Friday, February 09, 2007

Preschool Ponderings

Around these parts, this week marked the "open enrollement" window for preschool. Most of the local preschools began taking registrations for the fall as of a couple of days ago. Lauren will be starting a preschool program come fall, so I needed to spend some time visiting the various preschools and figuring out the best place for her. She is so, so ready. We both are.

Nicholas attended preschool where we lived for law school. Therefore, I'm not very familiar with the preschools around me now. I've been doing "due diligence" by doing what moms do best: tap the network. You know, asking around. Finding out which programs come highly recommended by moms and which ones are, well, not so great. Through that highly scientific process I was able to narrow it down to a top 3 preschools I wanted to check out in more detail. I did that today and was able to tour 2 of them as well as chat with the teachers and get the nitty gritty details about their program.

What has surprised me is the hours that kids attend preschool. VERY FEW, in a nutshell. And most programs aren't very flexible when it comes to schedules. Days of the week, specifically. Before, with Nicholas, his preschool was 1/2 day. And by 1/2 day, I mean 1/2 day. 4-5 hours long. ALL morning. Through lunch. Not just 9am - 11:30am, like the preschools I toured today. They included both a breakfast snack and lunch, and kids learned all about proper table manners, etc. by eating "family style". Also, they got exposed to foods that they might not get at home, thereby encouraging the more picky eater to get over it already. I love love loved it. Fabulous program. Of course, it helped that it was run in connection to a university with a top-rated education program and masters students were involved in the program, and that it was designed for student families and therefore flexible. I could choose, upfront, the days of the week Nicholas attended. He could have gone tu/thurs, or m/w/f, or tu/w/thur, or any combination of days I determined (and there was room in) when we enrolled him. I was charged by the hour. The second preschool we had him in (at age 4, and we switched only because Mr. Chick had graduated and we were no longer students and lost our eligibility at preschool #1) was through a high school. Again, the morning session was 4 hrs long and included lunch. Great program because the high schoolers taking Early Childhood Development classes worked with the preschoolers and the ratio of kid to "adult" was wonderful. Nicholas often had one-on-one attention. Someone to read with him, for example. But here? Here preschools are 2 1/2 hours long and for a 3 year old, you seem to only be allowed to register for a tu/thurs schedule. m/w/f is reserved for 4 yr olds.

I'm not sure why, but this sort of bugs. Not that I want to toss Lauren into a school for endless hours, but I was thinking that 3 days a week would be about right for her. She'll be nearly 4 when school starts, so it's not a far-fetched idea. But yet, I don't get that option. AT least not at the schools I toured and came so highly recommended. Plus, I'm thinking I want to either start working part-time and/or return to school. So 5 hrs a week broken into 2 1/2 hr chunks of time just isn't enough. The only other option I could find that offered longer school hours were places like KinderCare. And they're more interested in all day kids, or half-day kids 5 days/week. And that's too much for us right now in terms of time AND money. It's a connundrum.

But getting back to the topic of preschool.... so many differing theories! For me, I'm not interested in a preschool with a strong academic focus. I'm just not. At the age of 3 and 4 I'm more interested in kids learning how to interact socially with other kids. How to get along. How to sit in a circle and listen. How to share. How to line up. Play-based learning. I want to see imaginations flourish. I want sensory tables and dramatic play. Yes, I would like a little "academic" learning mixed into the fun - stuff like Letter Of The Week, colors, numbers, etc. But I don't want my kid force-fed math when they're 4 yrs old. Not necessary. Some parents do, and that's great. But I'm not one of them. I know my kids are smart. They are - I said it. I'm not worried about them being behind their peers where intellect is concerned. But then again, I'm a hands-on parent. I'm teaching my kids stuff all the time (I just worked with Nicholas the other day on math. He's adding 3 digit numbers to 3 digit numbers on paper, and we even touched on simple multiplication and he seemed to grasp the concept). Most parents do. So I'm looking for school to be a more socialization experience than an academic one. Because I don't care how smart you are, if you can't make friends and get along with others, you won't be as successful in your life. The brainiac stuff can come later. So to that end, Montessori isn't likely something I'm going to pursue. I know it's wonderful and all, but it's just not our style. Plus, it's way way WAY more expensive than other options, so that right there rules it out.

