Students and families discuss school options
Students and families speak to school representatives at Show Me KC Schools' annual City School Fair. (Courtesy of Show Me KC Schools)

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In Kansas City, signing up for school isn’t as simple as visiting your neighborhood school and enrolling your child — or at least it doesn’t have to be. 

As priority deadlines approach for applying to Kansas City charter schools and other public schools with special focus areas, families can face a menu of choices that many find overwhelming. 

In addition to neighborhood schools, which will always have a spot for you no matter when you enroll, Kansas City Public Schools offers “signature schools,” which have a specific focus such as language immersion or college prep and are open to students regardless of where in the district they live. 

Families within the district’s boundaries can also attend one of 20 charter schools — independent public schools that aren’t part of the district but are free to attend. 

That’s in addition to numerous private schools in the metro area and other options such as homeschooling. 

How do you know which school is right for your family, and how do you make sure you have your best shot at getting a spot? 

We asked KCPS and a local organization founded to help families navigate their options. 

Here are some factors to consider, along with resources, deadlines and requirements. 

Academic performance

A school’s standardized test scores are a key factor for some families, said Danielle Dispenza, director of school navigation at Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families sort through their education options. 

But it takes some work to find and interpret those scores, which the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education compiles for public and charter schools

Show Me KC Schools tries to make it a little easier by including for each school profile a “student performance” tab with percentages of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” — the two highest out of four levels — on the Missouri Assessment Program test. 

It also includes the percentages for specific subgroups of students: those who are Black, Hispanic, come from lower-income families, are learning English or have special needs. 

Other information in the “performance” tab includes the percentage of students who attend school at least 90% of the time and whether the school is meeting or exceeding expectations for student growth. 

DESE and some researchers have particularly emphasized growth in recent years because it recognizes schools for how much they help students learn over the course of a year rather than penalizing schools for enrolling students who start at a lower level. 

For example, some schools work with more students who are still learning English or whose education has been interrupted by frequent moves. 

Special focus areas, programs and requirements 

Another factor to consider is whether you’re interested in a special program or focus area. 

Tonoa Foster, a student recruiter at Kansas City Public Schools, said she asks families of beginning pre-K and kindergarten students if they know where they want their child to go to high school. 

“I would give them the options based on whether or not they’re looking for a school where their child can start one curriculum and finish all the way up until their senior high school,” she said. “So for example, I always ask, ‘Are you interested in your child being bilingual?’”

Foster said that students who enroll in Carver Dual Language, an elementary school that begins Spanish immersion at the pre-K level, can continue that focus through senior year at Paseo High School. 

Other language immersion options at KCPS and local charter schools include Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese. 

Other public, private and charter schools focus on arts; preparation for college; or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

Some private schools have a religious focus, and two KCPS schools use a Montessori model of education. Several private schools and one charter school offer single-gender education. 

One thing to note about schools with a specific focus is that they also may have specific requirements.

Language immersion schools typically accept any students in the youngest grades. But older students who want to join must prove language proficiency to ensure they won’t fall behind. 

Other schools, such as some with a college prep focus, require a minimum GPA and good attendance and disciplinary record.

Dispenza said that while it’s usually just confusing to involve a very young child in the decision, older students might have input on the kind of experience they are looking for. For example, they may want to continue participating in a band or have their heart set on playing football — programs that not all area schools offer.

“Many of our high schools have basketball and soccer programming, volleyball teams, cross country, track and field, but football is one that you really have to have a large high school to be able to support,” Dispenza said. 

Logistical issues

Logistical issues — such as transportation and cost — can also factor into whether a school is a good fit. 

Kansas City Public Schools students can ride the bus if they live more than half a mile from school. Charter schools and private schools aren’t required to provide transportation, but some choose to. 

Parents may also want to consider whether they can easily get to and from the school for meetings, activities or emergency pickups. 

Dispenza and Foster said that whether a school offers before- and after-school care is also a major logistical issue that is important to many parents. 

Public and charter schools are free, but tuition cost — and whether financial aid is available — can be another important factor for private schools. 

How the school application process works 

Dispenza said the process of applying to schools in Kansas City has become much more streamlined than it was just a few years ago when she was filling out kindergarten applications for her daughter, now a seventh grader. 

You can now apply to KCPS signature schools with a single application. Another application, School App KC, includes the majority of the city’s charter schools and several private schools. 

Allen Village Charter School, the Frontier schools and Scuola Vita Nuova still have their own individual applications, as do most private schools. 

The KCPS signature school application is due Feb. 17. Foster said that although KCPS calls the selection process a “lottery,” spots are allocated using a point system, with a lottery used to break ties. The most heavily weighted factors are being a current student and applying on time. 

Families get their results — which could be an offer or placement on a waitlist — by Feb. 27 and must accept a seat by March 3. 

Foster said that applying by the deadline gives families a strong chance to get one of their top choices. 

The deadline for School App KC is March 1. You can still apply after the deadline, but your application won’t be entered in the lottery and will instead be addressed on a first-come first-served basis. 

Results become public March 6 at 4 p.m. You can receive multiple offers and could also end up on waitlists.

Families can only accept one offer at a time, meaning waitlists may move quickly as families with multiple offers pick a school and let go of other slots. You can stay on waitlists if you’ve accepted an offer, but can only hold one offer at a time. 

It’s never too late to apply for a neighborhood school and it can still be worthwhile to apply to a charter or signature school if you’ve missed the deadline. There may be open spots, or you could be added to a waitlist.

“A waitlist could only be one or two students long,” Dispenza said.

Where to get help learning more about your school options

Foster said she is the best person to contact for help talking through KCPS options. Her phone number is 816-383-9237.

Families can also speak with the family and community liaison at the school they are interested in and set up a tour, Foster said. Some schools have regularly scheduled tours, and the district plans to add them for all schools. 

Show Me KC Schools’ mission is to help families navigate the school decision. The organization doesn’t rank schools or show bias toward any particular ones, Dispenza said. 

The nonprofit’s website includes a profile of each school and a searchable directory that can be sorted by location, grade level, type, focus area, cost, activities and whether before- and after-school care are offered. 

There’s also a guide to thinking through your priorities and Dispenza said the organization makes a printed school guide available. 

At no cost, families can receive one-on-one assistance from a “navigator” who can help talk them through the decision and apply. 

Both KCPS and Show Me KC Schools host events to help students enroll and learn more about schools. 

Important dates and deadlines

  • Jan. 28, 10 a.m.-noon: School Saturday citywide open house event sponsored by Show Me KC Schools
  • Jan. 31, 5-7 p.m.: Kansas City Public Schools enrollment night
  • Feb. 8, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: Pre-K School Fair at Central Library sponsored by Show Me KC Schools
  • Feb. 17: Priority deadline for Kansas City Public Schools signature schools
  • Feb. 22, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Elementary School Virtual Tour sponsored by Show Me KC Schools
  • Feb. 27: Kansas City Public Schools signature school application results
  • March 1: School App KC priority application deadline
  • March 3: Deadline to accept a KCPS signature school seat
  • March 6, 4 p.m.: School App KC offers made public
  • March 13: Deadline to select one School App KC offer

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.