Of course, we visited several options and did a bunch of research before making each decision, but in each case, there have been unanticipated things that we never thought to ask about that have made a big difference in how much we've enjoyed our choices.
I'm not sure if we would have made choices based on these factors even if we had thought to ask about them ahead of time, but in the spirit of sharing what I've learned, here are the two biggest things that we didn't consider when making our choices but that have had a big impact on how much we've liked those choices:
Item 1: we didn't ask about how the day cares we visited handle kid-on-kid aggression in the toddler rooms. This, however, turns out to be a point of wide variation. One of my friends spent three solid months stressed out about whether her older son was going to get expelled from day care for biting. He was two. Another friend would hear from her child that she'd been bitten, but not get any communication from the school about the incidents. Both of these extremes are unnecessarily stressful, in my opinion.
Our day care strikes a nice middle ground. Older kids (4 and up) who bite or hit are sent home for the day, and if they can't stop, might be expelled. I'm not aware of that ever happening, though. In the toddler set, these things were treated as something that happens when kids don't yet have the words to express their emotions. The presumption is that they just need to learn better ways to respond, and the school partnered with the parents to make that learning happen. We got reports home of bites given or received, and the school taught very specific behaviors to do instead of physical aggression and shared those with us so we could reinforce them at home.
It was still stressful when Pumpkin was biting and being bitten- something that happened occasionally between 15 months and 3 years, with a peak at about 2 years- but at least we weren't worrying that she was going to be expelled from day care or wondering what else was happening that we weren't being told about.
|Pumpkin at the height of the biting phase|
Petunia never went through the biting phase. I think this is partly due to Petunia just being more laid back than Pumpkin, and partly due to the fact that Petunia's class is smaller than Pumpkin's was, so the teachers were probably able to see an incident escalating and intervene before any child made it physical. Regardless, this is now the main thing I mention when an expecting parent asks me about how to pick a day care. Most of the other advice I could give is pretty standard, but I never came across this particular issue when I was researching day cares and how to choose them.
Item 2: there are distinct advantages to NOT being at the "best" school in the "good" district. We picked our school for two main reasons: (1) It is a language magnet, and we love the idea of having our kids become fluent in a second language, (2) it is two and a half blocks from our house, which makes the logistics of drop off and pick up soooo much easier. We also visited other magnet schools and our neighborhood school when making our choice, but in the end, we only entered the lottery for our current school. (If we hadn't gotten in, we would have defaulted back to the neighborhood school, which we actually really liked.)
We looked at the various school performance statistics and did all the other things you're supposed to do when evaluating schools, but we didn't think to ask about things like: how much money will you extort from us with "expected donations" and other "optional" fundraisers? How do you schedule your on campus activities? It turns out that in those two key areas, we got lucky.
Our school is a magnet (meaning it draws kids from all over the district) and a Title 1 school (meaning that a large percentage of the kids qualify for the free or reduced lunch program). Both of these things contribute to a school environment that feels much friendlier to working parents than what I hear about from my friends in the "good" (i.e., wealthier) schools. There is an annual giving campaign, but they were appreciative of our donation, not demanding of it. There are a few other fundraisers throughout the year, but there is no pressure for the kids to bring in large amounts of money, so they truly do feel optional. And most importantly to me- they schedule their events in a way that minimizes impact on the parents' schedules. Parades, performances, and other special events tend to be first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, not at random times in the middle of the day like I hear about from other parents.
I would never have thought to ask about event scheduling when visiting schools, but this thoughtful scheduling makes a big difference in whether Mr. Snarky and I can attend the events, so we are able to be more involved parents without having to take large amounts of time off work.
Bonus item: talking about school choice with other parents will uncover racism and classism that will shock you. Only about 25% of the kids in our school are white. The largest racial group is Hispanic, at just over 50%. A lot of parents with Mexican or Central American heritage send their kids to our school so that they can be not just bilingual but bi-literate. The next largest racial group is African-American, at roughly 16%. The school does not have a larger than average number of expulsions or other serious behavior problems (that information is included in the statistics we looked at when checking out schools), but many other parents would respond to the news about where we were thinking of going by getting a moderately surprised look on their face and saying something along the lines of "but that's a rough school!"
I quickly learned that "rough" is the code word for "not majority upper middle class white kids." Our school is not rough, not even in the upper grades (it is a K-8 school). One of my favorite things about going to school events is actually seeing the middle schoolers, who are always involved in the events and participating in a positive way.
I have no advice on this one. Schools are a difficult topic, where your general beliefs about what is right and your worries and aspirations for your children collide. It happens that both Mr. Snarky and I went to schools that would be coded as "rough" and thought that the diversity of our fellow students was one of the best things about our pre-college education. So it is relatively easy for us to ignore the comments about the school being "rough" and just be grateful that we got into such an awesome school that is so convenient for us (it was a lottery process).
Other parents will have different educational priorities and I would never judge a parent for making a different choice. I do judge the people who use the "that school is rough" code words, though. If you want your kid to go to a school where most of the other kids are of the same race and/or in the same socioeconomic class, fine, but don't justify that decision with the lazy assumption that schools with a different student body composition are somehow dangerous. Some may be, but many are not. Also, the biggest local on campus drug bust I can recall hearing about recently happened at one of the toniest schools in town. Using the "rough" code word just perpetuates inaccurate and harmful stereotypes. We need to do better.
Have you learned any unexpected things about schools and day care? Share them in the comments!