Choosing our Future Elementary School (Part 3)

The Final Shortlist

In part 1 of this series I shared with you my 4 main expectations from the elementary school that my girls will attend viz:

  1. Christian faith
  2. Confident body image: 
  3. Multiple career/lifestyle options
  4. Social savvy  /Diversity

The first 3 criteria are easy to evaluate on paper and that's what Part 2 of this series covers. The last criteria - diversity- can only be evaluated in person. The best way to do this is by visiting the school either informally or through organised open house events. 

By the time I finished the steps highlighted in Part 2, I had a shortlist of 3 public schools - 1 Montessori, 1 traditional learning center and the 1 we were zoned to. I also had around 6 private schools that I intended to visit. My primary objective in visiting these schools was to evaluate if they were as good as they seemed on paper. I was looking for an atmosphere of respect for parents and students regardless of similarities or differences. 

This is the one step where I would say the most important thing in to go with your gut feel, forget being PC (politically correct). That's really hard for me to describe, so instead I'll highlight the different things I saw that led to me dropping or keeping a school on the list.

  • No discernible parking spot for parents and a sign asking them not to park in the school as that was reserved for staff members: Eliminated for the disrespectful tone of the posted sign and the extreme discomfort drop offs and pickups could be
  • Too small playground for school size: In speaking  with friends' kids, I know that some schools schedule outside times on alternate days for classes due to limited playground size. I don't like this
  • I was sitting in a coffee shop beside this school when they closed for the day and all the students, parents and harassed nannies coming into the shop reminded me of an episode of Real Housewives of Orange County. Eliminated for wrong, posh vibe.
  • I asked the school principal about "diversity in the students and staff members" and he/she stuttered for almost a minute before mumbling that they do have one member of staff who's male so there's some gender diversity there. Duh! if I, the only black person in the crowd, asking you about diversity makes you nervous, I don't even want to know what your problem is.
  • Sometimes I don't ask about diversity. I just walk down the hallway and look at school pictures. If in 10 years worth of pictures representing over 3000 students, I see just 1 minority kid in the 2013 picture.... that's a showstopper. I expect the student body racial demographics to reflect the racial demographics of the city and in the last ten years, more than 20% of the people in Calgary have identified as visible minorities including 2% as black. 
  • Level of (dis)organisation in the open house. Starting late with no acceptable reason, poorly put together presentations, no clear roles for staff members hosting the event. My thinking is if you can organize an event as simple as an open house (which is meant to show you at your best), how will you be able to prepare the kids in your care to be tomorrow's leaders
  • A thick layer of dust on the preschool teachers' equipment that sends the message to me that nobody cares to take ownership
  • Staff:Student ratios. Easy enough when touring classrooms to count the number of student names per class and see if the ratio is optimal or not
Was it all bad? Not at all but I can tell you that the school that was at the bottom of my list after my evaluations from part 2 shot to number 1 after I visited because the vibe was jaw-droppingly amazing. 

Where do we stand today? I have a very short list of 3 elementary schools - each with their unique strengths - that I would be happy for my kids to attend and if I get this right, we won't have to do this again till 2029  ;)

This is the final part of the Choosing our Future Elementary School Series.
In Search of our future school series
Part 1: Defining your expectations
Part 2: Evaluating the schools that meet those expectations
Part 3: Building the final shortlist of elementary schools

Choosing our Future Elementary School (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted about the first step for choosing an elementary school for us. That first step was defining our expectations. I narrowed down my expectations to 4 and in this post, I will highlight the steps I took to evaluating how the schools available in my city met some of those expectations.

School systems
In Calgary (and most big cities) this consists of public, private and charter school systems. Depending on how they are run, charter systems combine the best parts of both the public and private school systems

School Districts
There can be one or more school districts within each of the school systems. For example, the public school system in Calgary includes the Calgary Board of Education, the Palliser school district and the Catholic School District

Now that the definitions are out of the way, here's the 10-Step program for evaluating schools

