Chicago, I love you. And not for your beautfiul architecture, your awesome museums, your vibrant neighborhoods, your eclectic personalities or your talented business community.
It's your food.
I learned this hard way when I decided, in my teenage haste to get away from my parents, to go to college in DeKalb, Il. DeKalb is a lovely, rural college town. But the closest I could get to proper Italian food was a Domino's Pizza (which, don't get me wrong, for some college nights, worked out perfectly fine.) There was nowhere to buy any decent, diverse food. I had taken my vibrant city for granted. And it is something I remind my daughter about constantly when we are enjoying what the city has to offer.
The city is alive with food trucks and innovative eating establishments and concepts. It is full of diverse neighborhoods that sell diverese ingredients for diverse palates. And it has some of the best chefs in the country. And working quietly, behind it all to make sure that the city contnues to garner fresh talent and keep the food scene alive is a wonderful organziation called Les Dames d'Escoffier. The Dames have been around for a very long time, and globally recognized. In fact, Julia Child was one! The Chicago Chapter was founded in 1982 and is comprised of a talented group of professional women in the food, wine and hospitality industries. They work tirelessly to raise funds to help deserving young women get a chance to go to cooking school and follow their dreams, as well as feed the hungry and help with nutritional programs in the city.
Get you VIP pass today for $250 and includes the Friday night LA GRANDE FÊTE: A FRENCH SALUTE TO JULIA and JOAN, Saturday night DRINK, DINE and DASH: A POP-UP COCKTAIL PARTY and two classes. Seems like a great deal to me. The hardest part will be picking just two classes! There are so many fun things to taste and do.
Here is a link to buy tickets:
And if you wish to stay in a hotel, their are special guest rates.
I am going to give you a quick run down of what events you can sign up for during the weekend as well as details on the big parties that are included with the VIP pass, but to warn you there too many to count. And I know some of you followers are foodies and will want to get in on some of these classes, so don't wait too long. I can't decide myself!
LA GRANDE FETE: A FRENCH SALUTE TO JULIA and JOAN
When: Friday, September 7, 7:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: The French Pastry School | 226 West Jackson Boulevard |Chicago, IL 60606
Celebrate the 100th birthday anniversary of Grande Dame Julia Child with an amazing evening of French food, cheeses, wines and desserts. Alpana Singh, of Public Television’s “Check, Please,” will host and Dame of Distinction Joan Reardon will sign copies of her new book. Bid on an array of unique culinary items at our Food and Wine auction with auctioneer and Dame Leah Hammer. Plus goodie bags from the French Pastry School!
ONE-OF-A KIND CULINARY CLASSES
When: Friday, September 7
Where: The French Pastry School | 226 West Jackson Boulevard | Chicago, IL 60606
3:00 – 4:30 PM
• Discover the secrets of artisan French breads with World Baking Champion Pierre Zimmerman.
• Taste fine artisan cheeses with Dame Sofia Solomon.
5:00 – 6:30 PM
• Sip French wines with Dames Alpana Singh and Veronica Hastings.
• Tour the winning world of French pastry with National Pastry Champion and Dame Della Gossett and World Pastry Champion and Dame En-Ming Hsu.
CULINARY INSIDERS FOOD & WINE EXPERIENCES
When: Saturday, September 8, various times
Where: Various locations
Participants choose from ten unique Culinary Insiders Experiences created by Les Dames to showcase Chicago’s vibrant food and wine scene.
A Peek Inside Food Magazine Publishing & Food Photography
When: Saturday, September 8, 9:00 – 11:00 AM
Where: Chris Cassidy Photography Studio | 1147 W Ohio, Suite 403 | Chicago, IL 60642
Learn the secrets to fabulous food photography. Attend a photo shoot for Plate Magazine, a specialty food magazine for chefs. After a studio tour and buffet breakfast, guests will experience the magic of food photography. Editor and Dame Chandra Ram and Design Director and Dame Queenie Burns will discuss the process, while food stylist and Dame Carol Smoler prepares the food. Dame Nancy Cassidy will discuss props, and photographer Chris Cassidy will give pointers for guests to use for their own photography.
