Monday, January 25, 2010

The accidental preschooler.

It’s funny that I have read just about everything there is to read about early childhood education these past few years, yet I couldn’t have been more unprepared when the time came for me to look for a preschool. Straight off, my choices were narrowed when I missed deadlines I didn’t know existed. I had no idea that in D.C., January is nearly too late to start thinking about where a 1-year-old might go in the fall. Narrowed, again, by the 2.5-year-old cutoff at a few schools, and by the mandatory five-day (and $13,000) commitments at others. We took a few tours, ranging from the earthy church basement free-for-all where yoga and Brazilian martial arts are taught weekly and playground toys are banned because they might stifle the imagination, to the elite, solemn Montessori where the tour guide said, “We don’t believe in make-believe here.” Play kitchens are not for playing kitchen but for squeezing real oranges and washing hands from a real water pitcher.

Actually, I could see Milo at any of these places. At the first school his creativity would surely blossom; at the second he would learn to complete tasks and explain the functions of rivers. Do you pick a preschool that will highlight your child’s strengths, or work on his weaknesses? At age 1, do you even know what his strengths and weaknesses are?

In the end, we chose a preschool not so much because it felt warm and familiar but because of its schedule and location and because our friends were sending their son there—the almost-haphazard, logistically centered way many of us make important life choices. In my privileged case that works fine because my choices are typically among perfectly good options. And hooray, we just got our acceptance letter. (Didn’t think I would have to use that phrase for 16 years.) Milo will just have to learn his capoeira at home.


  1. My preschool "choice" was not quite so joyous as my child is non-verbal. After his third birthday, he qualified for special ed preschool.

    He has a designated aide and is learning to use PECs in a special classroom with... other kids who use PECs. Since he doesn't speak, I get a pre-printed sheet each day with things like "speech" or "painting" circled to tell me what he did that day, and I might write something back to the teacher and send the sheet back.

    Woodjie thinks preschool is the best thing ever! I really can't say enough good things about the staff, the aides, the bus drivers... everyone really seems to be doing an excellent job.

    Still... not a path I would choose if I could help it. It was either send him, or keep him home knowing that he would be missing out on some specialized help. So many mixed feelings knowing the school is great, but the reason you've chosen to send him there? Not so much. :(

  2. Linda,

    the Times seems to have pretty frequent coverage of the pre-school insanity here in New York City. But mostly on the kinds of private options or selective public choices which are of concern to their demo. Recall the coverage over competition to get into 92nd Street Y, a supposed feeder to Harvard, Yale and Princeton for the under 5 set.

    The process you describe is not unlike that which a lot of (upper?) middle class parents describe: more costly than most of us would like, but ultimately a number of good options from which to chose.

    What I do not see covered as often, in the Times or the blogs, is the impact of the few options available to non-privileged parents, whose children I presume have even greater needs for the kind of basics that many of your readers and peers take for granted (play kitchens to 'cook' at, real kitchens to see/help their parents cook in, lots of book around, range of music and art to listen to and see, etc.)

    On and off there is coverage in the specialty press of Head Start and its offspring. But interesting in all the recent hoopla over Geoffrey Canada and Harlem Children's Zone, little (apparent) coverage of the role of their baby college and pre-K program in positioning at risk kids to succeed when they enroll in HCZ's primary school at 5 years old.

    Am I reading the wrong coverage? Or is there an institutional reason this does not get covered as often or with depth? As you noted in a later post about the Times' coverage of the contentious HS closings here last night, it's a real challenge to succeed when 6% of your freshman can read at grade level. So isn't important to shine a light on what happened when those kids were 3 and 4 years old?


  3. Yes, Matthew, I do think there is an institutional barrier to such coverage. At most papers, reporters are assigned to cover a school system, or several. Often, preschool options, even for needy children, fall outside of that institutional structure, and therefore reporters—and, more important, their editors—don't think of that as part of their beat ( as with private schools, distance learners, etc.). In my many years at the Washington Post, nobody—editors, readers, people in the school system—ever brought up preschool to me and I think I wrote about it once, a program that integrated special needs and typical students. It is off radars, not that it should be.