Which leaves me with the other top 2 choices. One is located in a Lutheran church and is the hands-down favorite of many of the parents I've talked to. They can't say enough about this program. I toured it today and it is very nice. The director was a very warm lady, and they have a nice set up. It's reasonably priced at $100/mo for 2 days per week (again, 9am - 11:30am). All very well and good. But. (you knew there was a "but", didn't you?). But the energy was more mellow than I was expecting, especially for "pajama day". The kids all looked like they were having fun, but it was a very controlled fun. I can't explain it. And, while this might be minor, they have a monthly "chapel time" with the pastor of the church. It doesn't last long - just 15 - 20 minutes - but I'm not very comfortable with that idea. I know what they would be saying is all love and peace and harmony type of messages - and there is nothing wrong with that per se - but I'm having major, serious doubts about religion in general and am questioning the entire Christian faith, so I'm not really prepared to have to explain - yet - to my kids my position on all of this. Avoidance and the whole 'head in the sand' routine is appealing to me. This school is so popular that they have to operate a lottery just to get in. Or hope to. Just to keep my options open I signed up for the lottery. We'll see if our name gets called by the end of the month.

The 2nd school I toured today is my favorite and I'm about ready to just enroll Lauren there and screw the lottery at the other place. The vibe I got was just much better there. More energetic and alive. Happier. And I was there AFTER the kids had gone home! the walls were bright and cheery. The toys were colorful (the other place had fewer toys and more were wooden. Dull!) At this place, both Nicholas and Lauren jumped right into a bucket of bright cardboard bricks and found a box of cars and were happy as clams as I spoke with the director. WHO TOOK NEARLY AN HOUR OF HER TIME, UNSCHEDULED, TO TALK WITH ME. Amazing. What a fabulous lady! SHE'S what you want in a preschool teacher. It's truly her calling. She's been running the place for 13 years. They used to be in a local church, but now they've moved to....... wait for it....... A GYMNASTICS ACADEMY. That's right: Gymnastics. And Lauren. A match made in heaven. They don't have an outdoor play area, but everyday the kids get to spend time in the big gymnastics studio running around and jumping on the trampoline, or launching themselves into the pit. Walking the balance beam. Gross motor time, they call it. I call it hella fun. The cost is about the same as the other place, with the exact same 2 day/week schedule. BUT, they offer something called "lunch and fun" (or something close to that) where the kids get to eat a lunch they brought from home and then have some creative art time afterwards, and then more time to play in the gym. Until 2pm. OMG! Of course, for Lauren to do that everyday she was there (tu/thurs) would essentially double the tuition, it might well be worth it. The point is, it's an option. You can do it or not. You sign up for 8 week "lunch and fun" sessions. So some flexibility is possible from that respect. AND, Lauren could go to just "lunch and fun" on days she's not in school. So a Wednesday, for example. And as an added bonus, students at the preschool get discounts off gymnastic classes. And those ain't cheap - I checked.

So Mr. Chick and I will talk about it this weekend, but I'm pretty certain that I'll be going back to preschool #2 with my $75 non-refundable registration fee on Monday and enrolling her there. If we happen to get picked in the lottery for the other place, we can respectfully decline and make another family's day. This place is the right place for Lauren. I could just feel it.

But now I'm curious. What do YOU look for when evaluating preschools? Me, I want a bright, clean, stimulating environment. I want stability with the staff, who need to be upbeat, enthusiatic people. There needs to be a play-based curriculum where social skills are a priority, academics being present but not obvious. A love a learning needs to be fostered. I don't so much care about it being a faith-based program. In fact, that can be a detraction for me. The ability to play outside is good, but not necessary if there is a suitable alternative (like a huge gymnastics academy, for example). I'd like flexibility with schedule, and the option for longer hours if necessary.

What about you? Tell me while I still have time to make a final decision.