Mexico’s Street Food and Chile Tasting
When:Saturday, September 8, 11:00 AM to 2 PM
Where: Frontera Grill | 445 N. Clark Street | Chicago, IL 60654
Chiles, fresh and dried, contain more than unbridled heat—they are full of flavor. From the rich, grassy green flavor of a serrano chile to the aromatic tropical-flavored habañero to sultry anchos, chiles inform many classic Mexican dishes. Come join us for a guided chile tasting led by Frontera Foods Culinary Director and Dame JeanMarie Brownson. We’ll taste fresh and dried chiles along with classic salsas that highlight our favorite chile assets. After class, Dame Deann Bayless will be our hostess for a special lunch in the Morales Room at Frontera Grill, featuring some of Mexico’s best-loved street foods.
VIP Green City Market Tour and Lunch
When: Saturday, September 8, 9:30 AM – 1:00 PM
Where: Green City Market | South end of Lincoln Park between Clark & Stockton Drive
Chicago’s Green City Market is a nationally recognized marketplace for distributing, promoting and educating about local sustainably-grown food. Market Director and Dame Dana Benigno will lead a VIP tour of the Green City Market and edible garden. Culinary Insiders will be introduced to the market farmers to learn more about their products. After the tour, there will be time to shop with your new Green City Market tote, followed by a market lunch.
Culinary Insider’s Walk Through Asia – on Argyle Street
When: Saturday, September 8, 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Where: Chiu Quon Bakery | 1127 West Argyle Street | Chicago, IL 60640
There’s no better place to experience Chicago’s melting pot than Argyle Street. Here we will learn about Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai cuisines. Culinary Insiders will be guided by cooking instructor Dame Rebecca Wheeler and Chicago Office of Tourism’s Director of Culinary Arts and Dame Judith Dunbar Hines. Along the tour, see tofu being made, experience Peking Duck and meet the first Chinese Chef to gain acclaim as a French Pastry maker. Of course, there’ll be plenty of interesting samples and a sumptuous lunch.
The Lure and Lore of Spices
When: Saturday, September 8, 10:00 – 11:30 AM
Where: The Spice House in Old Town | 1512 N Wells | Chicago, IL 60610
Throughout time, man’s destiny has been shaped by the search for the elusive spices coveted by nobility and royalty. The history of the spice trade reveals fascinating tales of piracy, adventures and wars battled to dominate the spice trade routes. Spice merchants Dame Patty Erd and her husband Tom Erd have spent their lives in pursuit of the world’s highest-quality spices. This dynamic duo will share interesting historical facts, anecdotes and entertaining spice tales. They will discuss custom blending so each guest can create a custom four-jar spice gift box to take home. Enjoy spice-infused pastries from a neighborhood bakery along with a special spiced beverage.
Eli’s Pastry Chef Experience
When: Saturday, September 8, 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Where: Eli’s Cheesecake | 6701 W Forest Preserve Drive | Chicago, IL 60634
Live the Eli’s pastry chef experience! Work closely with Eli’s research and development chefs to learn how Eli’s desserts are created for airlines, bakery/delis and quick-service restaurants. You’ll learn about – and sample – Eli’s quality ingredients and see how they are put together to form Chicago’s favorite dessert. All parts of the dessert development process will be covered, from mixing and baking to decorating. Finally, guests will team up to develop an original dessert from a box of mystery ingredients. Each guest will receive an Eli’s gift bag to take home.
A Cup of Chicago’s Finest
When: Saturday, September 8, 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Where: Metropolis Coffee Company | 1039 W Granville Avenue | Chicago, IL 60660
Have you ever wondered how your coffee was roasted? How the roasters choose the coffee? Join Dame Tami Mizrahi and owner Tony Dreyfuss of the Metropolis Coffee Company Roasting Garage for one incredible coffee experience. The process of tasting, evaluation and roasting will come alive on this tour. You will see roasting in action on vintage equipment from the 1930s, then cup fresh seasonal coffees from around the world. Learn to make cappuccino and espresso. Enjoy cappuccini and latte made to order by Tony Dreyfuss accompanied with biscotti and pastries. Then take home a bag of coffee roasted during your tour.
VIP Beer & Cheese Tasting at the House of Glunz
When: Saturday, September 8, 3:00 – 4:30 PM
Where: The House of Glunz in Old Town | 1206 North Wells | Chicago, IL 60610
Artisan beers are the industries’ fastest-growing category. Dame Barbara Glunz will guide Culinary Insiders through a tasting of three flights of artisanal beers from around the world paired with hand-crafted specialty cheeses. The tasting will take place in the Tavern room in the historic House of Glunz, Chicago wine merchants since 1888. Old World elegance and tradition complete with antique oak furnishings, stained glass windows and nineteenth century artifacts will create the perfect atmosphere for an intimate tasting. The Glunz family history in the wine, beer and spirits industry, dating back 124 years in this old Chicago location, will be incorporated into the tasting experience.
