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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

School choice can be a chore

Posted on Wed, Feb. 06, 2008
As registration deadline nears, Columbia-area parents check out kindergarten programs
Parents today find themselves doing homework about public schools before their children are old enough to enroll.
Dawn Warrick and Tondaleya Jackson were among three dozen parents who showed up Tuesday morning for an hour-long orientation at Caughman Road Elementary School, where educators explained the multigrade Montessori program.

Jackson is looking for the right kindergarten fit for her only child, Tennare, who attends a private preschool. Warrick, a mother of four, wants the same thing for her youngest, Julia Grace. Both came away encouraged by what they heard about the “magnet” program the Richland 1 school offers.

“I’m definitely interested in what they have to offer,” Jackson said.
Jackson, Warrick and thousands of their peers across the Columbia area are facing deadlines this month to register their preschoolers for the 2008-09 academic year, and in some cases, apply for a coveted spot in a school with special curriculums.

Most school choice options are found in Richland County’s two public school systems. Lexington County’s five districts also offer a limited menu of choices, but tend to stick with “attendance-zone” policies that steer children to schools closest to their homes.

School choice and magnet programs give parents some flexibility picking a public school for their children.
Those options, however, can be limited by gender, a particular talent, or ability to do advanced work. Districts also have restrictions on the number of students who will be allowed to transfer because of space limitations.

Lexington 1, for example, provides intensive foreign language instruction at three elementary schools starting at kindergarten. Six seats per grade are promised to students from schools elsewhere in the district, a Lexington 1 spokeswoman said.

A small group of parents attended an orientation Monday at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary, where a new Academy for Civic Engagement, or ACE, launches in August. The Richland 2 school hopes to fill one class at each grade level where lessons will emphasize citizenship, philanthropy and the democratic process as themes.

Danielle Koelsch, a Nelson Elementary teacher’s aide, is weighing whether to apply for a spot in the ACE program for her daughter, who enters kindergarten next fall.

“We’re very lucky in this district,” Koelsch said. “We have a lot of options to choose from.”
Andrea Kendrick, whose 5-year-old attends kindergarten at another Richland 2 school, agrees to a point.
“You could almost say we have too many choices,” Kendrick said. “You really have to do your homework to figure out what works best for your child.”

Richland 2 lists 15 magnet programs on its Web site, a method districts use to explain choice options, transfer policies and eligibility requirements.

Kendrick thinks the new curriculum would be a good match for her son because it would expose him to a diverse student body and a new approach to instruction that emphasizes teamwork.

The sign-up deadline in Richland 2 for magnet and school choice options is Friday. Because of enrollment limits, no students can apply to transfer to Lake Carolina and Sandlapper elementary schools.

Richland 1 parents interested in Montessori offerings at four of its elementary schools must notify the district by Feb. 15.

Both districts use a computer-assisted lottery to pick students for admission to special instructional programs at schools other than those closest to their homes.

“I’ve still got some homework to do questions to get answered,” Warrick said after Tuesday’s Caughman Road Elementary meeting.

Warrick and Jackson have invested countless research hours, calling friends, neighbors and other parents.
“This is a very important decision. I want to make sure I’m making the right one,” Jackson said.
Call Robinson at (803) 771-8482.
Posted on Wed, Feb. 06, 2008
Doing your homework
Crystal Campbell, early childhood coordinator in Lexington-Richland 5, offers suggestions on topics parents should discuss with educators when investigating where they plan to enroll their children:

What are the student-teacher classroom ratios?
What curriculum does the school follow?
What kind of experiences will your child have inside and outside the classroom?
Familiarize yourself with the instructional standards that all schools must follow.
Ask about the school’s culture and procedures.
Know the attendance and discipline policies and classroom expectations.
Does the school offer before- and after-school programs?
Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher: “What can I do to help my child?”

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