Happy Monday! Mamma’s down with a wee bit of a cold (most unfortunate), and also not super pleased with this altogether dreary weather we’ve been experiencing all day. Though I am taking tomorrow off just to be with my jelly-bean – so things are starting to look up as far as I’m concerned!
Before I unplug to be with my little man (I can’t emphasize to you how much I am looking forward to this btw! Especially as I’ll be leaving him this coming weekend), I wanted to share some insights, or, lessons learned, if you will, from the recent Downtown NYC Preschool Panel that I helped coordinate.
This is the second year that I facilitated the event, and I feel like I’ve grown and learned so much over the process, especially having gone through the arduous preschool application process myself. In the end, we went with the school that was closest to our home (a mere 5 minute walk!), and one which gave us the best vibes when we first visited as a family (also didn’t hurt that it reminded hubs of his childhood school growing up in New Zealand).
So what have we all learned? Below are some key takeaways by yours truly and our wonderful local community of moms and dads.
- Location location location. Almost all parents commented on the fact that they wouldn’t want a school that’s more than a 15 minute walk from their house. Sometimes this may not be feasible (we had one mum commuting daily from the Flatiron to Clinton Street), but where possible, try to observe the sacred proximity rule. This has truly been a brutal winter here in NYC, and getting a two year old ready in the morning and out the door of a New York-sized apartment is no small task! You really don’t want to add the extra commuting X-factor. Believe me, when hubs and I initially began our preschool search (precisely one year ago) – we had lofty thoughts of Tribeca, Soho, and West Village. In the end, however, we nixed the idea of having to deal with subways, cabs, and car service, and just went with the good old traditional walking route.
- Observe the teachers. This is SUPER key, and one which should have come as a no-brainer to me from the get-go (though sadly I must admit that it didn’t). While the schools themselves might deliver savvy powerpoint presentations & film clips at open-houses, and the school administrator may be able to walk the walk and talk the talk on tours – it is the teachers that your child will ultimately be interacting with – all day everyday. So it is absolutely critical for you, and more importantly, your child, to like and feel comfortable around these teachers. Otherwise, it’s pretty much game over.
- Leave the skepticism at home. This is why I like hosting these Bowery Babes events so much because the local parents absolutely keep it real and tell you like it is (more so than you would get anywhere else). For instance, if you have reservations about the school you're applying to... interviews and open houses are most definitely NOT the appropriate venues by which to express your cynicism. Save the smack-talking for your friends over cocktails! After all, you’ve already put in half the effort when it comes to all the research, application fees, interviews, online essays, and the works – why not go the extra mile and turn up bright eyed and bushy-tailed… and act genuinely interested and invested in the school? I wish I would have abided by this piece of advice myself. Sigh… hindsight is always 20-20 isn't it?
- Trust your gut. If you feel out of place at your child’s school, it’s because you are – and your child will be too. I know that this sounds harsh but that's only because deep down inside we all know it's true. Worse still, you will pass on your anxiety to him/her, and that would just be the worst. Sure, this is Manhattan private preschools we’re talking about… so yes – chances are it’s going to be a LITTLE bit fancy, even at the most laid back of laid back private schools. That said – I know enough now to know that there is a WIDE array of private schools and snobbery factors out there, and you’re much better off going to a school where you feel some sense of belonging and connection with the local community, parents, teachers, and school administrators. You may think that you’re being aspirational by choosing an ultra fancy school, but it will most likely just come back to haunt you when other mums won't even respond to your playdate calls and the teachers don't have one nice thing to say about your child. Yes, true story. Sad, no? Don't make that mistake. Look at a school and think, will my family fit in here?
- Don’t follow your friends. This is a little bit of a tricky one, since we all love our friends and want to fit in. But the best piece of advice a fellow parent gave us was: “don’t send your child somewhere just because your good friend is sending their child/children there, you guys may have completely different philosophies when it comes to parenting!” So true. The right/best school may not be same for everybody, and just because one family likes a school, it really doesn’t mean that you will too (or vice versa). This goes back to #4 – just trust yourselves!
- Do a drive-by. Before all of the paperworks are signed and you hand over the equivalent of a mortgage in most states, try your best to do a “trial” at your child's future school. Attend a class with your munchkin, swing by in the morning and observe drop-offs. Seriously, put on some shades and look super sketchy if you must just to peep the scene (because this is imperative). This will help you get a much better sense of the school when everything is not so polished and rehearsed. It’s also a nice opportunity to discover more anecdotal information about the school (i.e., were parents doing the drop-offs themselves or was it all caretakers? What are the children like? The moms? How do the faculty coordinate the kids in the mornings? Is it an absolute chaotic zoo or a lovely/charming place to be, or perhaps a mixture of both?).
- Where possible, attend every event with your partner (and yes, if the school invites you to an event, any event, it would behoove you to go!) This doesn’t just apply to interviews, but if there are other organized events coordinated by your prospective preschool, I would say – most definitely GO and make sure to attend with your partner while you’re at it, showcase your family as a dedicated, cohesive unit. Between our varied work and travel schedules, we actually violated this cardinal rule ourselves, and the competitive, A+ student in me kinda wishes that we hadn’t (though it really wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference in our ultimate decision making). Just to give you the full scoop, in the end, we were accepted by seven schools, waitlisted at one, and flat out rejected by two (one being a Coop). For the two rejections, I had missed an interview and hubby had missed the other. These factors may or may not be interlinked, but having been personally told by the Coop (after the fact of course) that they wanted BOTH parents to be physically present at the interview – well… you can do the math. Okay, so I realize that this means that we had applied to ten schools and I totally mea culpa, what can I say, we (and by we I probably mean I) went a little bit nutso with the whole application process.
- The writing’s on the wall. Or in this case, the paintings. I didn’t think so much about this myself, but one of the mums at last week’s panel mentioned the importance of artworks. “No matter where I go, I check out the art on the wall by the children, and it tells me a lot about the schools.” Art! Ding ding ding!!! How could I have missed this being that I’m an artist’s daughter myself? No matter where you are, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t pay at least a little bit of attention to the artwork that’s displayed on the walls. Sure, when the kids are super young it probably doesn’t matter, but ultimately, as they grow older, you want a child to be able to express his or her creativity freely and willfully, without conforming to a particular norm at such a young age. So the next time you look up at the artwork in a prospective school, ask yourselves – are all of the skies painted blue? More important, should they be?
So there you have it -- I hope that the above reaches the mommies and daddies out there and serves as a helpful resource along the way. I know I know... this is preschool we’re talking about, hardly earth-shattering, PhD-worthy stuff. But at the same time, this is your CHILD we’re dealing with – the most magical, mystical creature to have ever conquered your heart and being. If I could give my son the best of me, all day and everyday, I would. Sadly, that is simply not feasible, (for his sanity and mine), so for me, the next best thing would be to find him a nurturing home in the form of a well-selected and thoughtfully orchestrated preschool.
Also, I would highly recommend purchasing this book, a directory to Manhattan Nursery Schools. We call it "the Bible," and it's proven to be a super helpful way to index and search all our options as we endeavored upon our search.
Oh yeah… and let’s not forget, if you’re like us – then you’re paying more for your child’s preschool education than your parents ever did for your college tuition. That said – why not make the most of this experience for your little one and your entire family? It would be a win-win for everybody.