  1. Determine which school districts we're qualified to attend and which we are not.  
  2. Obtain and compare academic ratings either through a private rating system like the Fraser Institute or by checking the state/province test results
  3. Compile a list of public, private and charter schools that meet your academic requirements. My requirements are that the school be ranked among the top 20% in the province of Alberta.
  4. Check the state or province's youth sports website. Which schools are featured regularly and which are not? If sports participation is important to you, give one negative point to all the schools that have no showings whatsoever in the youth sports arena
  5. Check the private schools. Eliminate the ones that are not affordable for your family (we're talking twins here). BUT before eliminating based on tuition only, confirm that there are no scholarships your family could qualify for.
  6. Check the charter schools' websites and admissions criteria. Put a "?" on those that have extremely long wait lists that you're not on already. There's a school here that informed me that we're number 300+ on the wait list for kindergarten. Considering that they have around 60 available spots, I'm not holding my breath for a phone call
  7. Spend a few hours on the public school board's website and read the long, boring reports on school closures, planned new schools, school capacity utilization numbers, zoned neighborhoods, class sizes etc. Put a "?" on schools that are over-capacity and students can only get in by a lottery system.Why? Even if you live within the neighborhood, you're not guaranteed a spot. And if you don't get a spot, your kids will be bussed to the nearest school with spare capacity. In Calgary, this usually translates into a one hour bus ride to a school that's not a high-performer
  8. If a second language is important to you, narrow down the school list even further
  9. Map your current or future neighborhood and your current or future workplace to the schools on your shortlist. Eliminate schools that are outside of driving/busing range and zoned to neighborhoods you will not be moving to. 
  10. Trade off: If there's no school left on your list, start again with more relaxed criteria. If there are too many schools on your list, be more stringent with your criteria. Bottom line for me was that I wanted just one likely public elementary school that the girls would attend. Then all the charter, private and alternative schools were evaluated against this public school. 

This is part 2 of my In Search of our Future School Series.

In Search of our future school series
In Search of our future school series
Part 1: Defining your expectations
Part 2: Evaluating the schools that meet those expectations
Part 3: Building the final shortlist of elementary schools

Choosing Our Future Elementary School (Part 1)

Last year, I attended the open house in 5 different private schools in Calgary. This was in preparation for the girls starting kindergarten in the fall of 2015. (Some schools in Calgary have up to 4 year wait lists hence my aggressive head-start). 

After what has been an eye-opening 12+ months, I'd like to share some snippets of what I've learnt.

Define what you want your child(ren) to gain from the schooling system
Start with the future in mind. Define "what sort of 18 year old would I want my child to be?" and work your way backwards from that point. For me, I would like my girls to be 18 year old young women who are comfortable in their Christian faith, confident in their body image, able to interact with a diverse population of people and have a world of career/lifestyle options at their feet.

Drill it down to elementary school requirements
Now that you've defined what you want in +/-15 years time, drill down to what sort of school environment would lead to that outcome in today's terms. For me, it works out to something like this:
Christian faith: Either a faith-based school or a school system that doesn't stifle religious beliefs and expressions
Confident body image: A school that has a good physical education program, a well-maintained gym and a big outdoor sports field. This criteria puts the "X or ?" on a lot of inner-city schools. And yes, I correlate body-image to athleticism. 
Social savvy that comes from an ability to relate to people from different backgrounds: I expect the school to provide an opportunity for my girls to build healthy relationships with  people of different races, nationalities and economic backgrounds. All 3 are of equal importance to me
Multiple career/lifestyle options: I expect the elementary school to feed into a high school that has strengths in their academic program, sports program, technical skills programs, art programs and entrepreneurial programs. The elementary school itself must encourage creative thinking and not be stuck on traditional education

Sounds like a tall list right? To be honest, I don't expect any school to provide everything, but I hope to narrow down to the best options.

This is part 1 of the Choosing Our Future Elementary School series.

In Search of our future school series
Part 1: Defining your expectations
Part 2: Evaluating the schools that meet those expectations
Part 3: Building the final shortlist of elementary schools

Teeth at Three

The first time I took the girls to the dentist, it was a memorable event. 

They were around a year and a half and I picked them up midday and drove straight to the dentist office - no diaper bag, no nothing. (Please note that fact and my double negative!). The minute we were on the dentist's chair, the first baby had a major blowout. Then the second followed. On our FIRST visit to the dentist. I was "that" mom who didn't have diapers or anything of the sort on her. I believe that we left the appointment with the girls sorta wrapped in those stiff paper towels that grace all medical offices. Luckily for us, the dentist was a mom to 7 month old twins and I jokingly told her that she should take my experience as a preview of what life could be like. 

