I spent several weeks researching preschools prior to our move back to Portland, Oregon this summer.
I was chasing the veritable pot at the end of the rainbow that many parents seek: a combination of amazing teachers, a solid kid-to-teacher ratio, a school that would actually teach him, somewhere that encouraged parent-teacher involvement, teachers that would consider his individual needs but also make him part of the group, and somewhere that we could actually afford to send him.
Unfortunately for us (and a lot of other parents), the last part about what we can afford directly impacted where and how often our son could attend school.
My husband is a full-time barista and is resuming school in January, and I'm a full-time photographer, Managing Editor and freelance writer. We both love our jobs, and we're doing well enough that we can provide for our family's needs, take sporadic mini-trips from time to time, and it's not a big deal to grab lunch downtown or have a coffee or drink out a few times a week. We've even managed to scrape together an admittedly dismal savings account –- but it's there. It's always been important to both of us that we're working jobs we really love, and we want to teach our son that you can go to work and actually like what you do.
When I began my preschool research, it very rapidly dawned on me that if our son was going to attend the kind of schools that it seemed like he “should” –- the ones with flowers in the name and farm-fresh fruit brought in daily -– he'd likely only be able to go once a week.
Because he, like so many others his age (3 ½), thrives when on a fairly consistent routine, I wasn't totally satisfied with this. I know plenty of kids who attend preschool once a week and benefit from it, but I also know that my child -– he who has been asking to go to school all year and who watches the school parts of “Sid the Science Kid” like a rabid animal –- would most likely soar if he could attend school as often as possible.
My dream schooling scenario for our child would be a combination of morning classes five days a week, tutors at home twice a week in subjects that are especially challenging and choose-your-own-adventure learning and playing with us the rest of the time. Since this schedule doesn't really jive with a lot of preschools (and don't even get me started on full-time schools down the road) unless you can pay upwards of $650 a month, we were stuck.
We were out walking one evening when our son spotted a school I had never even glanced at and said, “Will this be my school? I hope it's my school.”
We looked over, and discovered it was our local Head Start branch. I was vaguely familiar with the program (as in, the father of a friend had worked at one), but knew next to nothing about it. So we told him we didn't know, but that we would look into the program.
I discovered that Head Start is largely income restricted, but that exceptions are made for families based on criteria that vary from state to state. In our case, our income averages out slightly above the limit, but as the program tries to maintain inclusion of a percentage of children with disabilities (our son has a very mild disability that is limited to his feet), he could still get in. I figured it wouldn't hurt to try, and mailed off the application with a stack of apps to more flowery-named schools.
Our Head Start contacted me two days later and asked if I could bring paperwork over. The school is relatively close to us, so we meandered over and my son played with a toy barn while I filled out what seemed like miles of additional paperwork. That's one thing about state-supported schools: There's a lot of bureaucracy involved. Even though it seemed like it was sucking up most of our day, everything was finished in about 30 minutes.
I was filled in on the details of when he'd be attending classes (five days a week, during the time that my husband works and I prefer to work –- meaning we all get to spend every afternoon and evening together, which hasn't happened the entire time our son's been alive), the breakfast and lunch menus (amazing, and way more diverse than the 35 SunButter-and-jelly sandwiches he eats a day at home), and trips and activities the classes might take.
Bonus: Parents are encouraged to volunteer in the classroom as often as they like, and there are elections taking place soon for parent representatives in the Policy Council. I'm not planning on running (I lost out as Class President in fifth grade and am still scarred from the experience), but I do plan to attend the meetings and be active.
The best part? Our son's in his second week of classes and he loves it. He's the youngest kid in his class, which is his favorite thing because he has always gravitated to older kids. His class has 17 kids and 4 teachers (1 teacher and 3 assistants -– 2 of the assistants help children who speak Spanish and Vietnamese acclimate and learn English).
He's already made two friends that he talks about all day long after I pick him up, and he's so far been excited to return each morning. All of the children are encouraged to do things themselves -– they serve their own food, clean up their own messes, hang up their backpacks, check themselves in, and so on. His time in school has already positively impacted our family in so many ways: He's cleaning up at home without protest, and we're all much happier now that we're mostly on the same work/school schedule.
I thought I'd feel bad that we weren't sending our child to a swankier learning establishment, but seeing him absolutely love his school has completely squashed any negative feelings I might have had. He's morphed from not having a lot of playground confidence (having a hard time climbing and jumping will do that to a kid) to now climbing and running around without any trace of fear or “I can't.”
That in and of itself has won me over: My kid's school is state supported and run. And it's an amazing place.