Secrets to Chicago’s Great Steaks
When: Saturday, September 8, 2:00 – 4:30 PM
Where: The Chopping Block | 222 Merchandise Mart #107 | Chicago, IL 60654
From the Civil War until the 1920s Chicago was the country's largest meatpacking center. Today, it’s a mecca for fine steak. Kari Underly, a third generation meat cutter and author of "The Art of Beef Cutting” and Janet Kirker, executive chef at The Chopping Block, will demonstrate butchery and help Culinary Insiders try their hand at beef cutting. They will also guide attendees through a tasting of new steakhouse cuts such as flat iron, ribeye cap, petite tender, hanger steak, along with some exciting sauces, prepared by the Chopping Block team. Attendees will go home with new beef cutting knowledge, recipes, and a professional butcher’s breaker knife.
Sneak Peak into Vosges Chocolate
When: Saturday, September 8, 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Where: Vosges | 951 W Armitage | Chicago, IL 60614
The team at Vosges Haut-Chocolat trusts in the power of chocolate to open minds, spirits and palates. We invite Culinary Insiders to embark on a sensory journey through the medium of high-quality, artisanal chocolate. Join us as we embrace the novel and the quirky, such as the perplexing oddity of curry and chocolate. Founder Katrina Markoff will share her personal story. Inspired, guests will have the chance to make their own truffles. Finally a wine, cheese and chocolate pairing will send Culinary Insiders into the world renewed and energized.
Entertaining Tips and Trends
When: Saturday, September 8, 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Where: Tablescapes Showroom | 1827 W. Hubbard St. | Chicago. IL 60622
Searching for party ideas or creative ways to serve food? Want clever details to make each party unique? Then come for Tea with Chicago’s top event specialists. Dame Wendy Pashman, owner of Entertaining Company and caterer for the toniest parties in town and Dame Kathy Ruff, owner of Tablescapes Party Rentals will dish on the latest party trends. These amazingly creative people will offer plenty of insider tips and ingenious solutions – like how do you chill wine in a small apartment? (in your washing machine, of course!) The Tea will be styled by another top Chicago caterer, the acclaimed Food for Thought.
DRINK, DINE & DASH: A POP-UP COCKTAIL PARTY
When: Saturday, September 8, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
Where: To be held at a surprise venue! Surprise! Culinary Insiders won’t know the “where” of this party until just hours before, but you can be sure it’ll be a blast. Details about the place will be sent to Culinary Insiders via text message on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday night, we’ll “pop-up” in an unexpected place for a fabulous party featuring theme-based nibbles from Dame Rita Gutekanst’s esteemed Limelight Catering, local beers and fine wine. A signature cocktail and a “Now & Later” Prize Giveaway featuring items such as dinner for 12 at the House of Glunz, a VIP Champagne and art tour at Tru, a party at the Chopping block and more. Arrive on time for a chance to win dinner reservations for THAT NIGHT at the hottest restaurants in town for a no-holds-barred culinary experience. Or, win a one-of-a-kind food and wine extravaganza at a future date to be determined by you that only the Chicago culinary insiders’ could put together.
BREAKFAST WITH INA, THE BREAKFAST QUEEN
When: Sunday, September 9
Where: Ina’s | 1235 West Randolph Street | Chicago, IL 60607
A select few will enjoy brunch at Ina’s Kitchen with Ina, the Breakfast Queen.
SELF-GUIDED CHICAGO FOOD TOURS
When: Sunday, September 9
Where: Various locations
Attendees can choose from a series of tours such as a cupcake crawl and a dim sum dash.
Every year, I "throw down" for Father's Day brunch. I try to make delicious nibbles for my hubby using flavor profiles he likes. And he LOVES bananas. I, on the other hand, don't care for them. Well, I like them in baked goods. But raw, forget it. I had a traumatizing incident when I was 4 involving my grandmother's neighbor's 5 children, bananas, vomit and diapers. I will say no more.
