Choosing an elementary school for your child can be a daunting process. In the Bay Area, we have many choices, which is good and bad news. The good news is that there are many options and types of schools in both the public and private arenas. The bad news is that it takes a lot of time to research the options, many private schools are selective, and you don’t always get your first choice.

Here are a few tips that will help you get started in the process and make a decision between public school vs. private school that will work for your child and family.

  1. Know the deadlines and start early!

If your child’s birthday falls between September 1 and December 1, he may have the option to attend transitional kindergarten in your public school. There may be some private schools that will accept him, but there are others that expect children to be 5 by August 1 or even earlier. The application or registration process for kindergarten starts a year before your child could start school. The summer is a good time to begin to research your options. The fall is when private school open houses take place, applications are made available, you can schedule school visits and testing dates, and preschool teachers should be given recommendations to write.

Some public school districts have informational meetings in the fall. December is a good time to work on completing private school applications because most are due in early January. Registration for public schools begins in January and February. To register for kindergarten, you will have to show proof of residency in the district and your child’s birth certificate to verify age eligibility.

If you live in a school district where there are choices about what school to attend, you will probably have to fill out an application form and enter a lottery. Acceptance to private schools and public school lottery results usually come out in March and April, and you will need to make a decision about your child’s school relatively quickly. Private schools will require that you send in a deposit to reserve your child’s space in the incoming kindergarten class. Information about openings that are available to children on public or private school wait lists can come out anytime between May and early September. Public school district and private school websites are the best sources for information about dates and deadlines. It’s very important that you follow these schedules.

2. Think about what you are looking for in your child’s education.

Consider what you can handle financially, the distance from your home or work to the school, and what type of learning environment your child will thrive in, such as class size, teaching philosophy, academic rigor, level of teacher/child interactions, the school’s subject specialties (language immersion, science, math, music, the arts), and homework policies.

3. Look at your options.

Some public school districts have many options; others have only your neighborhood school. Check your school district’s website to learn about them. It’s important to do your research to determine whether the public school or private schools match your family’s needs. Make sure you know to which neighborhood school your home is attached. The GreatSchools website offers a list of public and private schools in your area. The National Association of Independent Schools offers information about private Independent Schools.

4. Think about how your family will fit into the school community.

Elementary school is the longest period of time that your child will spend in one school, so view it as membership in a club for your whole family. You and your child will want to feel comfortable. Look at the school’s ethnic and socioeconomic make-up, the opportunities for parental involvement, and the ease with which you can participate. Your child’s educational experience will be enriched if your family feels a connection to the school community.

5. Learn about individual schools by studying their websites.

Attend tours and open houses, talk to other parents with children in the school or of similar age, and read statistics about test scores and ratings on websites like is no one resource that will give you the complete picture. Your first-hand experience visiting schools is probably the most important, but other information will round out the entire picture. Test scores and Internet ratings should not be considered the main criteria for quality.

6. When evaluating a school look at:

a. Class size and overall school size
b. Accreditation for private schools
c. Leadership/ public school board dynamics
d. Faculty credentials and background
e. School mission, culture, and teaching philosophy
f. Curriculum design, implementation, and homework policies
g. Parent involvement and sense of community
h. Tuition fees and fundraising expectations (public and private)
i. Distance from home and transportation options
j. Funding sources and financial solvency
k. Facilities and permanency of the school site
l. Extra-curricular activities
m. Before and after school care availability (if needed)

7. During the application process, assess your child realistically.

Pay attention to his temperament and learning style thus far. Try not to get caught up in the frenzy of getting into only the most popular schools. Find a few—both public and private—that could be a good fit for your child and family. If you are only considering public schools, but hope to go to an alternative school that enrolls via a lottery, be sure to register for your neighborhood school as a back-up.Register for at least one public school as a back-up in case your child is not accepted to your first-choice private school. If she is being interviewed for private schools, don’t coach her. Just make sure she gets a good night’s sleep, has a good breakfast, and is prepared to have a good time. Try to avoid getting into any major power struggles in the morning at home or on the way to the visit.

8. Make your choice.

When the time arrives to select a school, ask your child what he thinks of your first choice, but remember a 4- or 5-year-old really can’t make a decision like that himself. It’s your decision. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what is best for him and your family.If you feel like you want more help in making this important decision, call Parents Place. We are here to help! Below is a list of upcoming programs that can give you even more information. We also provide individual consultations during which we can help guide you more specifically in your application and decision-making process.

Parent Workshop: “Choosing a Kindergarten” — San Francisco Parents Place Thursday, 9/24

Parent Workshop: “Public or Private Elementary School: Making the Best Choice for Your Family” — Palo Alto Parents Place — Tuesday, 9/29

Parents Place Private Elementary School Fair — San Mateo Parents Place — Tuesday, 10/13

Private Elementary School Admissions Panel Discussion — Palo Alto Parents Place — Monday, 10/19

Stephanie Agnew, BA, is the Parent Education Coordinator at San Mateo Parents Place. To reach her for an individual consultation about school choices, please call 650-688-3046.