Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kindergarten screening and parent interview

I received an important phone call on Wednesday afternoon—right when Sam knocked over a tall tower Alice had built with blocks and both kids were screaming. The admissions director from an independent school phoned to set up Alice's screening appointment and a parent interview. As the woman started to tell me about the process, I was waving my hands at my kids trying to quiet them down. Finally, I gave them pieces of Halloween candy that I had stashed away for myself.

Anyway, the woman was incredibly nice and she actually apologized for the school's requirement that children go through a screening. I asked her if there was anything I could do to prepare Alice or my husband and myself, and she said that we should just all be ourselves. (As I write this, I'm looking at my husband sitting on the couch. He definitely needs a haircut before the interview.)

The admissions director also told me that Alice's screening is from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. I cluelessly commented, "Oh, so it's an hour and a half." That's when I started shoving Halloween candy into my mouth.

Later that day, Ryan carried up the mail and handed me a letter from another independent school with news of another screening appointment and parent interview. The letter specifically notes that preparation and coaching are discouraged for the kindergarten screening. And that's when I decided to cancel the PISS (Preparation for Independent School Screening) classes I had signed Alice up for. (Just kidding!)

Of course, I'm starting to stress—well, okay, freak out—about the screening and interview. Actually, I'm assuming that Alice will do fine. She's bright and creative and typically she's outgoing and social, except around people she doesn't know....oh dear, I'm worried. I'm wondering what goes on in these screenings? What if Alice breaks down when I drop her off? What if she forgets how to spell her name? What if she shows them the tattoo on her right arm? I could really use some advice. I'm not an expert in the "interview" category.

At my first interview out of college with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, the lady interviewee asked a few questions and then she sprung a "pop current events quiz" on me. Do you know what I did? I ran . . . right out the door. The lady chased me down the hallway calling, "Kate, Kate, Kate," and I continued to sprint with tears running down my face. I hopped back on Cal Train to San Jose, where my dad picked me up.

"How'd it go?" my Dad asked.

"Not so good, Dad."

"Oh, it couldn't have been that bad." he said.

"Yes, it was that bad."

Luckily, Alice is more poised and composed than her Mom. I doubt she'll be running out of the screening—and I'll have my husband to pin me down in the interview.

I know some of you are going to passionately attack and scrutinize the screening and interview process. But I'm sure that some of you have been through it and can offer advice and some of you will be going through it and can empathize with my anxiety. So please share your thoughts and experiences.


  1. I kinda wish you would call them private schools rather than independent schools, Kate. I think it sounds a tad less, um, snobby, as ironic as that sounds given the purpose of the 'independent' title. And granted, this is from someone who is applying to privates for her kid. Or at least, I'm applying in theory as not all of us are as on the ball as you are and have our applications in! Deadlines aren't until December and January, and my job is demanding.

    At any rate, I have heard that the screening is just one of the many pieces in the puzzle. Screens are important, but so are parent interviews and so are preschool recommendations. Most kids get nervous or shy, and many have trouble separating, or whatever. I'm sure Alice will do great.

  2. I feel your pain. Having only been through one (failed) such experience, I have no real advice, except maybe that you shouldn't build it up with Alice, or possibly even mention it in advance? Maybe present it as a playdate in some way? Because there's a certain type of kid, mine included, who worries about new experiences and clams up bigtime when confronted with strange adults. Especially if she feels like they want something particular from her. Or you could say YOU are interviewing THEM to see if you like what they have to say about their school. ;- )

  3. Kim: That's good advice. Thanks!

  4. This article "Diary of a Kindergarten Applicant" on the angst of kindergarten screenings was written by Janis Cooke Newman in 2000, but is still just as hilarious today.

    Good luck!

  5. I already had my say about the screening issue. (It was not well received...). But I wanted to share a little more in (I promise!) a less judgmental vein.

    I attended a big kindergarten info event a few weeks ago held by the Golden Gate Mothers Group -- I went as a volunteer to assist in handing out Parents for Public Schools materials. There was a PPS presenter and a presenter talking about the private school enrollment process. I went with the PPS presenter, who's a friend, and braced myself for what I anticipated to be the horror of the private-school presentation. I won't describe what I expected.

    Well, never assume. The private-school presenter was an old friend whose kids went to preschool with mine, and a wonderful person. She has had her kids in both SFUSD and parochial school and starts her presentation by describing herself as a public-school advocate. She's the director of a high-end preschool in Pacific Heights, and in that capacity has become an expert in the private-school process. (She uses "private," not the euphemistic "independent," BTW.)