So, I felt I owed my honey some tasty, UNHEALTHY scones versus the healthy ones I recently subjected him to a few weeks ago (which I posted). These still are not too naughty. They make use of vanilla yogurt versus buttermilk. But the caramel drizzle I concocted really makes these to die for.
One last note, the original recipe that inspired these is from kitchn.com. Hopefully the original author does not mind that I messed with it a bit.
Banana Walnut & Maple Scones with Caramel Drizzle
2 ripe bananas
2 Tbsp. milk
12 oz. vanilla flavored yogurt
3 cups flour
5 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
5 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. maple extract
1/2 cup chopped black walnuts
5 squares baking caramels
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4-1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 Tbsp. or so of cream
Preheat oven to 400˚. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet.
In a medium bowl, mash the banana with the milk until creamy. Add the yogurt and mix until combined. Add the maple extract, stir. Set aside.
In a larger bowl, whisk the flour with the baking powder, salt, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg with a fork. With a pastry cutter, cut in the butter with the flour mixture until it resembles cornmeal, and the butter bits are no bigger than small peas. Now pour the yogurt mixture into the flour, and mix with a fork, then maybe with your hands. The dough will be sticky. Mix in the walnuts, and fold until all the flour is absorbed and a wet dough is formed.
Line a dinner plate with wax paper. Plop the dough onto the dinner plate. Shape and flatten it to the dinner plate edges, making the disc about 1" thick. Place another piece of wax paper on top, and freeze for 30 min. When ready, take out and peel off the top paper.
Invert the plate gently so the dough falls flat onto the prepared baking sheet. Peel off the top wax paper. Slice the scones as if you were cutting a pizza, making eight wedges. Gently pull them apart and make space in between them. Bake on the upper middle of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Cool completely. If some wedges get cooked together, use a knife to separate them.
Now make the drizzle. In a small bowl, melt the butter for 30 seconds or so in the microwave. Add the caramel squares, and heat for another 20. Stir. Heat for another 20, stir. Make sure the caramel is melted and able to be stirred. It won't mix well with the butter, but that's what the confectioners sugar is for. Add the sugar and mix it all into a gooey paste with a fork. If the caramel is stiffening up, heat up for a few seconds more. Add the cream and mix. The topping should be able to be drizzled. Add a little more cream until this is doable. Use a fork and drizzle willy-nilly all over the scones. Serve!
Recently, I wrote a post about grilling pizzas using a great shortcut: Trader Joe's Pizza Dough. We played, ate, played, and ate some more. We tried lots of approaches and 4 different topping combos. Our favorite is the one I am sharing with you here. To fine tune your approach to pizza grilling, here is the post about what worked the best for us. Please weigh in if you have had better luck using a pizza stone, grill rack itself, etc. My blog is all about sharing!
This was really a fun Sunday afternoon activity. The kids played as we casually grilled up different kinds of pizza. We just munched casually for hours, perfecting our approach. I would try a future "Pizza Party" for some easy entertaining on the deck with guests. It's laid back and fun. And with Trader Joe doing all the dough work, it's sooo easy.
Grilled Fontina, Mushroom and Caramelized Onion Pizza
1 bag of Trader Joe's Pizza Dough (one bag makes 2 10-12" thin pizzas)
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
5-6 oz. shredded Fontina cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1 cup white wine
1/2 Tbsp. fresh minced Rosemary
3 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. mixed mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced (I had 5 oz. sliced Button, 4 oz. Shitake, 3 oz. baby Bellas...go "wild" with what you can find!
Heat up your grill. Follow the instructions in this post. Basically you want a hot flame to pre-cook the dough, then a low flame to cook the pizza once topped. You can use two areas of the same grill or two separate grills.
Let the dough sit out at room temp. for at least 20 minutes.
Mix the oil, red pepper flakes, salt and smashed garlic in a bowl. Set aside.
In a heavy skillet start the onions. Melt the butter with the olive oil. over a medium heat, cook the onions until they are a deep golden brown and caramelized-up to 30 minutes. Toss occasionally as onions cook down, but don't over stir.
In another skillet, start the mushrooms. Melt the butter with olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots, and saute until soft. Add the mushroom and toss around. Cook until the mushrooms begin to release their juices, then add the wine. Cook on medium low until all the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Add the Rosemary, season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool a little.
