Friday, December 19, 2014

December School Applications: The agony of determining what is best

This December my husband and I are frantically trying to find the perfect school for our daughter for next fall. With school officials constantly reminding us of the importance of getting our applications in early, other parents excitedly talking about where their children will be going in the fall, and the ever looming question "will this school set her on the perfect path for the rest of her life?" we are feeling a bit of stress.


We are looking for the perfect preschool. There is something wrong when I can commiserate with parents of students applying to college and my daughter is only three. I still am unsure why I am looking for preschools in December when my t

hree year old daughter will not start until next September, but no matter. It must be done. Applications are due, spots will fill up, and waiting lists will get longer and longer. December is the time to act.

This has left my husband and I having long conversations about what we want out of a preschool for our daughter and what the true purpose of a preschool is. Unfortunately, the three most important factors in our decision are location, hours, and price. We have to find something that fits into our current commute since we'll also have to manage to take her sister to daycare as well. We also need a full day program since we both work, and we'd like to not spend her college tuition right now. 

I'm quickly finding that the best programs, or at least the ones I'd like to enroll my daughter in- the ones that are the most child center and developmentally appropriate- are half day programs. This is tough because there is no way we can put her in a half day program, but there is a good reason these child centered programs are only half day. Preschoolers probably shouldn't be in a preschool setting for more than half a day. I don't want to hear about the full day of academic learning they are doing because God bless them, they are three and four. They need a few hours a day to run around like banshees in the backyard. But that isn't an option for my daughter.

So that leaves us trying to determine how we want our daughter to spend 8+ hours a day, five days a week when she is four years old. Do we want a play-based program? Montessori? And if we want Montessori, do we want AMS or AMI? (Schools throw these acronyms out with pride, boasting of which one they are, but really I have no idea what the difference is.) Do we want a program that promises our daughter will be reading when she leaves them? (No, we don't) Do we want a program that promises to teach  morals? Social skills? Prepare our child for academic success in her future? All things preschool websites boast they can do.

After some deep conversations we've realized these are what we want in a preschool:
1) We want to send our daughter to a place where she is excited to go everyday. This is setting the groundwork for her school career, and we want her to love it. We want her to love her teachers, and we want them to love her. We know she'll have days she doesn't want to go, but we don't want a situation where she starts to associate school with pressure, whether that pressure is to do well academically or to behave perfectly. That time will come (sadly, in kindergarten, when the crunch is on.)
Box play. Note both children inside. What you don't see is the stack of clothing I was trying to put inside the box before it became a bear den.

2) We are not worried about academics. Maybe it's because I work in kindergarten and so I understand where students are when they enter kindergarten, and how quickly they learn, but I'm not concerned about her learning to read in preschool. I am not worried about her going into kindergarten behind her peers, and if she does enter behind I am not concerned about her ability to catch up. There's time for that.

3) We do want her prepared for the social norms and expectations of kindergarten. I want her to know how to sit on the carpet and listen to a story. I want her to know how to line up, listen to the teacher, follow directions, and share toys. If she can do all of those things when she enters kindergarten then she will be ready to learn the academics she needs.

4) We want her to be a kid while she enjoys her last few years before elementary school starts. Since I am not able to pick her up at noon every day, bring her home for lunch and give her time to have independent exploitative play I want her to have the closest thing to that. I want her to have lots of time for unstructured play, whether inside or outside. Opportunities to pretend a box is a boat, a castle, or an animal den. Opportunities to see what happens when she runs as fast as she can and falls down in the grass. Opportunities to "read" a stack of books to herself and giggle at the pictures without an adult trying to teach her something about the text.

5) I do not want to have to bring my daughter to an interview, and then wait to hear whether or not she's been accepted. She's three. She changes every day. Today she might decide she is Elsa the Snow Queen, tomorrow she is Piglet from Winnie the Pooh yelling that I stepped on her imaginary best friend Christopher Robin. She's silly, outgoing, shy, serious, friendly, stubborn, and reserved on any given day. Sometimes she can dress herself and some days she throws herself on the floor in protest as though picking up one pair of pants would be the death of her. She is three. I don't want to be looking in the mail for an acceptance letter. She has the rest of her life for interviews. Why start now?

Giving a detailed explanation of the randomness of the age appropriate art work. It's beautiful. That's all it has to be.

This list is hard to find. At least it is hard to find in full day programs in the general vicinity of our daily commute. It's hard to predict whether or not she'll love the school. So much will depend on her teacher and the relationship she builds with that teacher. That's something we can't have control of, and that's scary. It's surprisingly hard to figure out which preschools focus on academics. They are all trying to sell themselves to us, and so many of them believe all parents want their children reading before kindergarten. We politely sat and listened to a four year old decode consonant vowel consonant (cvc) words in isolation. With no books around her and just a stack of flash cards she timidly "read" the words. We were supposed to be impressed, but I just felt sad. I don't need my daughter reading words yet. That will come.

All of this leads to the question- if this is what I want for my own kid, what do I want when I think about other people's kids? One of my former co-teachers wrote about this topic earlier this week.  What do we want from preschools? What should we want? What skills do we want our little ones to come to kindergarten prepared with, and what skills should we developmentally expect of them? I usually think it's wonderful when I see students had full day preschool, but I've never stopped to think about what that means before. Were they in an enriching environment where teachers responded to their wonders and excitement, or were they in a high pressured preschool where they were expected to act older than they were?

Yet I'm looking at preschool from two very different perspectives. As a parent I am soley interested in my own daughter. I know her anxieties and her personality. I want to find the school that's right for her. I don't have any judgement about people who put their children in high academic preschools, because when I wear my parent hat I can step back and see that it's their choice and I can make my own choice. When I wear my educator hat I'm thinking more about closing the achievement gap and fighting to get every kid the opportunities they need to succeed in life. Why are those two views end up with contradictory answers?

This also makes me think about the head start programs at all of the schools where I've worked. I would put my daughter into one in a heart beat. In fact, I'd like to slip her in and see if anyone protests. They all seem very play based and child focused. Perhaps because they are not day care centers in disguise, and they are not trying to teach kids to read to please parents paying a high tuition. Why can't I find a preschool like that for my own daughter?

One of my former co-teachers wrote about this topic earlier this week. 


Anonymous said...

Is there a reason she can't just go to a good home day care? All-day preschool for a three year old seems awfully structured to me.

jwg said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "day care in disguise" but as someone who has spent a career in the early childhood field I think I am insulted on behalf of the many fine developmentally appropriate child care programs out there. What it sounds like you need is a day care program that includes an appropriate play-based curriculum. I used to describe the day care center that I directed as nursery school with meals, nap time and extra time for recess built in. That kind of program might meet your needs.