I say go with your gut. Faith attends a Lutheran preschool (there is no church time at all). They do say a prayer before eating their snack. The director/head teacher has been doing it for 16 years and obviously LOVES her job as do the other 2 teahers. (the other 2 have been there about 10 years) It is a 5 star rated preschool and it is a lottery type too. If your child had attended the previous year, you do not have to enter the lottery. It is $65 a month for 2 days, 12 - 3. (all preschool programs in our area only offer 3 hours, and you can attend 2 or 3 days a week) There is also a Head Start program that is run by the school system that we didn't look into at all. It is based on income or if your child has a special need or you can opt to pay if you have a higher income. It is 4 days a week, 8 - 11 am. There are also preschools at two of the daycares but you have to go to daycare there and since I don't have regular working hours, I wasn't sending her to daycare 5 days a week when there wasn't a need. They also don't have a very good teacher/child ratio and it seemed more to me, well, like a daycare setting. Not preschool.
Faith's preschool is "the" preschool to attend in our area but not great for working parents, there are a lot of grandparents that take & pick-up the kids.
When looking at preschools, I was really concerned about the student to teacher ratio. Most of them only had a teacher and aide for 25-30 kids. The school she attends has 3 teachers and only takes 21 kids per class. When I visited I KNEW this was the one. The classroom was vibrant, lots of different play areas. Computer area, reading area, dress-up area, craft/art area, the live animal area (turtles, fish, hampster), playing house area (child sized kitchen). The playground is enormous, fenced in with rubberized mulch. Best of all, she has fun AND learns so many things. Her favorite thing is when they play songs on the cd player which have motions that go with them, so they get to get up and dance, sing and learn motor skills (Going on a bear hunt, the button factory) They also have very short skits that the children act out for the Thanksgiving program, Christmas program, etc. They take field trips to the post office, the pumpkin patch. It is a great program. I could not be happier with my choice and neither could she.
Faith's preschool also has a "Mother's Day Out" in the summer that is 3 days a week, 10.00 a day and they bring their own lunch from 8-2. We did that last summer one day a week, and to her it was even more fun. Lot's of crafts (which is her thing) and playground time. We are definitely doing that again this summer.
I say if you liked it and obviously Lauren liked it, go for it. It sounds like "the one". It's a shame there aren't more preschool progrmas that are geared to working parents. Go with the good vibes, mother's instinct, etc. It'll be good for her and good for you.
I was shocked to find out the hours of your preschool for Nicholas! The only options aroun here are 2.5 hr sessions - 2 sessions a week for 3 year olds and 3 sessions a week for 4 year olds. We have 3 preschools in town and they all offer the same schedule (well, one preschool is very large and you can choose between a morning and an afternoon session.)
Ayup. I was just going to say the "go with your gut" speech, too. But instead I'll tell you that I too, lived in the Willamette Valley (just left Salem a few months ago) and also have issues with not wanting her in preschool for HOURS and HOURS, but two-three days? For 3 hours or so? Perfect. Because I, too, want to get something done around here like maybe a bill or two and birth another kid. Or something like that. :-)
Dear MP,
I'm a frequent reader, I think I may have commented a time or two about your speech questions with Lauren. I also happen to be a preschool teacher!!!
I say your requirements for preschool are dead on and I wish, wish, WISH more parents felt as you did.
The school I work for is in a church, but it's not faith based per se. We do say the God is Great prayer before snack.
Our sessions run 9:00 - 11:30 and as far as I know that's about the standard for a Pre-K program. Most 3's do a Tu/thurs program, but we do have a m-w-f available. Fours can go t-th; m-w-f or m-f. I can't believe the difference in price. I'm in Southern Illinois. For a 2 day a week program it is $57. Three days is $80 and 5 days $137.
We have a lead teacher and an assist for each classroom. A 3 year old classroom is limited to 16 students and 4's are limited to 21.
I'd say the most important thing in choosing a preschool is your gut feeling. YOu know your child and what will stimulate him/her appropriately. Plus the gym sounds way cool. I'm sure you'll make the right decision. Now I'm going to go ponder relocating to the pacific northwest....sounds like I could get a sweet pay increase....

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