Every year in the Montclair Public School district, letters are mailed on July 1 to the homes of children who will be entering kindergarten in the fall. This year is no exception; all parents will have received their notification by the July 4 holiday.
Felice A. Harrison, Director of School/Community Relations, now oversees Registration processes for the district. A Principal of Nishuane Elementary for 14 years, she reassures parents that the process of placing new students is well-established and results in positive outcomes, though it may be difficult to understand initially.
“Although parents of incoming kindergartners are typically nervous about whether their children will make a good adjustment in school come the fall, those of us who handle the placement procedure each year can reassure them that the transition will probably go more smoothly than they expect,” she says.
District Registrar JoAnn Monahan concurs. “For some parents, this is their first time participating in a magnet system. But it’s something we have years of experience doing, and it does work well.”
How it Works
As a first step, under the guidelines of Montclair’s magnet system, parents rank their school preferences from 1 to 6 for their incoming kindergartners during the registration process in the spring.
Many parents favor one elementary school or another based on its magnet theme. But just as often, the choice comes down to other considerations — hours of operation, for one. Some schools open earlier than others, or have dismissal times more compatible with a sibling’s school or a parent’s work schedule.
Once parental preferences are ranked during the registration process, the final determination of where a student will be enrolled is made. This determination is arrived at using a variety of criteria. If a student has an older sibling already at that school, that student will have priority over students without siblings. This, Ms. Monahan explains, is because it’s easier for parents if both or all of their children attend the same school.
Other factors that may be factored in include available space (some schools are larger than others and therefore can provide space for specific functions, like English Language Learning or Special Education instruction). Depending on the needs of the child being enrolled, some students may be given priority based on a school’s ability to deliver those services, along with space availability for specific instructional needs.
In furtherance of the Montclair Board of Education goals, a student's placement is also factored on three geographic zones in the township. All areas of the town are delineated as belonging to one of the three geographic zones, with each residence in town being in one of the zones.
The district then uses a computerized lottery system so that no one — even the Registrar — knows in advance where students will be placed.
To new parents, the system can sometimes be bewildering because it’s different from the neighborhood-school model that most communities use. In Montclair, a child can live around the corner from a school but attend a school located across town instead.
“It’s often the uniqueness of our school district that attracts new families to Montclair in the first place,” says Superintendent Frank Alvarez. “But that very difference can sometimes put parents off-balance initially. Once they’re in the system, they see for themselves that it works.”
Will my child like going to school?
Montclair district officials report that the two top concerns for new parents are whether their children will be happy in the schools they’re assigned to and whether they will receive a comparable education to students in other district schools.
In both cases, district officials say that such worries are unfounded. Each year, first- and second-choice placements are honored approximately 90% of the time. And, they add, children typically make a good adjustment regardless of which school they’re enrolled in.
“Once they begin to make friends and get to know their teacher, once they start to get the hang of the school routine, they’re very glad to be where they are and don’t want to transfer,” says Ms. Harrison, who has overseen the registration and enrollment process for the past two years.
For this reason, she says, the transfer rate is usually about 1%, or even less, among new kindergarten students.
“Unless parents have an older child whom they’ve already seen go through the transition, it can be hard to convince them in advance that this process works and their children will be content,” Ms. Harrison says. “They have to see it for themselves: three weeks into the school year, everyone’s happy — the kids have settled in, they’re learning, and then the parents relax, too.”
Is my child’s school as good as another school?
Registration officials say that another frequent concern among incoming parents is that only certain schools will serve their children’s needs, address their interests and prepare them for certain future experiences, including specific colleges and universities.
Again, say officials, the concern is unfounded. Although Montclair middle and elementary schools each feature an individual area of academic focus — science and technology, for instance, or global studies — instruction at all schools is based on New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards. All must therefore provide equivalent instruction in math, language arts, social studies, science and all other state-mandated subject areas.
“The magnet schools are different because they’re designed to be different,” said Superintendent Alvarez. “But the quality of education we provide is consistent. All of our schools do well; there is no such thing as a school that’s ‘better’ than another school.”
Nor does a school’s magnet theme mean that students will be exposed to that discipline – say, environmental studies — to the exclusion of others. Students at Northeast, the district’s global studies magnet, also receive the same quality instruction in other areas, like arts and technology, as students at Bradford, the university magnet, or at Watchung, the science and technology elementary magnet — or at any of the other schools.
“Parents can see the truth about the equality of education among our schools within the first few months of kindergarten — or at any point through the 12th grade,” says Superintendent Alvarez. “Every year, our high school graduates go onto top-tier colleges and universities. Many times they come back and tell us how their early years in the district prepared them for educational challenges later on. Giving our kindergartners a strong foundation for future success is something we take seriously at every one of our schools.”
So while some parents may be feeling jittery this summer awaiting the start of school, registration officials ask that they “remember we’ve done this before,” says Ms. Harrison. “Every year we tell [parents], ‘It’s going to be all right. We’ve got a terrific school system here, and we are going to take good care of your children.’”