Memorable is the word.

Fast forward to last week and the girls had what was their 3rd or 4th dentist visit. It was fun, no cavities to report and the dentist whispered to me that even though she's supposed to "graduate" them up to a doctor that deals with older kids, she won't. She's keeping 'em. We love you too Dr M!

That anecdote aside, I'm going to end this post with my list of best practices for teeth at three based on advice I've got from our dentist over the last few visits

PS: If at all available, choose a pediatric dentist instead of a general dentist who treats different ages. The office of the pediatric dentist is structured specifically for kids so visits end up being mega-fun.

  1. From age 1- 3, brush daily and then switch to twice a day. I don't see myself brushing the twins' teeth twice a day right now. However, I want to start teaching them to brush by themselves and THEN we can start brushing twice a day
  2. Last fluids of the day should be preferably water. I follow this religiously. It prevents sugar from other fluids sitting in their mouth over night
  3. Avoid raisins and stick-foods at night. I do that too
Some other things I've been doing for the twins' dental hygiene is
  1. I stopped using kiddie toothpaste and started them on the same toothpaste that we use. They get a third of a pea size. Read the label. Some say "not for kids under 6" and some don't
  2. I use an electric toothbrush - This Panasonic one only available online - because it comes with a light so that I can see inside their mouths and the head is much smaller than the grocery-store kiddie electronic toothbrushes. The refills are costly but worth it in my opinion
  3. Dentist says we should start flossing and gave us a bag of crayola floss sticks for kids. I confess, I haven't started yet.
I know the fluoride + kids topic is a hot/controversial one. Where do you stand on that?

Becoming A Drugwise Parent

I've spent the last few days mulling over the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think his death really got to me because even though he was a popular actor, he had the aura of the everyday guy you sorta know who rides on the bus with you everyday.  My thoughts on street drugs have evolved since 2006 when I moved to the US. I no longer sit perched on a high-backed chair passing judgement that "all you need is willpower". 
Not even close.  
I believe addiction is a disease and sometimes willpower is a myth. With the death of Michael Jackson, I was made even more conscious of the danger of not just street drugs but also prescription drugs. The scariest part of the drug-culture is how rampant it is and how close kids can easily come to drugs.
Think about this, with the naivete that surround my growing-up years in Nigeria, the first time I came across any type of street drugs (indian hemp/igbo to be precise), I was 26 years old. Contrast that to the stories we hear about
  • Teenagers who have "pharm" parties with drugs stolen from their parents
  • Elementary school kids smoking cigarettes and even weed
  • High school and college kids already needing to go into rehab for addictions (Philip Hoffman was in rehab by the time he was 22 years old.)
  • The prevalence of meth in the suburbs
It's all scary and it should be. Not just because it exists but because right now due to my own lack of knowledge, I'm not equipped to recognize these things if I come face to face with them. All parents need to know this
Or in the words of the bible "my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge". Hosea 4:6
I for one do not plan on being an ostrich. Living in the suburbs does not shield your family from grips of substance abuse anymore than living in the inner city dooms you. Sending your kids to a private school or a christian school or even homeschooling is not an effective shield either. Substance abuse is opportunistic and only needs one shot to hook a victim. Where that opportunity could raise its head is anybody's guess - playground, library, sleepover, youth group, dance class, sports-meet ....
The first line of defense for any child is an educated and involved parent. I plan to start now by accessing the resources available at and staying informed. I encourage every parent, no matter how young your kids are, to get knowledge, stay informed and stay involved.

Linking up with the Jenny Evolution

Sugar & Spice Chronicles: BuildABear edition

First time in a Disney store
Spice: "this is so beautiful". Grabs me by the hand and tries to drag me further into the store
Sugar: "this is yuck!" Grabs my other hand to drag me out of the store

Answer to the question "what do you want for your (3rd) birthday?
Spice: pink boots
Sugar: (to blow) candles

So we had our first visit to BuildABear workshop. Someone zoomed in on the pinkest, princessiest teddy bear and her twin went for the puppy dog.

Can you guess who got what?

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