; other children might be more reluctant to come out all the way for a visit. If the school truly attracts children from all over the city, your child’s friends will still be spread out in different neighborhoods. In that situation, there will still be a lot of travel, but your child will not be at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Even with all the schlepping, there might be a school that is so special that it is worth it. Another thing to keep in mind is that when assigning children to schools, the municipality often gives priority to those who live closer, even in the case of special schools.
  3. Emphasis on academics – Some schools might be highly rigorous and stress academic excellence. I know of a school that gives over an hour of homework per night for first graders. Some kids thrive in that kind of high-pressure environment and thirst for more. Other schools may downplay academics and focus more on the student’s holistic development, looking at the student’s social and emotional world while trying to instill a love of learning and curiosity. These schools might not have homework or exams and have other ways of keeping track of the student’s progress. In addition, they may have fewer frontal academic classes and believe in experiential learning. Some students need this kind of approach and would not be successful in a more academically driven setting. In addition, these schools may offer a larger variety of non-academic electives built into the curriculum such as caring for animals, dance, debate, choir, Judo, crocheting, gymnastics, various musical ensembles, wood working, robotics, art and more. And for those students who would shine in either extreme, perhaps parents might ideologically prefer one approach over another.
  4. Niche ideology – Some schools are more traditional neighborhood schools (and even those schools are not identical to each other), but others have a specific ideology that attracts students from all over the city and differentiates them. Some of these schools in Jerusalem include an interfaith school, an inclusion school, a democratic school, an anthroposophic school, a Montessori school, “nisui” (experimental) schools, a forest school and a pluralistic school where secular and religious students learn together. Each school has a mission and a modus operandi that might include less conventional methods. The philosophies of these schools greatly impact how the students are taught as well as the kind of material they learn. Parents who send to this kind of school often strongly align themselves with the school’s objectives. Some students who might not do well in a more conventional class setting could flourish in a one of these special schools.
  5. Physical space and facilities – Although not at the top of my list of priorities, I think one cannot ignore the physical space and facilities of a school. Just as living in a home with little natural light can affect us, here too the actual space available can have an impact on how our children learn. Going into a bright, spacious, and cheery building can put a child in a better mood than when entering a school that is run down, dirty and dreary. If actual space is small and cramped, it can be unpleasant for the child and alternatively, if the space is huge and daunting, it can make a small child feel insignificant. Does the school have a gym? Are the classrooms in trailers? Is the building falling apart? Are the facilities new and updated? Are there special rooms for non-academic subjects? Is there enough space to play in during recess? How about when it’s raining? I realize that not all schools have control over the facilities they have and there are often constraints. However, if one looks past the actual infrastructure and see how the classrooms themselves are set up and the hallways decorated, the school’s priorities will be reflected there. Is the school catering to the children? Is it a kid-friendly and child-centric arrangement? What type of things are displayed on the walls? Is there any space for the children’s art to be hung? What feeling does the building transmit when you walk around the school?
  6. Happiness and moral development – At the end of the day, we want our kids to be happy and to be mensches. Walking around the school, see if the kids are generally happy and if the teachers look happy teaching and being there. As parents, we try our best to instill good values in our kids, but we lose some of that control when we send our kids to school, and we hope that the school will pick up where we left off. An essential question to consider when looking at a school is, “Does the school produce a child with good middot (character)?” What does the school do to foster a caring, responsible, and active student body? Some schools have different chessed(social action) projects in which the students participate, as well as activities where the school interacts with the community in various ways. Some have teachers who are actively involved in monitoring and contributing to students’ social development, having frequent talks with students built into the curriculum. Some schools have classes about life skills and others have activities that nurture them outside of the classroom. There are also schools that have older students mentor new ones. Look at how the school plans to achieve this objective and see if it appeals to you.
  7. School- and class-size – The size of the school can determine many things for students. On the one hand, a smaller school can be more intimate and feel more like an extension of home. The child can feel comfortable in a smaller setting where everyone knows them. A larger school, on the other hand, can offer many more resources including more outdoor space with equipment, better facilities, and more options for academic and non-academic subjects. However, a large school can feel very overwhelming and a student might feel lost. A smaller class and grade size and a better teacher-to-student ratio can mean more personalized attention for the student whereas a larger class and a bigger grade might entail more social opportunities for the child due to a greater number of potential friends. Each kid is an individual when it comes to social situations and you know if your kid would feel more at ease in a smaller setting with more guidance or would revel at the possibility of making so many friends.
  8. Communication with the school – Even if you think everything is going well for your child, you still want to have good, open communication with your child’s teacher and check up every now and then to see their progress. All the more so, you want to be able to speak to the teacher when an issue comes up whether it is academic, social, emotional, or will otherwise impact them at school. Even if you and the teacher do not have good chemistry, you want to be able to reach them when there is a problem and for them to be willing to work in tandem with the parents for the benefit of the child. While getting a good teacher is the luck of the draw at any school, some schools seem to have a higher rate of teachers who are genuinely caring and want to make a difference in your child’s life. Look for a school that espouses that kind of culture. If the teacher cannot help your child, you also want to have access to the principal, if needed, and find a willing partner. In addition, check out how much parental involvement there is in the school and the parents’ dynamic with the administration. Some schools will more readily welcome parental contributions (or even ask for them), while others are more hesitant or will only do so through more formal avenues.
  9. Talking to people with similar values and looking at the older students in the school – I cannot emphasize this point enough. Speaking to just any parents who send their kids to a school you are considering might not provide an accurate picture of the school for you. In every school, you will find parents and children who are happy and parents and children who are not happy. In fact, what makes one family dissatisfied could be the very reason that attracts another family to the same school. Speaking with a like-minded family with a child with similar needs to yours is ideal. When discussing a school, ask about the things the parents like as well as the things they don’t like in order to get the full picture. And of course, look at the older kids in the school. Are they the kind of kids you hope your child will become? Your future first grader will be that sixth grader in a few years. It is also worthwhile to find out where the kids go after sixth grade. Many people are familiar with the middle and upper school options and it is telling where the alumni go.
  10. Gut feeling – Trusting your gut is not something that should be dismissed so easily. You know your child best and our parental instincts can sometimes sense when something is right and when something is wrong. When you walk into the school, can you picture your child there? Are you excited about the school or even though everything looks good on paper, do you feel something is off? Listening to that little voice inside our head can help you decide between schools you are on the fence about.

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list of things to take into account when looking for that *perfect* school for your child. You can also ask about when the school day starts and ends, the school policy for smart phones, school violence, after-school programs, English classes for English speakers, dress code, special resources for new olim and anything else specific to your child’s needs. There are also other factors such as how long the school has existed. Some schools have been around for a long time and are very established whereas others are very new and are still working out some growing pains. As with everything, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Newer schools might be more innovative and open to parental suggestions. Older schools might already have a system that works well. And remember, no one school will have everything you want so you will need to prioritize.

Registration for first grade is done on-line January 7 through January 27, nationwide. May we have clarity in our decision-making process finding the right school for our children. B’hatzlacha to us all!

About the Author
Raised in a Zionist household, Emily Lightstone dreamed of moving to Israel as a child. She made aliyah after she graduated from Columbia University and has never looked back. Emily has a background in social and organizational psychology, social media management, and translation and editing. She can be found making bad puns with her husband and three children in South Jerusalem.
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