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How to Pick a Preschool

I love education. I love reading. I love learning. I love school. I always have. But for some reason, I have a really hard time picturing my children in school. Weird, I know. Cut the cord already! But I have always considered myself their primary educator, and I take my job very seriously. We learn and read and do projects a lot. Some days more than others. Some days not at all. Some days, they are into everything I am doing, and we make it as much of a learning opportunity as we can. We are curious creatives. & I don’t ever want to stop doing what we do here. styleberry_preschool_6

I know what you are thinking…and I am not going to say what some of you probably want to hear me say…because I am just not a home schooler.

I believe in school–outside of my home. I want my children to learn to navigate a rich social environment. I want them to have access to more learning materials than I can provide for them. I want them to learn to listen with others, to others. I want them to learn how to collaborate. For these reasons, I believe in school outside of my home.

Now that doesn’t mean that I will stop teaching….It just means I need to find the right school! styleberry_preschool_2

What is the right school? Only you can answer that for you. (more on that in a minute.) But I think there is a perfect school for every family, based on wants, needs and values. I am looking for some specific things, and those specific things I cannot find in a public school. I am sure there are good public schools out there, but we are choosing to send our children to private school. This will be a very big sacrifice for us financially, but one we are willing to pinch pennies to make. There is little that is more important to me than the education of my children. I will happily wear Target clothes and drive my ten year old car if it means my kids can get the education that I feel is best for them. styleberry_preschool_1

Here in San Antonio, we do not have a lot of school options. Most of the options on my radar are a good 30-50 minutes from my home, which has significantly limited my pool (puddle?) of choices. We have had wonderful educational experiences during our last two years of school, but we are at a turning point because…we are moving. (!!!)

This summer we are relocating our family to St. Louis, which has the second highest number of private schools in the US, behind Boston. We just got back from a trip up there to tour our top choice school options and it was such a unique experience that weighed so heavily on me that I really feel that I have to share what I learned. It is not every day that you get to research dozens of schools, whittle that list down to a half dozen, and squish six school tours into two school days. It was a whirlwind. A super fun whirlwind. My anxiety over the whole thing quickly turned to excitement and gratitude. I have never seen schools like I did in St. Louis. I never even knew schools like these existed! & I am SO excited about the opportunities that lie in front of us. styleberry_preschool_3

The first thing I did was look at a variety of learning styles. I have read extensively about the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods of education. These were atop my list of “search terms” for finding the right school. I really like what they have to offer young learners. I also look at, but am not limited to, certain certifications. NAEYC is a big one for me, but I also know that certification isn’t everything. Amongst Montessori schools, I looked at AMI & AMS certified programs. I also looked at Christian Schools. I am fond of the programs Handwriting Without Tears and Singapore Math, so those were two little curriculum boosters for me that were found in some of the Christian (and nonsecular) schools that I have looked at both here and in St. Louis. But regardless of the education method or certification, I looked for some very specific things on each tour. Making my decision was easy, when each of these was just right:

  • What does my gut say? Do I want to bring my kids here every day? Does it feel like an inspiring place? How do I feel here? I know whether it feels right within the first five minutes at a new school.
  • Are the children moving? I like to see self directed learning–children picking their tasks & moving through them. Bonus if they are collaborating with other children. I also look to see if any children look bored and how that is handled. I also really want to see them play, as I think that is a fundamental part of school.
  • How does the teacher speak to his/her students? I think you can learn a lot from tone of voice. I like to observe the one on one interactions and see how much the teacher asserts authority vs. lets the child figure things out on their own. A school is only as good as MY child’s teacher.
  • What does the classroom look like? Is it tidy and appropriately “lived in.” Is there a variety of materials accessible? What kind of work is displayed? This shows me the values–if there’s one version of the same craft, done by each student, I am not impressed. If there is child directed creativity–where no two look the same even though you can see they are essentially the same themed project, I am inspired. Is there an art studio? How much time is spent in the various corners of the room?
  • Tell me about the average day. Start to finish. Is there a separate “motor skills” class or structured physical education component? Foreign language? Music class? Art class? Or is it woven into the curriculum? I want to know how the day is broken up.
  • How much learning takes place outside the classroom? Can I come on field trips? What kind of learning opportunities do these field trips present?
  • How are parents included in the learning experience? I don’t necessarily want parents to be IN the classroom regularly, but I want to see a reasonable amount of parent involvement in extracurricular activities surrounding the school and fun seasonal events. I don’t want to see other parents teaching my children (I pay my tuition for extraordinary certified teachers!) but I like to find a sense of community amongst the parents at our school. I like school to be an extension of home, and I want to be part of the process, within appropriate limitations.
  • What happens next year? So once this school year is over, do next year’s hours and days fit my family’s needs? How about when the second child starts school, do they arrive at the same time? Pickup at the same time? Is it just a preschool or is this the beginning of a complete early, elementary, middle and high school education? A cohesive education is important to me.
  • What is the application process? While it may seem cumbersome and ridiculous that my four year old is “reviewed by committee” before acceptance into a program, I have learned to significantly value this step in the process. Knowing that a school takes a level of care and thoughtful examination of their applicants before constructing their classes is very encouraging to me. The more they ask about my child  before acceptance, the more I can have faith in the matching of our values to the school’s values.

