"No one likes to do it," said parent Andrea Daniels, who compares it to dating. "It's like buying a house," said Bea Prentice, director of the Early Childhood Center at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles. "There are so many options to think about."
One could also liken it to a root canal: necessary, painful and potentially costly. But regardless of the analogy chosen, those involved agree that deciding where to send a child to elementary school is a complicated and angst-inducing process. And it's a decision that will have to be made soon, as most private school applications are due either this month or in January.
Daniels started thinking about the decision "the minute he was born," she said about her now 5-year-old son, Jonah. A Beverlywood resident, Daniels sent her son to Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles for preschool. She assumed that once it was time for elementary school, she would send him to a secular private school, along with the synagogue's religious school.
After touring several private schools last year, Daniels reluctantly looked at her local public school, Castle Heights Elementary. There, she found "grass and gardens, a new art program, enthusiastic parents and teachers, a fabulous library and a computer lab," Daniels said. "It had everything the private schools talked about. And the financial benefits can't be ignored.... There was no reason not to go there."
Daniels, who has joined the school's parents group and knows many peers from Temple Isaiah who will be sending their children to Castle Heights in September, said that community is a large part of the public school's appeal.
"We've got our Temple Isaiah community and we'll have our Castle Heights community," she said. "It's kind of a retro way to rear a child these days -- go to your community school and ... to Hebrew school."
While Daniels was fortunate enough to favor her local school, many parents looking for public education find their neighborhood schools unsuitable. They must then navigate a confusing maze of available options, which include charter and magnet schools. Charter schools, which are exempted from certain state mandates, are bound by agreements with local or county school boards. Magnet schools generally have a particular focus, such as art or technology. Both types of schools may draw students from throughout the district.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, priority points increase odds of getting into a school other than the one your child is assigned to, such as a magnet school. Points are given for various factors such as being enrolled in an overcrowded school or one with more than 70 percent minority enrollment, already being on a waiting list or having a sibling enrolled in the same school.
For other families, public school is not even a consideration. Debby and Rabin Soufer are still deciding where to send their son, Ari, next September. But there's no question for Rabin Soufer that it will be a Jewish day school.
"You need to make the roots grow the right way from the beginning," he said, adding that he would make whatever sacrifices were necessary.
While touring schools, the Soufers looked for clues about the character of the students.
"The children that your child will be around is as important as the school," Debby Soufer said.
The Soufers' choice is one that more Jewish parents are making than their parents did. According to the National Jewish Population Study for 2000-2001, 29 percent of American Jewish children between the ages of 6 and 17 were enrolled in a Jewish day school or yeshiva, whereas only 12 percent of those ages 35-44 reported having attended Jewish day school.
Demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey in 1997, found that 21 percent of Jewish children in Los Angeles were attending Jewish day schools at that time. He believes that figure may have decreased due to growing economic stresses on the Jewish community. According Gil Graff, executive director of Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, there are more L.A.-area children enrolled in Jewish day schools today than in 1997, but a greater percentage of them are in high school, a trend that does not portend well for the future.
Encino parent Lori Marx-Rubiner is one of those parents who has chosen to take on the financial burden inherent in the $10,000 to $15,000 tab that comes with private school.
"We only have one child," she said. "I don't know how other families can do it."
When Marx-Rubiner looked at schools last year for her son, Zach, she knew she wanted a Jewish day school to, among other things, "keep weekends family-centered" by avoiding Sunday school. Marx-Rubiner made an extensive list of necessary criteria that included the academic success of graduates, state-of-the-art facilities and availability of enrichment programs.
Once she started looking at schools, however, a different set of requirements emerged.
"What became important was whether they were willing to transmit values with intent and whether they were my values," she said.
Marx-Rubiner, whose son attended preschool at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, decided to stay with the synagogue's day school. "The single biggest factor was who Zach would become. Adat Ari El has the menchiest kids I've ever seen," she said, describing how a teenager they'd met weeks earlier sought them out at High Holiday services to say hello.
Psychologist and educator Wendy Mogel would say that all three of these families are on the right track when it comes to selecting a school. She advises attending a school play to observe how the parents and students comport themselves. She also recommendes looking at the children in the older grades.
"Their level of vitality or cool and their general spirit reveals important information about what you can expect your child to become," she wrote in a 2001 Jewish Journal column.
But perhaps Daniels puts it most succinctly: "You can spin the facts any way you want. Go with your gut."
For more information about school options, as well as detailed school profiles, visit www.greatschools.net.