And now, the dough. Split the dough into two equal parts. Roll the first crust into a 10-12" round on a well floured surface. Brush the top lightly with the garlic oil that has been set aside. Flip the dough over on to a wire mesh pizza pan, oiled side down. Now brush the top facing you. Grill on a hot flame for two minutes with the grill covered. Using tongs and a spatula, carefully flip the dough. Grill on the opposite side. Carefully take the pizza to a heatproof work surface. Top with 1/2 the mushrooms, 1/2 the onions, and sprinkle half the Fontina over it all. Drizzle once around the top with extra olive oil. Place back on the grill side with the low, indirect heat. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until things are hot and bubbly.
Let sit for a minute, then cut and eat! Repeat for the second pizza. (the above pic here is on a whole wheat TJ's Crust)
We were at my sister’s house this weekend, and we were in charge of dinner. This was a unique circumstance because usually my mom cooks and plans the meal when we get together (a true alpha Italian Mamma, shall we say?). What ends up happening is that there is way too much food and stress to get it all on the table in a timely manner. So with Mom coming late, we girls were in charge! We wanted to keep it casual while the kids played. So we decided to make pizzas on the grill. (My mom was not thrilled., she prefers a sit down multi- course meal). But, we got our way.
Unless you have a huge grill, or more than one going at a time, it is hard to have a sit down meal with only pizzas off the grill. For this kind of meal, you eat and chat as you make pizzas. Especially because we wanted to try various toppings, and nail down the process as we went. We had both read so many ways to do it, we were not sure which way was best. So we created an assembly line with my husband at the grill and ate as we went. It was fun and different…maybe too different for my mom!
First thing was the dough. Now don’t gasp, but we used a premade pizza dough from Trader Joe's. Like I said, we wanted it easy. (My strict Italian mother approved of the dough after tasting it, fyi). They have a plain, herb and whole wheat flavor. It was really easy to work with once you got the hang of it. You can make your own dough, of course (here is one from my favorite Italian chef, Mario Batali). But these store-bought bundles at $1.29 a bag kept things fast, cheap and still very fresh and homemade tasting.
We tried a pizza stone and pizza screens. We tried just cooking the pizza all assembled raw, and precooking the dough. By the end of the night, we had it down to delicious. Here is our advice:
Dough prep: Let the Trader Joe's dough sit out at room temp for 20-30 minutes. I split one dough ball in two, and roll out one on a well floured surface. Brush the topside with olive oil. Flip oiled side down on to the mesh pan. Brush lightly the dough now facing up. It is ready to be grilled.
Fire: Have two sides of a grill, one side with the coals up high and hot. The other side of the grill with little direct heat…sparse coals low and around the edges of the cooking area. You can do this with two smaller grills. One with high heat, say a gas grill with hot flames, and a charcoal grill with the coals low and lining the edges, creating an indirect baking area in the middle with little flame.
After failed attempts at assembling on raw dough and grilling as well as using the pizza stone, we decided to precook the crust on the mesh pans, then top. But we also discovered that both phases needed different heat. Crisping the crust needs a direct flame/ heat. Baking the top while finishing the crusts needs indirect, slow heat. Thus the above approach to the heat. One area is for high heat/ flame for crisping the crust. One area is for finishing the pizza.
Cooking method: We tried the pizza stone, but could not get it quite hot enough. We decided to use our pizza mesh pans, and they worked perfectly. They allowed the flames to lick the crust to a golden smokiness. Our best pizzas were ones we precooked. Cook one side on the higher flames for 2-3 minutes, covered if possible. Then with some long tongs and a spatula, cook the other side for 2-3 minutes. Pull off the grill, top with toppings. Drizzle with extra olive oil, then cook on the indirect heat, covered, until top is melted and bubbly. Let sit for a couple minutes off the heat before slicing.
Have fun topping things. I will be posting our favorite one tomorrow that we whipped up.
I felt the need to bake this past weekend. I don't know if it was to celebrate the end of the school year (surviving it, more likely!) or if it was the promise of a gorgeous summer day. But for some reason, my kitchen and garden were aflutter with activity. I made these scones to use up some whole wheat flour and buttermilk I had. I cut back on the sugar to make these healthier, but my husband did not like them. He thought they were too healthy (men). So I will notate double the sugar that I used so your significant others will be happier than mine was. But just know you could go less if you wish. I also wanted to create a "cinnamon chip" experience, similar to the cinnamon scones you get at Starbucks. So I coated the pecans in a cinnamon-sugar coating before toasting them. If you are short on time, you can skip this step. Then just throw the pecans in with cinnamon right into the batter and call it a day.