    She requires her families to file an SFUSD application too, and look at at least one SFUSD school.

    She also starts off by pointing out matter-of-factly that the private-school process is much more difficult, stressful and demanding than the SFUSD enrollment process. Obviously that's not what you usually hear.

    Here's a tip from her presentation that stood out: When you take the child to the "playdate" that's part of the private screening process -- the parent is required to either leave entirely or go off elsewhere with other adults -- make sure to choose carefully which parent does the dropoff, ensuring it's the parent from whom the child separates more easily. That's a big part of what's being judged.

    My reaction to that was a twin "wow, great tip," plus -- well, my previous posts have made the other part obvious. But I'm sharing it here in the "great tip" vein.

    Also, I've been thinking that Kate really took on more than she bargained for in doing this blog. Honestly, I think that when most of us made the decision between public vs. private school, we didn't see it as a values issue. Or rather, I did in one way -- it was between whether to continue pursuing my career, which I would have had to do to pay tuition, or putting being home with the kids first. So it WAS about my life priorities in that sense.

    But the notion that it was a values decision in a different way -- that a personal decision to choose private school has an impact on the greater community -- was not on my radar at all. I didn't get it about that impact until I'd become very involved in the school community.

    I don't know if it was on Kate's radar when she started blogging. And now aside from her actual school decision, she's in public view with a multilayered values decision (including whether it IS a values decision at all -- clearly there is a viewpoint that it simply is not.)

    That takes courage, and I really admire it, Kate!

  6. Caroline, thanks for your interesting posts.

    I want to throw a different value-laden decision you made back into your radar. By leaving the workplace to enjoy life as a stay-at-home-mom, a PTA mom, no less, perhaps your actions had a more complicated political ramification than you even now perceive.

    Not all of us can afford to spend as much time being involved in schooling as you do. For many of us, the mother cannot quit her job, whether or not the children attend public school. Sometimes the mother's income is the bigger income or at very least the essential income.

    One thing I find appealing about private schools is that many of them have larger percentages of working professional mothers than some public schools.

    I imagine I may get flamed for saying this. If so, go ahead.

  7. My decision wasn't based on an inherent assumption that I was making a more virtuous choice in choosing to stay home. Maybe my wording didn't make that clear.

    Even if I DID feel that every family that can afford it should have an at-home parent, which I don't, I recognize that many families can't afford it in any case.

    And I know that many private schools are designed with seamless child care, thus making them more user-friendly for families with two working parents. As with the far-more-welcoming parent tours, it's a resource they can afford to provide more smoothly.

    Of course, private schools presumably have more working moms (or two-working-parent families) because the parents need the extra income to pay the tuition. A good friend of mine went back to work for exactly that reason -- the tuition was 100% of the reason she had to return to the workforce.

    When working moms in my kids' schools comment on the choices each of us has made, what they usually express, graciously, is gratitude to at-home moms for meeting some of the school volunteerism needs they can't take on. I hear that pretty frequently. So clearly, it's not universally viewed as a conflict between the working moms and the at-home moms.

  8. I would try not to stress about it, as the screening is one part of several they look at. I think a larger factor than the screening itself might be whether your child is boy/girl (most want 50/50), SF/Marin (MCDS strives for 50/50), older/younger b'day (privates disfavor younger), or can add to the school's diversity (incl. GLBT and single parent families) etc.

    My child screened at Childrens Day School for preschool at the age of 2 1/2. Totally bombed, cried, was the only one who wouldn't separate in his group, while everyone else cheerfully played. So, only one of us did the parent interview (other one had to stay w/him). We wrote off CDS, thinking we liked some of the other preschools better anyways

    Lo and behold, he got in. We were the envy of some. But the experience underlined the silliness of the whole process. To this day, don't know why he got in, except maybe diversity. (The other kids were largely white; we are not). We were fortunate enough to get into the preschool we wanted (which did not screen 2 yr olds), so we turned down CDS.

    He also screened at two privates for K. Both sent a "too-young, pls apply next year" letter (summer b'day). He's at an excellent SFUSD K and doing beautifully. While the "too-young" letters do go to some children who are too young for K, others seem to go out to summer or fall kids who are K-ready (esp boys), simply as a numbers management tool -- my sense is the privates are risk-averse and want to: a) enhance their odds of getting kids into competitive high schools, by taking them 6 mos to a year older than the public kids (seems like cheating a little, and not a good example for our kids, but this practice of privates encouraging redshirting is a whole another topic...), b) with so many applications, eliminate the late summers and falls to help them winnow down the apps, or c) figure that the younger ones on the borderline might apply again the following yr.

