The Kindergarten Decisions: Neighborhood Public School or Not?

Neighborhood life is measurably richer for children who walk or ride bikes to their neighborhood school every day.

This fall, my son Marco will start kindergarten at our neighborhood public elementary school, Oak Knoll. So will our next-door neighbor Jonathan. So will the girl who lives behind us, Bailey. So will the kid around the corner, Eli. So will the kid one block away, Spencer. So will my good friend’s kid, Emma, who lives three blocks away.

Marco will ride his bike to school most days along with many of those kids. I fully anticipate that our kids will have a wonderful time playing outside here every day after riding back from school. All the groundwork we’ve laid in making outdoor play a habit here plus all the attractions we’re adding to our front and back yards (I’ll write more about these in future articles) will help assure that, but there’s no denying that going to the same school and biking to and from there will be great bonding experiences for these kids.

On the other hand, the kid a block down the street, Andrew, will start kindergarten this fall at a private school. I’m guessing he won’t have much of a relationship with any of those Oak Knoll kids. He hardly plays with the neighborhood kids now. Once kindergarten starts, he’ll get busier, so he probably won’t play with them then, either. His friends will be almost exclusively from his school and not from our neighborhood.Many parents send their children to private schools for religious or ideological reasons, and some do so simply because they believe there is a private school that does a better job than their neighborhood public school. I fully support parents’ right to choose schools.

However, it cannot be denied that, in general, children who do not go to their neighborhood public schools have much less rich neighborhood lives. Their schools are typically not within walking or bike riding distance, so they need rides to and from school every day from their parents or other caregivers. Their friends are largely school friends who live more than a few blocks away, so they depend on rides a to see their friends.

So, for parents who do want their children to have a great life of neighborhood play, I recommend that they strongly consider sending their children to the neighborhood public school.

This does not mean that I advocate that you forget about choosing schools for your children. You can shop for your favorite neighborhood public school when you shop for a home. According to recent US Census reports, one out of every six families with children of age 1-9 moves every year. Chances are, sometime in the first years of your children, you’ll move at least once.

My wife and I chose our current home partially because we like Oak Knoll’s combination of academic achievement, low homework, and liberal recess rules.

Of course, moving to a different school district only has the potential to satisfy parents who are looking for the best general school quality and can afford to buy or rent a home in a district that satisfies their academic quality standards. It cannot satisfy two groups of parents: 1) those who want their children to get a particular religious or ideological education that is not offered in any public school, and 2) those who cannot afford to move to a school district that is strong academically.

The latter parents are trapped into providing their children with low-quality educations unless they can get some sort of real school choice. This is a sad outcome that every major city in the US is trying to avoid by offering some sort of school choice. Unfortunately, their solution often destroys all neighborhood schools in the city.

For instance, in San Francisco, a school lottery system makes it almost impossible for children living near a good school to actually get admitted there. The few good elementary schools there have many times as many applications as they do openings, and the “winners” of those spots are chosen at random. As a result, there is no such thing as a good neighborhood school in San Francisco. Middle and upper middle-class families flee the school system in droves by either choosing private schools or moving to the suburbs, and the quality of San Francisco public schools erodes even further.

As for the parents who are contemplating a religious or ideological education not available at any public school, they should weigh the benefits of rich neighborhood lives against the value of a particular religious or ideological education.

This boils down to a debate about pluralism. I deeply believe in the American pluralistic ideal, where people of different backgrounds come together to share public institutions by day, but go home later to retain their distinct identities.

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12 Responses to The Kindergarten Decisions: Neighborhood Public School or Not?

  1. Anonymous says:

    In addition to the fracturing of school districts by magnet/charter schools and lottery systems in cities such as San Francisco, neighborhood schools in rural or suburban areas are being eliminated as a result of consolidation. It used to be the case that only high schools were consolidated in unified school districts, but now middle and even elementary schools are being consolidated, making the schools inaccessible by walking or even biking, and requiring busing.

    While kids in a neighborhood who go to a consolidated school by bus will probably do so along with their neighbors, and some of the connections will be retained, the school bus is much less desirable than walking or biking, which encourage independence; furthermore in a consolidated school, it is much more likely that children in a neighborhood will be dispersed among different classrooms, breaking the daily ties except for the morning and afternoon time on the bus.