Oatmeal Pecan Cinnamon Chip Scones
1 cup old fashioned oats
3/4 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
5 Tbsp. sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. maple extract
6 Tbsp. butter, cut up
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, separated
2 tsp. water
For the nut chips:
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. sugar
Preheat oven to 400˚. On a baking sheet, toast the oats until lightly golden (5 minutes or so). Cool.
Spray a tin foil lined baking sheet with cooking spray. Set aside.
Whisk the egg whites with the water until foamy. Pour half of the mixture over the pecan chips in a small bowl, and toss to coat. Reserve the rest. Over the coated nuts, pour the cinnamon and sugar, and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle them onto a small foil lined baking sheet, separating them out. Toast lightly in the oven until just getting golden. (400 is a little hot, so keep a eye on these guys and make sure they don't get overdone. You may want to lower your temp for them.) Let cool.
In a large bowl mix the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and oats. With a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the pecans. With a fork, mix the buttermilk add egg yolk together in a small bowl. Stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture until combined and things begin to come together. Then use your hands to lightly knead the dough until it holds together into a ball.
Transfer dough onto your prepared pan. Press and shape into about a 14"ish long rectangle. With a knife or dough scraper, cut the dough into triangles. Brush the tops with the remaining egg white mixture. Sprinkle liberally with extra sugar on top.
Bake until golden and center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Separate the scones and serve warm with butter and jam.
As of late, my husband and I have been mired in 4th grade school life. We also have been touring other schools, evaluating options, looking at different approaches to learning and various school cultures. We have been weighing the pros and cons of everything based on what is best for our daughter. It has been a long, exhaustive process. Particularly because it led us to a choice of not changing anything for the time being! A lot of work for nothing, you may ask?
Well, the whole journey has been enlightening, to say the least. The choices out there are so varied. So much depends on funding and the vitality and vision of the school administration to find funds and use it in the most efficient and best way possible. At times, the process was eye opening. Sometimes, it was disheartening. Sometimes it was inspiring. Through it all, I have learned a lot. Some of which I wish I thought about when I was first going through this process for preschool!
I must first mention that I live in Chicago. The school system is a crowded mess. Depending on where you live, you may get a really great public school, or not. There is also a wide array of private schools with a wide array of tuition fees. If you want to get into a good public magnet school outside of your district, you have to enter a lottery by a December date a full year ahead of the year you are planning on entering. This makes transferring near impossible, unless you are REALLY great at looking through a crystal ball. Though I have many talents that's not one of them.
So 5 years ago, when I first embarked on my search for preschool, it was almost a whole year beforehand. Unbelievably, I was wait-listed at many places. Therefore, a part of me felt pressured and rushed to get in somewhere…anywhere! Also, as a mother of a preschooler, I had different priorities than I would as a mother of an older child. I asked questions like; “How did teachers discipline? Enforce manners? Teach socialization? How much reading time? When was snack time? Did they nap?” Frankly, as you look at your cherub faced 5 year old, the upper grades seem so far away. So many things change in time. If seasoned parents complained about this or that–well, things may change by the time you got there. In other words, I was short sighted. I did not think beyond the primary grades. If I had to do it all over again, I would make sure to look at other things during my preschool tours. If you are now looking at schools for your young one, perhaps this list may help you.
Evaluate the vitality and innovation of the administration. Ensure that there are processes and a structure for operations
Are there new programs, grants and improvements driven from the school administration, or are parents running the show? Does the school leader have a voice? Is he/she visible during the school day during your tour? Do they make a point of introducing themselves to you? Are they the one doing the tour? If they are, then ask how many more people are on their staff (it could be lean). Are there processes using technology to communicate to parents in a systematic fashion, including operational things like billing and records? Is there a structured process and line of communication that deals with curriculum changes, program improvements, or in dealing with special needs children? Your child is just in preK. She or he may grow to need special things. You may want more technology brought in to the school as new things are developed (Think about it, there were no iPads 5 years ago!). The school may adapt new curriculum down the road. How things get funded, implemented and rolled out makes a big difference between success and failure. Ask questions, and observe how things are run during your tour.
Look at teacher turnover
If there is a lot of teacher turnover, it’s a sign that maybe not everyone is on the same page culturally. They may simple not be getting paid enough. They could also be very young and just starting their careers. There may be a ton of reasons. Turnover could be a good thing. Fresh teachers with fresh approaches sometimes breathe new life into a school. But be sure to ask what the average tenure is, and if it’s low, ask why. See what answer you get, and go from there.
