Monday, October 7, 2013

Let the Preschool Madness Begin

And so it begins. The dreaded New York City preschool application process.

Henry is only 21 months old. But the cut off in New York is December 31, a few short weeks after his birthday, and applications are due a year in advance.

And so it was that Rayne and I found ourselves sitting in a classroom at our local cooperative preschool, surrounded by palpably nervous adults, two guinea pigs and a yellow squawking bird. First we took a tour. Art work from children with names like Brixton, Tobias, DiDi and Zelig adorned the walls. Then we returned to the original classroom for Q&A.

The director of admissions seemed eminently reasonable despite being interrupted by the bird. She made a point of suggesting parents calm down. Her basic mantra was, 'our policy is this, but we work with what you and your child need.' Squawk!

Still, the questions were pointed and repetitive, as if the questioners did not believe her when she said it the first time. What is your separation policy? What is your discipline policy? Squawk! Where do the children nap? Do you teach the alphabet?

"I know it's controversial, but we do expose them to letters and numbers." She seemed to be apologizing.


I looked sidelong at Rayne. How is exposing three- and four-year-olds to letters and numbers controversial?

Squawk!

My degrees are in social sciences and business, which is why I am more than happy to defer to the experts on early childhood education. I am beginning to suspect, however, that I am in the minority.

At the next preschool, two days later, there were observation booths where parents could spy on watch their children in the classroom the whole three hours if they chose. If the word "booth" called to mind a telephone booth, I would understand, but you would be wrong. There were whole rooms, complete with two long benches set up in stadium-style seating. Like a movie theater.

Then I learned there is such intense competition for the morning session in that preschool (as opposed to the afternoon session) that parents line up on the street the night before and camp out so they can be first in line to register.

"If you are okay with the afternoon," the preschool director said with a shrug, "you don't have to do that."

***

We all know the importance of preschool, right? Here are two examples of studies done in the last decade. From the February 2007 issue of Economics of Education Review:
We find strong evidence that the consistently positive economic returns of high-quality preschool programs exceed most other educational interventions, especially those that begin during the school-age years such as reduced class sizes in the elementary grades, grade retention, and youth job training.
And from the March 2004 issue of the American Educational Research Journal:
We find that children who attended a center or school-based preschool program in the year before school entry perform better on assessments of reading and math skills upon beginning kindergarten, after controlling for a host of family background and other factors that might be associated with selection into early education programs and relatively high academic skills. 
What we always seem to miss is this fact (from the same article):
In most instances, the effects are largest for disadvantaged groups, raising the possibility that policies promoting preschool enrollment of children from disadvantaged families might help to narrow the school readiness gap. (emphasis is mine)
News Flash: The doomsday predictions and subway-wall exhortations are not aimed at me. Or you, most likely. They are for parents who might not have the means to pay for preschool or the time to read to their children every night. They are for children who will eat their only nutritious meal of the day at school. To whichever yuppie preschool we send our children for nearly the cost of a state college education, they will be fine. So please, everyone, just calm down.

***

In the observation booth, I watched the three-year-olds play and learn. So little. So unaware of the pressure being placed upon them. So blissfully ignorant of the peering eyes of overanxious adults.

I wondered what Henry will be like in school. Every report card in my parents' attic from preschool, kindergarten and early elementary school uses one common word to describe me: "conscientious."
Conscientious: "involving or taking great care; painstaking; diligent." 
Sounds about right.

Rayne, on the other hand, has report cards that say:
"[O]ccasionally distracts others in group situations and needs to improve attention skills." (age 3)
and
"Concentration: Depends on whether someone else's work is more fun or not." (age 4)
and
"He has a quick smile, a quick answer and is constantly artfully dodging those things he finds distasteful." (age 6)
Which, again, sound about right.

Anyone who knows us should by now be holding their stomach from laughing so hard at the simple truth behind those disparate descriptions. We are not, I am afraid, much different today, not at core. 

I am not in any way playing down the importance of preschool education. But by that point, Henry's little personality will be well on its way to being formed. Sure, I want him to learn shapes and sorting, cooperation and counting. But really I just want a place where he can be safe a few hours of the day, where he can develop social skills to serve him the rest of his life.

Sometimes I wish I were one of those people who are so sure they know the right answer. So sure that paying $24,000 for nine months of two half days of preschool at Brooklyn Heights Montessori makes complete sense. I am not one of those people. Nothing in my life has ever turned out the way I planned or expected. I know only that I do not know.

Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I should be mortgaging my future to pay for Henry to get into Poly Prep. But I cannot justify it in my head. So we are applying to five local preschools that won't break our piggy bank -- or our sanity -- in two.

I'm pretty sure he will turn out just fine. 


Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS / FreeDigitalPhotos.net