High School Already? Addressing Concerns of Kindergarten Parents
In my role as director of admissions at Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, I am constantly navigating questions from prospective parents. One might think the most frequent question I receive is about tuition, followed by the religious observance of our school community.
While these are certainly topics we discuss during our admissions relationship, the question I get asked most often is how our graduating eighth graders fare in high school. Prospective parents don’t just want to know about how prepared their child will be academically for the rigors of high school. They want to know how their child will manage the social transition to their local high school—if their child will fit in, make friends and adjust to the larger and often more challenging school environment.
Since I’ve been asked this question so often in the last few years, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my response. Today, when parents turn to me and ask what it will be like for their child when they enter high school, I share these thoughts, based on what I’ve come to know about the day school experience.
I begin by explaining that every child is different and navigates change differently. As such, there’s no single experience that best represents a typical transition to high school. Nonetheless, I tell them about how, from the moment a child enters our school, we are preparing them with the skills they need for life through our focus on the whole child.
While academic excellence is a priority, so too is the social and emotional wellbeing of our students. Whether in kindergarten or eighth grade, our students begin their day with a morning meeting to check in with one another in their small-group kehillah. A morning greeting, eye contact and community-building activities give our students the chance to be seen and heard before we even turn our focus to the learning at hand. Our schedule designates time and space for us to teach and practice discrete social skills like empathy, perspective taking and conflicting feelings. And the countless discussions around Jewish tenets and values provide opportunities to reinforce what it means to be a kind and caring member of a community.
From the first day we welcome our incoming kindergarteners, we are preparing them for that day when they will eventually leave our care. I frequently hear our head of school comment that we will only see the true impact of a Schechter education once they graduate and travel beyond our walls.
I also suggest to prospective parents that activities, sports teams, day/overnight camps and other experiences that take their children beyond their day school community can ease some of that eventual transition years later. These activities expose our kids to broader social networks and give them a safe opportunity to flex the skills they’ve been developing at school. Once in high school, sports, clubs and activities can make their child’s world a whole lot smaller with kids who share the same interests.
Addressing Parents’ Fears
I’ll also be honest and say that graduating from a small, relationship-based day school community to a larger public high school can have its challenges. Many variables impact the transition, including the size of the public school, the number of middle schools that feed into that high school, the extent to which the high school helps integrate its many new students, and the relative inclusivity or culture that characterizes the school, the students and their parents.
Then, I often pause and ask the parents what they fear most. Surely, these concerns are not coming from their preschooler. Rather, they find their genesis in a vulnerability many of us share in worrying about the potential roadblocks and bumps that stand in our children’s path throughout their lives. Especially today, with our fast-paced society and the challenges adolescents face with social media, it’s no wonder parents are concerned about the wellbeing of their child in kindergarten, throughout elementary school and beyond.
A few years ago, we hosted a recruitment event and invited several recent graduates who were soon headed off to college. Sure enough, the question about transition to high school came from a prospective parent. One of our alumni, who attended a huge public high school, volunteered to answer the question.
“The transition was hard,” she said. “But it was hard for everyone to leave the school they knew and merge into a bigger school with greater demands, endless hallways and countless new faces. The difference was that I know who I am; I’m grounded in my knowledge of who I want to be, confident in my Schechter friendships and our ability to withstand different high schools, and blessed by my relationships with countless teachers who were invested in my growth and development.” She went on to say that so many of her teachers attended her bat mitzvah and came to watch her play in a high school tennis match years after she graduated. She closed by saying, “I knew I’d find my place; it just didn’t have to be right away.”
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that attending the local middle school will ensure a smooth, bump-free transition to high school. Indeed, social groups seem to consistently change: friends excluded, and kids unceremoniously deleted from their text group. The important thing is for children to have resilience and the skills they need to navigate these challenges—skills that they get throughout their day school experience.
Most of all, I let prospective kindergarten parents know that no matter how much we worry or try to prepare, there are always going to be bumps and potholes throughout their child’s life. One of the best ways to help children navigate future challenges is by providing them with the strongest foundation possible to build their identity, grounded in education, values and history. I also remind them that by sending their children to Jewish day school, they are giving their children one of the greatest gifts: a Jewish community that is invested in who they are as individuals and helps them to become the best version of themselves.