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Switch schools or stay?

One mother grapples with transferring her kindergarten daughter to a new school.

By Lauren O'Neill

From my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, morning after morning, she cried from the moment I woke her to the gut-wrenching second I had to pry her fingers from my body when the school bell sounded.

While those early days were painful, I reasoned that it was perfectly normal to have difficulty adjusting to a big public elementary school from a small, play-all-day preschool.

Weeks later, my daughter has stopped crying. But she continues to communicate her unhappiness.

"Mommy, I hate school."

“Mommy, this isn’t the school for me. I’m ready to go to another school now.”

"Mommy, I couldn’t wait for the day to be over.”

“Mommy, is tomorrow a weekend day? What about the next day? What about the next day?”

When I inform her that the school week consists of five days of school followed by two days off at home, she flings herself on the couch and lays there like a deflated helium balloon. At these moments, I almost wish she'd cry.

Should I stay or should I go?

These days, my husband and I have late-night talks:

Him: Most kids hate school. We hated school and we turned out fine.
Me: Why should kids hate school? They should love school.
Him: It's early in the school year. You have to let her get used to it.
Me: Why should she get used to something she hates?
Him: It's only kindergarten. Having a so-so kindergarten won't hurt her.
Me: Kindergarten really matters! If she hates kindergarten, she might hate school forever.

I know how I sound: like a bleeding-heart helicopter mom.

Underwhelmed from the get go

But here's my confession: I didn't like the school much from the start. When I twice toured the school, both times I came away with the same concerns: The bar seemed set low academically, and the kids didn't appear very inspired.

Now at the end of September, my daughter has seemed to accept her fate, but she still doesn't like school. I help out in her classroom a few hours a week, and I can see why. The teacher seems kind, but she keeps the kids sitting still on the carpet much of the time. They do a lot of worksheets. There aren't many opportunities for hands-on learning.

My conclusion at the end of this not-so-sweet school honeymoon? It's not bad at her school, but, well, it's boring. She's not excited about what she's learning and she's not getting much intellectual stimulation.

I find myself asking questions I can't answer: Should we wait it out and hope that things get better? What if it’s just this particular teacher, who isn’t terrible, but isn’t great? And what if next year she gets a superstar teacher? Is a “good enough” school good enough?

Or is it time to go back to the school district to search for a transfer?

Wisdom from the dismal science

Experts often point to research that suggests that moving schools midyear is a big mistake, but this research usually includes all sorts of reasons for a school move: job loss, divorce, foreclosure, parental convenience. But the research on parents who move their child midyear to a better school isn’t nearly as conclusive.

A study from the Journal of Public Economics, the largest of its kind in recent years, asks whether switching for better school quality measurably improves student outcomes and finds the answer to be inconclusive. A more recent study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that school mobility can be beneficial if the student is moving for academic reasons.

What is clear is high student turnover hurts schools. When a student leaves or a new student starts later in the year, it disrupts classrooms and makes it harder for teachers to establish continuity.

The parental gut check

There's research – and then there's your child. Jodi Goldberg, Director of Local Programs for GreatSchools, has worked with thousands of parents on choosing a school and the dangers involved in switching kids midyear. She recommends looking at the particulars of your child’s situation and not adhering to a general rule of thumb. The decision to move your child, Goldberg says, depends on your child – their age, their grade.

"There are kids who cry the whole year and who would cry no matter where they are. "But you know your child, you know her personality” Goldberg says. “Is she the kind of child to get used to things? Is she someone who is mostly happy? Is the school changing your child's personality for the worse?"

Yes, yes, and yes. My daughter warms to new people and environments slowly, but she's usually happy and enthusiastic. Since school started though, she's grown increasingly withdrawn.

"When you, the parent, walk into the school, don't just look at test scores, use your gut. If you're not happy [with the school], look for evidence. Ask 'Why am I not happy?'" Most of all, Goldberg advises, "Don't let someone tell you it's your imagination, that you're too picky. If you feel something, it's there... If you find a [better] great school right now, go for it."

