What I learned about choosing the best kindergarten for my daughter

Sometimes the best schools aren’t the ones with the brand names — and the application process doesn’t have to be like “The Hunger Games.”

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Natalie Moore and her daughter Skye.

Natalie Moore and her daughter Skye.

Provided photo.

“May the odds ever be in your favor.”

I’ve never read or seen “The Hunger Games,” but I am familiar with the quote because it’s sympathetically offered as a warning shot to parents navigating the Chicago Public Schools kindergarten application process.

I am now in that stage for fall 2021, and years ago vowed not to succumb to the stress of getting my daughter into “the best” public school — that handful of schools, especially on the North Side, that parents jockey to get their children into. These schools boast high test scores, extracurricular activities, foreign language and a robust curriculum. They also require an admissions test.

Opinion bug


The deadline for applications is next month, and I have spent this fall researching schools, clicking on virtual open houses, talking to parents and keeping calm. I’m a CPS alum and know many gems exist beyond the name-brand schools.

For parents in the throes of sorting out the process, I offer humble words that don’t invoke “The Hunger Games.”

  • All that glitters isn’t gold. There are a few schools that I thought would absolutely be on my list. A closer look changed my mind. Some schools with strong academic records didn’t offer enough arts, an essential for me. Regional gifted centers require testing and teach two grade levels ahead. I’ve decided not to apply to any of those. I’m drawn to classical schools, which do require testing, for their emphasis on humanities. I am not applying to schools with a selective component within a neighborhood/open enrollment school. If my child tested in, I don’t want her to be segregated from other students not labeled as “gifted.” We already have enough segregation in CPS.
  • Strong leadership. My mother taught special education in CPS and retired as an administrator. My aunt was a principal and later an area instructional officer. They drilled into me that strong principal leadership is paramount. You can have great teachers, but a weak principal undermines the culture of a school. Principals set the tone: Are uniforms in place to help parents avoid rigmarole in the morning, or is the policy for compliance and punishment? I nixed schools whose principals never responded to my emails about open houses or with general questions. A non-communicative principal is a turnoff.
  • Logistics. I took a yellow bus to school during the era in which CPS was bound to a desegregation consent decree that required busing. My parents never took me to school or picked me up. I am baffled at how working parents do this chore. Depending on what school my child gets into, busing may not be an option. One way to alleviate this issue for our household is to only pick schools where we live on the South Side. I will not run myself ragged. Likewise, I can only inconvenience my mother so much if I’m asking her to occasionally do pickups. I’m not embarrassed to say that start times could be a deciding factor. A bell ringing at 7:45 a.m. versus 9:00 a.m. is a big difference.
  • Hidden gems. The fun part of exploring schools is appreciating all that CPS has to offer, even if they aren’t a fit for our family. CPS has an elementary school that’s a museum academy, neighborhood magnet schools with free aftercare and neighborhood schools with park district partnerships. Looking beyond school profiles that emphasize testing is useful. I really want my daughter to be fluent in Spanish, so I’m considering putting a dual language school on the list. Overall, I’ve enjoyed hearing from parents, principals and teachers, understanding school cultures (please, stop the homework for lower grades!) and hearing how little ones are nurtured.

Despite my calm and collected nature on kindergarten, I am angst-y about a tiered system that too often leaves Black and Brown children behind. The schools with bells and whistles require testing. I’ve thought of rejecting the structure and applying only to non-selective schools as a statement of my so-called values. But then I reckon that’s not my burden as a Black mother. Black parents for decades have had to maneuver a racially segregated school system. Let it be someone else’s turn.

My 4-year-old is social, creative, curious and bright. And it’s not lost on me that every parent thinks her child is smart. She attends a home-based preschool that has prepared her socially and emotionally. Skye’s teacher follows her lead on school readiness, without pressure from us to read early as a badge of honor. I will not be devastated if she doesn’t get into a school that requires testing — the competition is furious, and it says nothing about her intelligence.

I pledge to be a good parent at whichever school Skye attends. We don’t need “the best” for the odds to be in her favor.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio.

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