Admissions Season 101

If I had put together a TED talk about finding a school for my kindergartener, it would have gone something like this…

I attended public schools start to finish, I thrived, and I turned out fine. Where is the local public elementary school, how do we register, and when does school start?

It would have been a very short TED talk, and I don’t think we even had TED talks in 1991. (They actually started in 2006, I checked.)

But back in 1991, our local public elementary school was not fine, children weren’t thriving, and after attending a few community meetings to see what could be done, I realized I needed to find a better option soon. Not knowing what to do next, I started talking to colleagues and friends who had children. After learning about a few possible options, the real work began. I started calling and visiting schools.

Fast-forward 25 years, and we have the luxury of school shopping at home using our phones, tablets or laptops. We can read school reviews online, and we can search for graduates using our LinkedIn accounts. There is a lot to learn, and so I’ve put together a few tips you might want to keep in mind.

checklistStart looking for a school the autumn prior to when your child will be starting school. Scour the websites of several schools to narrow down your search. The website should show students, teachers, facilities, activities, and the campus. Read through the history of the school to get a sense of the philosophy and culture. Do the students wear uniforms, does the school have religious affiliation, is it same-sex, co-ed or a combination of the two, and are the children happy and engaged?

There should also be an Admissions tab on every school website – read everything you can so you are ready, being sure to note application and financial aid deadlines. You can expect to get to know the Admissions staff member you work with at each school. We do this job because we like children and families, and it is fun to help you through the application process.

Yes, I did just mention financial aid. Did you know that most schools in Baltimore award about 3.5 million dollars in aid each year, and these awards do not have to be repaid? We want to help you afford our schools, but you have a role to play in the process, too. Each family who wants to apply for financial aid completes a financial aid application along with the admissions application, and there are nominal fees for both of these. The financial aid application is the tool used to determine whether you qualify for an award, so get ready to answer a lot of detailed questions. It is confidential, and usually only one or two people at each school have access to this information. These are the people who can help you. Make friends with them!

kindergarten-studentTour the schools. Look for an Open House or an Information Session. Some schools are very clever, and call these events “Lunch and Learn” or some other cute name. You want to go during the day, so that you can see students and teachers interacting in their classrooms. Nighttime events are more convenient, but you will not get the information you need. I have had aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends attend Admissions events and report back to parents – one grandfather called himself the “Pinch Hitter” for when his daughter couldn’t leave her office. He had visited 3 previous schools when I met him.

If you like what you see on your visit, complete the application and call the school to determine the next steps. You will need to bring your son or daughter to the school for at least one visit, if not two. You learn more about the school as they learn about you and your little one. Some schools call these “shadow days” because your child is paired with a student and sort of shadows that student for the day. These elementary age children will come back to take a test another day. For children applying to Kindergarten, Pre-First and First grades, the visit includes meeting new friends, participating in play groups, and taking some school-readiness assessments. Yes, an assessment is a test, but these guys are little, so we like to call them assessments. We are literally “assessing” the skills of your child as they relate to our school and our program. Is this a recipe for success? Or is there a better school out there for your child? We’ll tell you once we know.

Finally, make sure you use the Admissions staff at each school as your sounding boards – I know some really lovely Admissions staff at other schools (we’re nice here at St. Paul’s, too!) and we are all willing to help. If you are torn between two schools, go back to each for another visit and take a friend. Decision making can be hard, but all schools send out contracts on the same day in mid-February, and all contracts are due on the same day in early March. Here at St. Paul’s, we include your financial aid award letter with your contract, so you have all the information you need before making up your mind.

And good luck. Chances are, you will find just the right school and you’ll be anxious for classes to start!

Martha Donovan

Martha Donovan

Mrs. Donovan is the Associate Director of Lower School Admissions at St. Paul’s. She previously spent ten years in Middle and Upper School Admissions at the Key School in Annapolis, where her three children graduated. Since coming to St. Paul’s, she and her husband have moved to Baltimore and love it. Mrs. Donovan also has experience as a national news editor with NBC Radio and Mutual News, and spent a year as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. You will often find her in the Kindergarten classrooms or on the early carpool line, anywhere she can see the kids in action. She can be reached at

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