So I'm going to make the trip to the district office. I'll put in a new application. Until then, we'll wait and watch. However things turn out this year, Goldberg offered one reassurance: "This one thing is not going to spoil her for life."


Comments from readers

"This article really helped me because I had this problem with my daughter this year who is in the second grade. I thought that I was just being picking but I have seen my daughters whole personality change this year. She is crying a lot & doesnt want to go to school & has always loved school. I have sat in her class & noticed her teacher is the same way except she is not very nice. The kdis long for fun & enthusiasm that she just does not give them & they are always unhappy. I wanted to pull her out of the class but the principal kept reaccuring me it will get better. This year has cause my daughter to get behind because of her unhappiness & she is in a Spanish immersion program. I really don't know what to do at this point because we are in deeep with the program & it is hard to transfer schools because there are not many Spainish immersion choice schools here & I want to keep her in this program. Thanks for your info because now I will go with my gut & do what I have to do! up front & not wait. "
"We dealt with nearly the same thing about a month into kindergarten. Not crying, but dear daughter (DD) hating kindergarten. She struggled some on the homework, but it wasn't until early December that the teacher informed us that DD was in danger of being held back to repeat kindergarten. I was more than a bit stunned because I didn't think she was as far behind (and in retrospect, feel like the teacher should have given an earlier heads up). My husband and I made the quick decision to switch her to a private kindergarten with a smaller class size (10 versus 25 students). She didn't thrive initially we think because hubbie and I and her new teacher all noticed pretty intense staring spells. DD was having absence seizures in which she would blank out perhaps several dozen times a day for about 4 seconds. We are getting her treatment and her seizures are largely controlled. She is doing so much better in school and loves it very much. I'm glad that we decided to pull ! her out mid-year because there is no telling how much longer her condition would have gone unnoticed. And, the fact that she loves school is just worth it to me! Her first kindergarten was a highly rated school with the great test scores, but it turned out not to be right for her. I doubt that we will return there next year (her current school does not go past kindergarten) because honestly, there doesn't seem to be must regard for children who do not already come ready and able to keep test scores high. "
"We are going through this right now and these are all things I stay up at night worrying about. I'm glad to see there are others and it's not just me. We live in a district where the schools are rated highly. However, this particular buildings principal is a piece of work and should not be working with Elementary children. Unfortunately it trickles down to her staff and the environment is not very fun or loving. We feel we have given it our best shot and have tried working with the school. However, children or parents should not have knots in their stomach on a daily basis of going to school. Unfortunately for us our district only has one school our child can attend. We will be open enrolling into another district next year. This is a hard choice for us since we recently moved to this district for their schools. This is tough for us to try and complete this school year when we feel our child is unhappy and very stale in learning. You have the right as a parent to ! move your child out of that school. If there is another school available in your district and they won't work with you then open enroll into another district. Unfortunately you will probably have to finish out the school year where you currently are. Sometimes schools that rate a little lower will have just as much or more success academically with your child if it's a very loving environment. This can also effect your child's academic progress. It doesn't matter how high they rate as an overall district if they aren't meeting the needs of your child. Some minor behaviors at some schools are blown way out of proportion whereas another school sees it as "growing" and they handle it in a very different loving way. To me, this help children grow academically too. One who focuses so much on minor behavior problems only impedes the process of learning. Definitely speak up and be your child's advocate. If you don't no one else will. Parents generally don't do this in f! ear that they can't or they will be looked poorly upon. Your! child is your first priority. Not what other people think of you. Plus if no one ever speaks up then nothing gets changed. Good Luck to all of you. This is very hard on us right now so we know what you are going through. We are already counting down the days till summer. "
"How can I get a tranfer for my children from the school when I'm afaid that I will be turned down? What are my rights as a parent when it comes to my children? Can't I just wait until the end of the school year and then register them at another school? "