  2. Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal says:

    In San Francisco, many families have two working parents who chose a public school that, in addition to being academically sound, fits with their employment situation. So, instead of looking for a school close to home, they search for one near their office or aftercare situation that has a start time that allows them to drop their kids off on the way to work. Unfortunately, there is usually no adult at home right after school, so the kids probably wouldn’t be able to walk or bike home anyway.

    Perhaps one upside to a prolonged recession would be an increase in parents being home and thus more interest in sending kids to neighborhood schools.

    Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal

  3. diana says:

    Our neighborhood schools have before care for about an hour before school starts (for free) and post-dismissal after care for a fee (I think it’s $45 per afternoon per month). The best part is that the kids who have parents at home in the afternoons usually hang out on the school playground after school to play. After about a half hour, the kids in after care come out and they all play on the playground/in the adjacent woods together until well into the afternoon. The parents that are there supervise their kids and the after care staff supervises the aftercare kids… but the children are generally left to play on their own with the occasional start up of a kickball game or sth like that by the after school staff. All of the kids (aftercare or otherwise) are allowed to play in the aftercare games – if they feel like it. If they’d rather play on the playground or stare off into space.. that’s fine too.

    We went through a period last year when the after school staff would not let the aftercare kids play with the kids that were there with their parents. This created a really awkward situation for children who were school/neighborhood friends but had different after school situations. They could watch each other play but weren’t allowed to interact. After pressure from parents (stay-at-home and aftercare) the principal finally relented and let all of the kids play together.

    It would be terrific if schools everywhere could have this sort of set up so that there isn’t such a dichotomy between kids with two full-time working parents and kids with part-time/stay-at-home parents. It would also allow for kids to attend their neighborhood schools.

  4. Mom2TwoVikings says:

    I love this site – my first visit here. I hope to use some of your ideas I’ve already seen for my area. I’m already organizing our first block party for August.

    I was someone who planned on homeschooling for religious reasons but is now choosing to send my 5yo to kindergarten this fall. However, despite living 3 blocks from our neighborhood school, we chose via school-of-choice a former one-room schoolhouse out of district which is now K-8 bldg with a Montessori feel and a kindergarten of 8 for the fall with a teacher and parapro. The local school (while in a top 50 district in the state but with an expected class size of 28) just can’t compete.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My son has just finished kindergarten and will be in school full time next September. He attends a pre-school day care centre part-time along with my daughter who is there full-time. Both the school and the day care centre are a short walk from our home and when we can, my wife or I or both, walk or ride bikes back and forth. It’s an amazing day care with teachers who are passionate and caring about each and every one of the kids. Luckily, it’s also very close to home. Shortly after our children started attending the day care, some of the neighbourhood kids also joined the club. And although our neighbourhood has been good for interaction, it has exploded as a result of the kids spending so much time together away from home as well as on the street. You can’t beat the impact of attending the local school or having care close to home!

  6. psmom says:

    We do not send our daughter to our neighborhood school for a number of reasons. Many people in our immediate neighborhood have made the same decision. In fact, our street has children who attend seven different local schools – and they all end up playing in my yard anyway. It is great to have this diversity and it seems as though you are not seeing that. I think it is somewhat narrow minded to say, “I’m guessing he won’t have much of a relationship with any of those Oak Knoll kids,” with respect to the child down your block who will attend private school. Be welcoming to him – in fact, be more welcoming to him than to the kids who are already in the neighborhood school clique – and all of the children will have the benefit of this type of diversity.

  7. teacher says:

    As a teacher (Middle School) previously in California, now in Oregon, and a college instructor in an educational / credentialing program I think the website is interesting, however this piece is particularly limited in, maybe I could say openness and scope?

