08/30/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

All I Really Need to Know About Admissions -- I Learned in Kindergarten

  • Public, Private, Charter
  • Visit School Websites
  • Open House Dates
  • Start Online Application
  • Recommendations -- dropped off
  • Testing results received
  • Financial Aid Deadlines
  • Play Date -- what play date???

My son, wife and I recently navigated the kindergarten admissions process in Philadelphia. I quickly realized that Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten had it right. There are relevant lessons between the kindergarten and college application processes.

For followers of my blog on college admissions, you are familiar with the basic framework of my college search philosophy on getting to know yourself, the 5 I's, and assessing colleges, the 4 C's. As I straddled both sides of the admissions equation, one as decision maker and the other as parent, I was further reminded that beyond what is not within our control (the admission decisions), focusing on core priorities can guide an informative application process.

The 4 C's for the Kindergarten Search

Culture and Curriculum: What are the underpinnings of the school's mission, values, and pedagogy?

Living in Philadelphia, Quaker ideals influence the philosophy of the many Society of Friends Schools in the region. Other schools may not be as old as the Quakers, yet still offer a well-developed culture of learning; within the progressive educational philosophy the focus is on the holistic development of the child, intellectually, socially and morally. There are similarities in approach, but the actual methods of teaching between schools can be different. Singapore Math at one school may be too structured for another. Does this matter for our son? What kind of learner is he? We learned from his WIPSE that he is highly verbal and talks himself through more complex processes. How will this get developed or stifled in a particular learning environment?

When I speak with families about the college process I emphasize the importance of understanding curriculum. In kindergarten, the structure and open-time each day needs to be understood from the perspective of the development and learning of the child. Equally important are after school programs or extracurricular college life to provide opportunities in arts, sports and service.

Community: How do people and spaces within a school cultivate the learning environment?

Leadership matters at all levels of education and may be more important in K-12 without larger staffs and specialty areas of support. A principal's vision, ability to connect with children, parents and teachers, and incredible level of endurance to face the challenges of tighter budgets is an important consideration. And what if the school's leader leaves? We chose a school where the Head of School will be new, but the school planned for the transition and spoke to us about the change at each step of the admissions process. We appreciated their plan and transparency.

In any educational setting, parental involvement (to a reasonable extent) is important to the community's vitality. Fundraising is important, but so is a sense of shared purpose and hopefully lifelong friends for the parents. Organized events and opportunities for constructive input can be the difference between buy-in and opt-out.

How diverse is the school community in terms of race, religion, and socioeconomic backgrounds? This was important as our son embraced a diverse community, built on mutual respect, in his daycare. How will my son learn from children older and younger, with different interests and backgrounds? My wife and I embraced a K-8 setting where our son would feel the responsibility for younger children as he progressed through the school, while also having role models.

Read your child. How comfortable was your child during college visits, which for us was the play-date portion of the application process? What were his or her observations? Our son seemed comfortable when he saw other children from daycare and the neighborhood and even more excited about an outdoor garden and that the basketball court was really big. If your child is happy, chances are you will be thrilled. Read what they say and how they behave, at any stage the child (or young adult) has to have ownership over the decision.

How does this educational life event fit into your busy schedule? How far is too far or too close? What time is drop-off and pick-up? In both kindergarten and college processes there are practical considerations: can you walk to a neighborhood school or do you want to be able to pick your college student up within a few hours of your home? Remember, what is gained in convenience of proximitymay be limiting in greater self-confidence and independence.

Conclusions:How do current parents (and recent alumni) talk about their child's development?

A question you can ask at any parents' panel is, 'What have been some of the unexpected surprises about your child's growth?' What about outcomes? As we looked at K-8 schools we noted how well students compete in magnet school settings and private schools for high school. And yes, even parents of kindergarten students ask about the school's success in college placement.

My wife and I also found that our biggest smiles came when children (respectfully) disagreed with their parent or teacher during the open house events. They have already developed critical thinking skills and independence as life lessons.

Everything you ever needed to know...