Friday, January 18, 2008

Stop The Preschool Insanity!

It was around this time last year that I exhaled a sigh of relief so great it was probably heard by every toddler mom in the greater West Los Angeles area. Thing 1 and Thing 2 had been admitted to a preschool for the following fall.

It wasn't just any preschool, but one that came with qualities I'd found elusive in most. It took kids for up to a full day, up to five days a week, during the hours that a working parent might logically be expected to be on the job. It was accredited, not just by the state, but by the NAEYC, a respected national organization whose stamp of approval is considered the gold standard by such sources as Parents Magazine. It was developmental -- meaning the learning was supposed to be play-based, rather than accomplished by putting kids way too young for academics through sit-down desk learning. It was safe, clean, and staffed by caring people, many of whom had or were pursuing degrees in early childhood education.

The cost: a little more than what my college tuition was twenty years ago.

Why don't you take a moment to pause and revel in the sticker shock. I know I did.

Insane tuition is but one of the screwed up things about preschool. Another is that women here in Los Angeles have been known to show up on preschool tours when they're pregnant.

Getting your kids into a preschool you'll feel good about -- by which I mean a place they will be safe, happy, stimulated, and able to get socialized before kindergarten, rather than a full-of-itself preschool that boasts its "graduates" will one day go on to Ivy League schools -- doesn't sound like it should be crazy-making.

But it is. I pride myself on being a rational, down-to-earth, Late Blooming Mom who has the maturity and good sense to know that getting my kids into preschool isn't about getting my kids into "the right" college. But I still wound up researching dozens of schools, taking tours of twelve, applying to eight. I know it sounds excessive. But as a twin mom, I knew I was playing a cruel numbers game: I needed two slots at the same place. I often found myself wondering, though, if by applying to so many, I was part of the very problem that was pissing me off.

Here in L.A., as in many parts of the country, there are far more parents trying to find slots for their toddlers in preschool than there seem to be slots for them. (For more on how our society shamelessly fails to support working moms with good, affordable childcare, check out Judith Warner's "Perfect Madness;" you'll find a link below right among the scrolling featured books on this blog). Now I know preschool isn't considered absolutely necessary. When I was a toddler, I went to something quaint called "nursery school" a few mornings a week until I started kindergarten. It wasn't much more than a safe place mom could drop me off to play so she could get a break. But I'm a working mom, and I need a much longer break than my mom did -- an eight-hour work-day, plus. And there's plenty of research (which I won't repeat here) that proves kids who attend preschool are better prepared socially as well as educationally for kindergarten. So for these and other obvious reasons, I think it's a good thing, and for my kids, a necessity.

Maybe that's why, a year after being put through the ringer of the preschool admission process, I'm still steamed about the lack of good options, the competition for those that are good, and the do-it-yourself, wildly time consuming process of finding one that'll suit.

Word of mouth is key, but not always reliable: just because a friend of a friend's kid goes somewhere someone likes, doesn't make it right for yours. The web is vital but also inaccurate and outdated. I found myself reluctantly buying a book with the unfortunate title COPING WITH PRESCHOOL PANIC, because there was no easily accessible, comprehensive directory of preschools in my area. (The book's a decent starting point for those who live in Los Angeles, but not at all comprehensive; my kids wound up at a school that wasn't listed in it).

Even when you narrow down the list of the schools you want to check out in person, you find the tour schedules are staggered, and so are the dates by which they'll tell you if your kid is admitted, so good luck trying to save a place at one school when you haven't heard from the others. Directors of some preschools laughed at me when I called inquiring about admission more than a year and a half before I'd want my kids to attend; they were already full and so were their waiting lists. Other directors laughed because I was calling so early. To combat Westside L.A. wackiness, they'd instituted a no-tours-until-a-year-before-you-want-your-kid-to-start policy (bless them for that). Then there were schools where the directors insisted my kids would have to be potty-trained before they started, even though most parenting books say kids have to do that on their own schedules, and forcing the issue creates medical and psychological problems. Those schools were the first I took off my list.

I can't tell you how many late nights I spent on the web, how many hours of work I had to make up because I was out during the work day visiting prospective schools, how many phone calls I made or emails I sent to school directors and other moms. But I can tell you this: it was a good thing I bothered to apply to eight schools. In the end, my kids were admitted to two.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason why they were rejected from the others: only one of the schools actually required us to bring the kids in for a face-to-face meeting. On the tours, some school directors mentioned the importance of fund-raising and how much families might be expected to donate over and above tuition, and I often got the feeling, when I mentioned that I had twins, that some of those directors wrote me off right then. After all, admitting my kids meant one less family in the pool of prospective donors. All these places collected application fees ranging from twenty-five to seventy-five dollars, and one school even required us to attend and pay for a four-week toddler program at their center before we could even apply. In the end, when the kids didn't get in to most places (including the one where we attended the toddler program), the reason we were officially given was always the same: they just didn't have enough space.

My kids didn't wind up attending that first preschool to which they were admitted, mostly because another one proved cozier, friendlier, and offered more of a community. But another reason was that this latter school didn't have a cumbersome admission process. The school invited us to take a tour about ten months before we wanted our kids to start, and then asked for a hefty deposit to reserve each spot. If we wanted our kids to go there and were willing to commit soon after taking the tour, they were in -- no waiting lists, no nerve-wracking wait for a call or an envelope to arrive in the mail. The school didn't mess around, which took a lot of the crazy-making out of the process.

Five months after starting, my kids are clearly thriving in preschool (aside from the colds they can't seem to avoid bringing home -- see my January 1/08 post, Welcome To Cold-Of-The-Month Club) . Every day, when I pack them up to go, and again when I pick them up at day's end, I breathe another sigh of relief. It all worked out. But making it happen pretty much sucked. It shouldn't have.

I don't know who is more to blame for preschool insanity: anxious parents, obnoxious, stuck up school directors, or the lack of political will to make good, affordable preschool universally available. But I know if we fix that last problem, the others will go away.

Here's hoping.

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