    The moral of the story is that the privates are assembling a class beyond just your child. These classes are small (at most, 54 or so kids total in 3 classes). Roughly half are taken up by sibs. Once you realize that the private K admissions process is also somewhat arbitrary (contrary to those who suggest that a private ding is a personal rejection of the child), you can relax and impart that confidence and ease to Alice too. Come March, then, you will have the fullest array of options to choose from.

    ps. Not trying to take away any glory from those children who do get into private Ks - who not only fit the gender/geographical/ birthdate and ethnic/family structure/sexual orientation diversity needs of the private school, AND also do well on the screening. That's terrific and I understand why parents are proud. Just saying Alice's screening is only 1 part of a +complex equation.

  9. i would like to know more about this issue of privates pushing redshirting. that is interesting. i can see how this would produce a class of slightly more capable (read = older) children entering high school. is it really that draconian?

  10. My guess is that the private schools set earlier birthday cutoffs because unready kids in K can be disruptive and needy. A class full of older 5's is much more manageable and ready to follow classroom routine. I don't see a long-range competitive advantage in high school applications, though there are other ways private schools can achieve that.

    We redshirted my now-17-year-old, though the name was unknown at the time and so was the notion that it would provide an academic boost. (His b-day is Oct. 30 and he's a high school junior.)

    If there's an academic advantage to being a few months older in and of itself, it would be in the early grades. It's minimal by middle school and not evident at all by high school. It could be that better K readiness leads to higher achievement later-- that's something else. But being a few months older isn't likely to make a difference at age 13.

    Test prep for the SSAT, nice-looking transcripts (clearly within the private K-8s' control), and prep, coaching and assistance with the rest of the process (essays, interviews) are a lot more key.

  11. I good piece of advice I've heard is to be sure to tell your child before the screening that you will not be in the room with her/him. It's important that your child knows the basic set-up -- some other kids, a couple of adults, but no mommy or daddy in the room.

  12. Regarding the question of private schools having more (and perhaps being more supportive of) professional moms, I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of this, not just anecdotal, in San Francisco or elsewhere?

    I have no intention of flaming! though though obviously this comment raises several issues at once that are heavy with meaning in terms of both class and gender and a fair bit of mommy guilt. Why do we moms seem to carry more than our share of some of these burdens? I'm also glad that Caroline spoke of the oddly public, even if pseudonymous, role Kate has taken on in sharing her journey to the K decision for Alice. I think the larger issues raised here ARE important, but I personally have never meant for them to be directed particularly at Kate.

    FWIW, I am a working, divorced mother of two in the public schools. I have to work to pay the bills and often wish I had the luxury to work less (not, not at all, because I like having non-kid-centered work). Back before the big D (kids were in 1st and preschool at the time), I had more daytime hours to give due to my then-husband's income and was one of the moms who provided a car for preschool field trips and my time for classroom help. I liked that balance.

    Now, with the commute and full-time job, I don't have that time to give. Each fall I tell my kids I will arrange time off work to chaperone one field trip in that school year. They like that, and they are careful in choosing. Last year I spent the day on Angel Island for a field day and did an overnight camping trip with the other child's class. I give my time to Saturday work parties at the school (the kids come with me) and I help write grants from home (in the wee hours). The school is good about scheduling assemblies for both daytime and evening hours, the big ones at least, so I can see my kids perform. We are fortunate to have a good afterschool program.

    Are there tensions between the SAHMs and the WOHMs? Of course. Of course there are. Where anywhere in the mommy world of middle class America are there not these tensions? For the most part, though, I have experienced a recognition that we are all doing our best. I am one of the ones who is grateful for the ones who volunteer in the classroom and who can give countless hours. I do my best for my part and I have been thanked for my efforts.

    Maybe because our school has so much diversity in terms of family structure and culture, or maybe because there are so many things to do that one can always find something to contribute that fits one's time schedule, I haven't felt horribly pressured or put down as I made the transition to full-time working mom. I have noticed diverse patterns of volunteering among some of the working class parents as well. Some of those moms and dads are way busy, working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and others are underemployed. Sometimes the big brothers or big sisters (young adults) volunteer, or the grandparents. So there is no one expected pattern. Usually there is a lot of gratitude for what is given.

