PARENTING: What I would Tell Myself 5 Years Ago when Looking at Preschools

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.



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