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5 Preschools Your Kid Isn't Getting Into

Photograph by Twenty20

It was week thirteen of my pregnancy, and I decided it was time to start making phone calls.

"We're having a baby!!!!" I announced ecstatically to everyone I knew.

"Yay! Congrats! How wonderful!" everyone said. "How are you feeling? When are you due?" everyone asked.

Until my phone call to a close friend who has been a preschool teacher for over 30 years:

Me: "We're having a baby!!!!"

My Friend: "Yay! Congrats! How wonderful!"

Me: "Thank you!"

My Friend: "You should really start looking at preschools."

Me: "I'm due in… wait, what?!"

She was completely serious.

My Friend: "It's never too early. Take some tours. Put your name on a few wait lists."

Me: "Um yeah, sure. I'll get on that. Want to hear about my diet of white bread and ginger ale?"

The word preschool then proceeded to disappear entirely from my brain until after my daughter's first birthday. "Still plenty of time," I thought. " I mean, it's preschool. How hard can it be?'

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My call to the first preschool on my list was answered by a voicemail recording:

"Thank you for calling the First Church of Exclusivity Preschool. We are currently accepting applications for the 2018/2019 school year. Please visit our website to download the application form. Please do NOT leave messages for us. Have a beautiful and joyful day."

"Okay," I told myself. "We didn't want that fancy pants preschool anyway. Moving on."

The next preschool I called had space available on a tour a few days later. I arranged childcare for 10:00 am on a Wednesday. (No, you can't bring your baby to a preschool tour, you naïve woman!) The school had five small bungalows arranged in a semicircle around an outdoor play area. We trooped into the first one where a group of three-year-olds were playing with blocks.

"This is the Building Hut," the tour guide explained in a hushed voice.

In next bungalow, more small children were using drawing and painting materials. The tour guide whispered that this was the "Art Hut." A third bungalow contained dress-up clothes and various props. It was the "Drama Hut". The fourth was the "Library". And the last one held a kitchen and staff room.

After a lengthy speech by the school director, describing how her program would turn our toddlers into brilliantly creative problem solvers with a profound sense of social responsibility, a dad tentatively raised his hand.

"So, what if my kid wants to use blocks in the Drama Hut?"

There was a silence. The director raised her eyebrows.

"Here at The Garden of A Million Rules, we believe that children need to learn how to follow a daily schedule. This is part of a fundamental skill set that is essential for their transition to kindergarten."

The dad looked blank. "So that's a no on blocks in the Drama Hut?"

We sat in the semi-dark while the director gave a speech about the school's guiding philosophy of social constructivist theory influenced by the work of Piaget and Vygotsky.

Preschool #3 was more relaxed. There were attractive classrooms and a large outdoor space with swings, a sandbox, water tables etc. A complicated tangle of ropes and pulleys that I couldn't identify hung suspended in one corner. During the question period, a mom in the front row raised her hand.

"How long have most of your teachers been with the school?"

The director looked irritated. "It's so hard to retain teachers at the preschool level. Almost all of them are young women who want to have babies of their own, so they don't stay with us for long. We're actually interviewing for the upcoming school year right now."

The mom looked disappointed.

"I'm sure we'll get some good ones," the director added more cheerfully. "And now, if you'll follow me outside, we'll have a demonstration of our circus trapeze equipment!"

I read glowing reviews on several websites for the next preschool: "Amazing!" "Incredible teachers!" "Caring community!" It was located next door to a large media corporation, and the tour began in the company's plush screening room. We sat in the semi-dark while the director gave a speech about the school's guiding philosophy of social constructivist theory influenced by the work of Piaget and Vygotsky. (Who?!)

"The Ivy League Boot Camp Preschool program actually begins over the summer," she explained. "Parents are asked to bring in twenty-five photos that they feel best represent their child's personality. We analyze each photo and narrow it down to five. Parents also write a five-page essay about their child and the family as a whole. We then publish a textbook containing all of these character profiles, which the entire class will study at home, so that each child is fully prepared to meet all the other classmates on the first day of school."

She paused. I glanced around. Were the other parents were also in shock? I couldn't tell.

"Parents are also required to serve on at least two committees focusing on a range of important school needs," the director went on. She fixed us all with an accusatory glare. "And if you don't pull your weight, trust me, I'll hear about it."

Was it really impossible in a major city to find a preschool my daughter would enjoy that felt, well... normal?

A mom in the third row had been furiously taking notes on her iPad. Now she raised her hand.

"Which schools do your graduates generally go to?"

The director beamed with pride. "Well, most of our kids go to Ivy League universities," she said. "We keep tabs on them."

The mom looked embarrassed. "Oh, that's wonderful. I meant which elementary schools."

I learned about preschool #5 through a friend with two adopted daughters. "Check out Circle of Specialness," she urged. "It's so magical. We love it there."

Hidden from the street by an ivy-covered wall, the school certainly looked lovely. A huge climbing structure dominated the play yard. It was surrounded by an immaculate garden of vegetables and herbs. Not a grain of sand seemed to have ever escaped from the Zen-like sand box. Even the lunch area was beautifully arranged with matching bouquets of flowers on each table.

After the question period, we toured the classrooms and were encouraged to explore the "atelier." (Um, the what?) This turned out to be an art room with various paintings, sculptures, and other projects in progress. An assistant handed out application forms, which several parents began filling in immediately.

"We'll never get in," one mom confided to me as she turned in her form with a check for $75. "We live just outside the five-block-radius. Those people get priority."

I responded that I lived almost three miles away from this preschool.

"Oh no," said the mom sympathetically. "Are you even going to apply?"

At this point I was close to despair. Was it really impossible in a major city to find a preschool my daughter would enjoy that felt, well... normal? Not a philosophical dictatorship or an exclusive clique or a mini university that required a PhD thesis to get in?

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Telling myself I would walk out if I heard the terms "Reggio" or "conflict resolution" one more time, I headed to yet another tour.

"Welcome to the Little Kids Being Little Kids Preschool," the director smiled calmly at all of us. "Every child is different. Every child develops at his or her particular pace, marching to the beat of their own distinct drum. We believe that an effective preschool program stays in step with the rhythms of each child, gently guiding them toward security and sound development. There is no one right way to do this."

I think my mouth may have fallen open at this point. I wanted to hug her. Or possibly burst into tears. Or both. I felt a wave of relief as she talked about the program, the teachers who had been with the school for over ten years, the concept of nurturing each child through every aspect of development—emotional, social, physical and cognitive—at his or her own rate of readiness.

I filled out an application on the spot, and a month later, my daughter was accepted into the weekly toddler class, which will feed into the preschool next year. Every week, as my daughter paints, or rides a tricycle, or explores the seeds inside a pumpkin, or plays with the pet bunny, that intense feeling of relief comes back. I trust these people with my child. And, as a parent, that's the only philosophy I need.

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