    “Moving” to a good district / boundary area is hardly a permanent solution when you consider cost (As you mentioned), boundary changes, school administration/teacher changes (Which can alter a school’s performance overnight), and also the jump to Middle and HS AFTER elementary schools…

    For example, your argument regarding public vs. private is a good one, and something my wife (Also an educator) and I go back and forth on a lot regarding our two young boys (3 and 1). However, you are really not giving us the whole story… Oak Knoll Elementary is hardly an average elementary school in California OR more specifically the Bay Area. Some statistics:

    10 out of 10 on Great Schools . net
    API scores 10 out of 10
    Teacher to student ratio much smaller than average
    The ethnic makeup of the school is vastly white at about 40% above the state average for white/Caucasian…
    $12,162 per pupil (2008-09)?! Do you understand how much MORE that is than state/national averages? If you don’t here you go:

    California $8,486
    National $9,138

    As a teacher/parent are those 100% of the story? No. Are they a large part? Yes.

    When you are in a school boundary that is not nearly so great, and still sending your kids to the local public school THEN maybe you can be vehemently preachy… or maybe pretentious? Give Andrew’s parents a break…

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    teacher – Middle and lower income kids deserve great neighborhoods no less than rich kids, no? What I write here applies to all kids – all parents should take into account the strong benefits of their kids going to school with other neighborhood kids. That’s just one factor, but I believe it’s an important one.

    Furthermore, Andrew lives in Oak Knoll School District, so he is not relevant to the rest of your comment. He has a great neighborhood school, and yet his parents choose not to send him there.

  9. This post hits home hard for me. I had the decision last year of deciding whether to choose the local “down the street” school vs one that is still walking distance but certainly not nearly as close. I laboured over the decision to the point of making a matrix (yes I am very analytical.. the marketing brain). I was torn between going to the “highly rated” school vs the good but not as well rated “community school”. In the end I decided that this rating system would not guarantee a better school experience. We opted to go to the community school where my son already had friends. In addition the school I choose has a “welcome wagon” group, fun fairs, lots of family events, trips to local parks and more. The school chooses to embrace the entire child/community/family experience and to me that is more important then the academic score the schools receive.

  10. PublicEd Mom says:

    Great post! I do want to chime in on the “parents who can’t afford to move” bit. While I realize that some schools have serious problems that can’t be fixed overnight, it is also true that a strong community – even at a traditionally underachieving school – can make a huge difference.

    I live in Philadelphia and I send my children to public school. When I moved to the area, I fully expected to send my children to private school – and I did for two years. We even considered moving. But another parent implored me to give our local school a try. What I found was that the formerly under-performing school was improving, even exceeding standards. While it had never been a “bad” school, I would not have considered it a great school. Local parents decided to take the school back – and they’ve succeeded. Parents actively sought out grants and funding to clean up graffiti and make improvements to the campus and the classrooms. Parents volunteered their own time to start clubs and programs that wouldn’t be offered otherwise (the first after school club at the school was started by a parent, the sports teams are coached by parents, etc.). There are similar stories in other neighborhoods in Philly.

    I guess my point is that while I am not so naive as to believe that every school has an easy solution to social and economic issues that are bigger than the school, having an involved community – from parents to business people – makes a significant impact. Making a commitment to make your school work is an important first step.

  11. Anabel says:

    I enjoyed your reflection… we moved into Palo Alto almost 2 years ago (from Mountain View, so not too far) but have found it challenging to be a part of the community here, despite having young children. We live in a low-income apartment complex, and even here the kids reflect at least 4 different educational choices — most go to the neighborhood school, a couple go to another public school (the neighborhood school was full), at least one goes to a local private school, and we’re homeschooling through a charter school (not for religious reasons). We aren’t about to send dd to the local school (we’d end up after-schooling too many subjects to make the measly recesses worthwhile), but I can see that my daughter has less involvement in her neighborhood than the other kids. We see other homeschoolers on a regular basis at park days, co-op classes, and other social events, but none of them are in our neighborhood. It’s a challenge, even here in wealthy Palo Alto, to let go of fears and worries to let my 6yo dd go out and play! Your site and post have definitely given me something to think about. Thanks!

  12. Mike Lanza says:

    Mayasmom – Schools are great everywhere in PA and surrounding cities (MP and LA). The trick is finding a Playborhood and an affordable house. The former is *very* hit and miss, mostly miss by far. I know of a few scattered blocks that are good, but there’s no “silver bullet” neighborhood. Email me ( to talk more about this…