"My comment/question concerns the significance of the test scores/school ratings when considering a shift in schools. My 2nd grader is in a highly rated school with an excessive focus on preventing so-called discipline/rote behavior (or what I might consider boys being boys.) Would a shift to a less well rated school (maybe 2-3 ratings points) be appropriate? Does/how often does a lower rated school produce better educational outcomes? "
"There are not just good and bad teachers. There are good and bad classes. An excellent teacher of many years left her school last year to work as a specialist one on one. She had the qualification prior, but left after her district downloaded her with behavior problems because of her proven skills with these kiddos. Look at the makeup of the class...maybe not a transfer, but a move to a new classroom? Are there behavior issues controlled by all the sitting or is the teacher just not really doing her job. Ask her about her philosophy/strategy while helping. Suggest things that might help with your daughter and stimulation for the room. "
"Impressed here with parents who speak up and challenge the system . . .to which I still belong. Had four sons and can relate to your concerns. Willing to take flack for the forthcoming opinion so don't waste a few minutes you could be spending with your children. Full day kindergarten is a mistake. Reality says money is a factor, but money or not, full day k...n is not necessary. "
"A teacher who expects kindergarten students to sit on a mat for most of the day and to complete endless worksheets is not taking a developmental approach to education. Young children cannot be expected to sit still for long periods of time. Children (of all ages) need to be engaged in learning (not just sit still and listen). Traditional educators can learn a great deal from montessori and other developmentally based educational philosophies where the children are truly engaged in learning (vs simply memorizing for a test). Well run classrooms should be dynamic learning environments. It is not "normal" for kids to hate school. If they do, especially in kindergarten, then something is terribly wrong. My daughter is in 7th grade and she loves school. She has always attend schools that understand the value of "hands on" education. "
"From the first day of kindergarten last year until several months into the school year, my daughter would tell me she was sick and she couldn't or would not go to school. Daily. I also wondered and questioned whether she was at the right school for her. She said her teacher is mean, I worried. Then I got to know her teacher, not mean. My daughter had some behavior problems, and spent a lot of time in the hallway. But her teacher emailed and spoke with me frequently on different ways she thought were best to address my daughter's behavior, and we communicated frequently in person and via email. It felt like we were on the same team. By the end of the school year, my daughter cried that she would never be a kindergartner again, and would never get to see Mrs. X (her kindergarten teacher), and she talked about how much she missed her during the summer. One other thing, it helped that throughout the school year, my daughter had an opportunity to see and socialize with her teache! r at hockey night, or the school carnival, and to see her baby. She also won a raffle of having her teacher (and her baby) come to our house to read her bedtime stories one night! "
"Is this Chicago Public Schools? Is there an option of putting in a new application? I thought you had to move, or wait until the next year... "
"My son's teacher admitted she didn't know her boundaries and had a difficult time adhering to the principal's standards. My son has an "unusual" way of following directions to the letter. When his teacher said she would be back to bring the class in from outside, yet sent someone else to retrieve the children, my son expressed his distrust to the other children when an aid came to retrieve them. Upon discussing the situation with the principal, Garth Anderson (who had recently instructed my son he was no longer to participate in the science fair... and score remarkably well as he had previous years) it was decided he would not be allowed to attend the Christmas party. Give me a break!!!!! A Christmas party is something children remember for their entire lives as they're shunned from the other students. He did NOT hurt anyone, swear, or make a scene. I finally took my 4th grader out of this atmosphere and he scores mid-sixth grade. The school I traveled 40 minutes for my son to attend is a shameful sham! "
"If I wasn't crazy about a school and my daughter wanted to change, I would find a different school as soon as possible. It matters to me that my child knows that I am an advocate for her and that her opinion matters. We would look into other schools together, once we found a school that we both agree to, she would then have to agree that she will stick it out til the end of the school year. "
"I switched my son in the middle of the school year, and we have not regreted doing so. The school went from bad to worst, and last year was the last straw. His teacher was not good at communicating, and all the problems we saw was always my son's fault. He went from being a honor roll student to receiving D's and F's. We enrolled him into a private school and he ended the year with A's and B's. "
"We had our son attending Kindergarten in a large public school and his behavior became very naughty and aggressive both at school and at home. We luckily got a last minute chance to attend an exclusive charter school and are starting on Monday. It'll be interesting to see if his behavior improves. "