Look at the curriculum taught in upper grades. Also be wary of transitional curriculum years
I did not ever think to study up on different curriculum out there. I have quickly learned that there is a variety of ways and styles of teaching for just about every subject. Be sure that what is being taught is going to be a good fit for how your child learns. Now that being said, my child has changed a lot since she was 5. I might not have known how she would react to “Project Based Learning” or Everyday Mathematics. But you can do a little reading, and see what other parents and teachers are saying online. The more information you are armed with, the better. And also, from speaking to a variety of different schools and our own experience, the first year a new curriculum is introduced is the rockiest for everyone involved. So if you are walking into a transitional year of a major curriculum change, be ready for some waves.
Look at resources (nurse, special needs, counseling)
I remember not even thinking about asking about a nurse, or if there were counselors on site, or if there was a special needs program, or if there was extra help for kids that needed it, or if there was a gifted program. These are all things you may need in some capacity as your child becomes older. If they are not there, you will need outside resources and work-arounds. That could mean a lot more work (and money) for you.
Look at technology implementation
The most fascinating and eye opening aspect of my school evaluations is how various schools implement (or not) technology in the classroom. I have seen a very small school with a very innovative principal secure tons of grant money for iPads and Mobi boards for her school. I have seen a public school triple the size of the small one with only one computer lab and a handful or projectors for ¼ of its teachers. It’s all about resources. A vivacious principal that values technology will hustle to get it. Evaluate how big the school is, and see where the money is going. If there is little technology implemented at the school, ask if there is a structured plan to secure funding to get it. The future for these children will include technology in their daily lives. It’s a reality we cannot ignore. Chalkboards are gone. iPads are here to stay.
Look at the parent community and involvement
Is there a parent association of some kind? What percentage of the school is involved? Do many volunteer? Is there a mandatory volunteer hour allotment that the school has to force parent participation? Studies show that the most vibrant school communities have a healthy ecosystem of parents and teachers working together. That being said, be wary of a parent community that drives everything. It may mean a weak administration, and then the parents become the engine bringing to life innovation, ideas and fundraising. And that’s a lot of work.
Look at the kids' culture
During your tour, look at the kids' behavior. Are they mellow and at ease or tense and focused during your tour? Are they punctual to class or meandering in late? Are the children respectful to each other and their teachers or feisty and loud? The culture of the school means a lot for your child. What do you think your child will flourish in, and decide appropriately.
Look at all the class sizes
It is par for the course to look at class sizes–not too big, not too small, right? But pay attention to the older grades as well as the younger. Is there a huge drop off in certain pods? Or is there an influx of students in certain grades. Depending on school history, you can equate drop offs and growth to various things. If you know there is an influx of young children and the school is out of room, ask what plans there are for expansion and growth. If you notice a drop off during your tour, ask why. Also see if you can ask around to other parents if you are concerned about student drops in the upper grades. Most parents won’t sugar coat things, and you can make your decision from there.
Look who monitors communal spaces (locker rooms, recess, lunchroom) and how
The book Lord of the Flies was written for a reason. Get a bunch of kids together in one space without any discipline or structure, and trouble brews. Find out if teachers monitor the communal spaces and how. This is not something I thought about for a 5 year old. But once hormones and pecking orders kick in, you want to make sure these are healthy environments for your child.
Bring a second opinion
It is funny, the natural order of things. When it came to the preschool search, I assumed responsibility as the Mother. I ran around scheduling tours around my work schedule and would report back findings to my husband. After our latest round of tours with my husband, I wish I brought him the first time. Another person adds different perspective. They may see things you didn't, and interpret things in a way you did not. See if you can bring your significant other, a friend, a mother or sister to your tours. It will help.
Look long and hard. And even if you think you found a place, look at a few more for good measure
Put the pressure to get a “spot” aside for one more week, and just look at one or two more on your list, just to be sure. If you don’t want to deal with transferring your preschooler come later, you really need to make sure that this spot will be able to accommodate your child no matter what comes. A couple more tours may validate your choice or may question it. It may also give you more questions to get answered by your top choice. Due diligence is key. And you will never have a "what if” moment down the road. You will also know what is out there if years down the road you do want to make a switch.