  13. Gee, I know only a handful of 'non-working outside the home' moms in public school. Our past 3 School Site Council Chairs, most room parents, all recent PTA presidents, and most active volunteers are all career/working moms and dads. I do wish I had a study, though. My sense in SF is that few families can afford only one income for long.

  14. My 2 kids went thru this screening interview in NYC. I still remember the moment as if yesterday when my oldest had a screaming meltdown on the floor of an admissions directors office wanting to go home - we didnt get in. However he apparently did have at least one good interview and ended up in a school we loved.
    My advice is to be relaxed yourself (easier said than done!) and to put your child in a good mood just before she goes in. For my 2nd child I was much smarter and I played silly games with her that she loved while waiting so that the interviewer came upon a laughing happy child willing to play new 'games' that grown-ups will ask of her.
    In NY the privates also required your 4 yo take the ERB a standardized intelligence test! A great score would not get you in(it was expected that most kids applying will have good scores) but just an average score will decrease your childs chances of acceptance and a poor score is deadly. In SF you dont have it nearly as bad as the type A NY parents so try and and relax.

  15. To the poster who was in NYC, that does sound even more intense than the private school app process here. Do those same private schools later claim they provide a far superior education based on high school and college admissions or test scores or whatever, compared to those "sorry" public schools down the road, or do they cheerfully acknowledge that they have already selected for only the most intelligent (and privileged) children before even beginning the educational process and thus cannot take too much credit for results?

    I'm sorry to be snarky. I'm a little tired from being up with a kid with stomach flu. And I mean no offense to the thoughtful posters here who are looking at different choices for their kids in this difficult process. I just hate the attitude that those schools are doing a better job, based mainly based on who they get to choose....was it Jim Hightower who used the phrase, they were born on third base, but think they hit a triple?

    Anyway, Kate, good luck. Alice sounds lovely from what you have described so I'm sure she will be do just fine.

  16. RE: Redshirting. This was a hot topic on the ppssf listserv just a few days ago. Here is the NYTimes article that covers the issue and plays to all my insecurities.

    Apparently, studies regarding benefits in later years are mixed. Old studies indicated that the advantages disappeared by third grade, but the new studies are showing that "relative age (how old that child is in comparison to his classmates) shapes performance long after those few months of maturity should have ceased to matter..." One of the studies mentioned in the article shows relatively older students consistently scored higher on achievement tests even through high school. The idea is that, “Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Early failure begets later failure.”

    Privates also have their own standardized testing. So obviously, this is an easy way to get a bump in their scores.

  17. went thru 5 of these with my very quiet daughter last year. Keys to success

    1. visit school before the "playdate"

    2. bribe with trip to Walgreens candy rack post playdate.

    Worked well. She focused on the 5 visits to walgreens and actually starting thinking about that vs. the playdate.

  18. i have heard of one school that literally tests the child (what is your address, draw a minus sign) and then gives a grade. it seems like a silly way to evaluate a 4 year old -- has anyone heard of this being the "norm"?

  19. I understand your anxiety about the screenings. However, you shouldn't coach or "prepare" your child. They will just be asked to do a few things that they probably would normally do in preschool anyway. The teachers deal with a number of kids everyday and they understand some kids are shy and take time to warm up to new experiences. I would focus more on understanding the philosophy of the school and identifying a match between the school's and your own values.

  20. We did our screening for a private school yesterday. Here were the various tasks they were asked to perform at little "stations":

    1. Draw a picture of someone in your family
    2. Write your name
    3. Listen to a sentence. Listen to the sentence again. What word did I leave out the 2nd time? (Auditory processing)
    4. I'm going to flip through a series of pages with colors on them. Let's see how fast you can name the color on each page. (Visual processing)
    5. I'm going to say a series of 5-6numbers. Repeat them back to me. (Patterns, auditory processing, recall)

    The screening was 2.25 hours, with the first 15 minutes for an overview with parents and kids. There were 9 kids in the room. When the kids weren't working with an adult at a station, there were a bunch of toys, books & puzzles to play with. At the end, my son said "That was fun! Why was it so short?"

    It truly was no big deal. And the good news is, it's over!

  21. I used to do K screening at a private school in the E.Bay. The parent interview is much more important than the kid screening. In two years of screening only a few kids bombed out. The vast majority of kids were fine.