So all that being said, I am sure you’re wondering about what I chose & have chosen in the past. For the sake of safety, I always keep my children’s place of education private. I also don’t want to influence you and your decision making process, as I really am just a parent who reads a lot about education and happens to have a platform to share. This does not make me an expert on anything other than what I feel is the right education for my own children. styleberry_preschool_4

What I can tell you is that last year, I made the mistake of not paying attention to what happens the following academic year, and ended up switching Caroline to a different school (an NAEYC, high parent involvement school) for her second year of preschool. I was not ready to send my barely four year old to school from eight to three. She has done fine with the switch. She still goes just three half days per week, and that works great for us. She misses the Missouri Kindergarten cutoff by eight days, so she will be doing a THIRD year of “PreK,” which I am totally fine with. My challenge has been finding a place for her next year that will challenge her beyond where her reading/writing four year old self is right now. I have read so much about Montessori and while I agree with a lot of the principles on paper, I have not yet visited one that “felt right.” I don’t know how else to put it, but it’s just not the right choice for us right now. I love what it has to offer elementary students, but all the schools I have toured significantly lacked the “warm and fuzzy” feelings I need to experience for it to be the right fit for us. I love the Reggio Emilia style and have found a school that is an amazing example a joyful, meaningful, experiential learning environment. I really would love to go to school every day right along with my children if we get manage to get in! styleberry_preschool_5

If I can encourage you to do one thing, it is to go visit as many schools as you can. Watch the teachers. Talk to the parents. See what the school means to them and see if it is the kind of place that fits your family’s vision of education. We don’t all want the same thing, and the wonderful part of education is that we have choices. These choices come with sacrifices, but I know these sacrifices will not ever be something I regret. Education is everything to me–and cultivating a love of learning is my number one priority for my children.

Good luck on your search! & for those of you new to this, know that every community has different application deadlines and processes. I have found that most of the time, you want to be looking at schools by Fall (some have open houses, which is a great place to bounce questions off current school families) and come to your final decisions by January. Applications are usually due and reviewed in February and March. Happy school shopping!

Oh, and one last thing. Sir Ken Robinson is one of my favorite education researchers (I recommend watching every one of his TED talks!) & this is a talk that has influenced how I view education:

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  • A. Berkoski - Love this. Just the right amount of information and I could tell you were careful as always, while still being true to you, not to make it sound preachy or like you were better than anyone else. That is so rare to find on the Internet! We chose to put our kids in public school and enrich them in different ways but I can totally appreciate your approach to the way you made this choice. Good luck in STL! It’s one of my favorite American cities, I lived in Columbia, MO for many years and try to visit STL whenever I can. You’ll love it!ReplyCancel

  • Sara - I have been blessed to work at the University of MN and have been even more blessed to have made it through the 20 month wait to get our daughter into the Reggio Emilia/NAEYC daycare program. People thought I was crazy to go on the waitlist at 12 wks pregnant but it was so worth it. We absolutely love it. My daughter is thriving and the providers are so wonderful with her. Cant say enough about it. One of the faculty members in my department traveled with the Director of the program to Reggio Emilia a few years ago and saw it all in action. Convinced me that its where we need to be.ReplyCancel

  • adri@dreambookdesign - Love all of your posts. Just curious- at what age do you think they should go to pre-school? Do you think there is a magic age, or just dependent on each child to an extent?ReplyCancel

    • -shawna- - I think it is a really personal decision. For us, it was more of a social thing than an educational thing. It took caroline six months to speak a single word to her teacher last year (she was super shy!). By the end of the year she read a book aloud to the class. & this year, she’s doing great in the classroom. Her social development was amazing–we first started a week after her third birthday. For us, with a new second baby, it was a wonderful place for her to go & experience some new adventures of her own. :)ReplyCancel

  • Jessica - I really appreciate you sharing your thought process. When we were in Texas, I spent a lot of time researching and looking at teaching methods and schools. I toured a few schools and based my decision on that “gut” feeling you were talking about. It was a great choice and Gracie had a really positive year of school. She loved attending, I felt great dropping her off every day. I haven’t quite found that yet here in California where cost is more of a consideration. Some of the schools here are five times the cost of our school in Texas (FIVE times! Isn’t that nuts?!?).
    I hope the school in St. Louis is a terrific fit! One of my best friends grew up in STL and explained to me that everyone who can attends private school there.ReplyCancel

    • -shawna- - You are exactly right. I will be paying SIX times what I do here if we get into our top school next year. I joke (thought I am not joking) that STL is land of the $15k kindergarten. I could come up with a dozen schools that top that. Talk about sticker shock! :/ReplyCancel

  • Aarti - Not related to the topic, but can you point me to any of your posts that describe your
    own teaching philosophy and/or what kinds of things you do with your kids? My son is 2, and I’m feeling a little stuck with our activities. Thank you!ReplyCancel

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