Sunday, November 02, 2014

Unanticipated Things I've Learned about Day Care and School

While I was at the Halloween parades on Friday, in between sniffling about how big my kids are getting and how delightfully cute all the kids were, I was struck by how lucky we've been in our choices of where to send our kids during the day.

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!

18 comments:

  1. Oh man, I have a (lengthy two-part) post on exactly your item 1 coming up-- I should just link to what you've said!

    As a spoiler (since the second post won't post for at least another month), the current daycare has decided to move DC2 up to the transition room, meaning all the other kids are 6 mo to 12 mo older than she is. The teachers are far better, but there's still a huge problem with kids stealing what each other is playing with, which leads to possessiveness, pushing, and biting. Still, only 4 incidents in a 90 min free-play period rather than constant lord of the flies activity like in the room she just left. She's much happier but it isn't perfect. The 18 mo room had none of these problems and we thought it was because the daycare was good, but no, only the teachers in the 18 mo room are good. And there's no movement of the teachers across the rooms so they can't teach each other and one of the directors has no idea what she's doing while the other is absentee... Sigh.

    We get off a waitlist for a better daycare in January and we'll move then. I wish we'd known.

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    1. Oh, that's rough. I'm glad you get to move in January!

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  2. Thinking about your day-to-day routine is huge. Unless one school is so unequivocally better than another, being close by will basically manufacture time in your day. I like many things about my youngest two kids' preschool, but a major selling point is that it is half a mile from my house. Even if we're running late, they're still basically there on time. The elementary school is also 1 mile from the house, which is like the perfect distance where you get bus service, but it's close. It is nice not to need to get anyone to the bus stop prior to 8:30 a.m.

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    1. Yes! There was another language immersion school in our district that we really liked- but it was farther away and classes started at 7:45. That wouldn't have been much fun.

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  3. We learned that the principal has a strong influence on the "feel" of a school. Our K-2 and 3-5 share a building, but different offices and principals. The difference between the two is huge, and sadly, there isn't much collaboration between the two "schools" even though they're in the same building.

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    1. Wow, that's surprising! My Mom was a teacher so I knew that the principal has a big influence on the teachers' lives, but wouldn't have guessed it made such a noticeable difference to parents.

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  4. Ugh. With a special needs foster/adoptive son in elementary school, we've learned that it's hard to get data on special ed programs. It's not part of the aggregate stats you find for schools online. You kind of have to know someone who can tell you if a given district/school/teacher is good. It's so frustrating. We lucked into a pretty good classroom this year, but we don't like the school overall. And we're hard up for data to decide where to send him next!

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    1. Ugh is right. I hope you get lucky and find a great place next.

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  5. I've made similar decisions with the schooling of our 10th grader. I've selected the convenient neighborhood public school, including a Title 1 middle school, every time. I believe that a PS forms the fabric of a neighborhood and a decision to move a child to another school should be undertaken only for a damn good reason (like a program for a special needs child that is not available closer to home).

    One of the things I wish I had know beforehand is that more hands make lighter work. That is, when schools need help, either monetary or time, a school with greater parental involvement and wealth (and willingness to share wealth), makes the burden lighter for everyone.

    When the recession hit, and CA school budgets took a big hit, the schools turned to parents. However, the federal government sent more
    money to Title 1 schools and our diverse school actually weathered
    the recession better than "richer" schools where the burden fell on parents alone. The school also received donations of cash or work from alumni of the school who went on to start their own businesses in the trades. It was a good life lesson for me and my child to see our community and the federal government step in to fill the funding gaps.

    I filled in as a volunteer math tutor and math team coach when I was laid off from my government-funded job. The ever creative staff at the school heard I was laid off. The next week, they set me up in the library to tutor poor kids so they could keep up in math class.

    (Richer kids' parents pay for tutors so that their kids can keep up with the aggressively fast-paced CA math standards while poorer kids are generally left behind. Thus, schools with high concentrations of poor kids are unfairly labeled as "failing" when the teachers are doing a laudable job.)

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    1. Good points. We tend to give money more than time, but that may change now that my schedule is a bit more flexible.

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  6. I didn't realize how important a child's personality is in day care/preschool. My child is a sensitive but outgoing introvert. Being with a large, loud group is really exhausting for him. We are lucky that we found a preschool that lets him take time to himself throughout the day which has greatly improved his mood at the end of the day. We almost picked a daycare that was really vibrant and loud and in retrospect, it would have been a terrible fit.

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  7. Alexicographer7:55 PM

    I'm with Laura on the value of proximity, though we're lucky to live near a good school in a good public school district (making this easy for us). I know from our door to the entrance of the school driveway is 1/3 of a mile, and door-to-door it's about an 8-minute walk. Particularly since the elementary schools here start the earliest -- after 7:50 is tardy -- to allow the high schoolers to better respect their circadian rhythms (which I'm good with -- just hoping they don't change it around by the time ours is a high schooler!), that's a good thing.

    Of the 3 preschools we used, the nearest one was also great. I could drop DS off, run to the grocery store while kidless, come home, shower and get dressed in peaceful solitude, and still get to work on time. And it was an in-home place, meaning it never closed down on what might otherwise have been snow days :) -- definitely not something I thought about in advance, but did find convenient/helpful.

    We've got a few language immersion schools in our system, but we haven't explored them. I was amused to learn that a colleague who has 3 kids each 2 years apart had hers in the Chinese immersion school. She doesn't herself speak the language (nor does her DH); I asked what it will be like when her 3 are teens and able to communicate with one another readily in a language she doesn't understand? Time will tell! I'm mostly kidding (I certainly wouldn't argue against kids learning languages their parents don't speak), but I can imagine some crazy moments in the teenage years all the same.

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    1. Y'know, I never thought before about in-home being able to stay open on days like snow days (which we don't have here in Phoenix, ha!) but it makes me wonder: what about school breaks? I end up taking loads of time off to stay home over preschool spring break, fall break, winter break - breaks that those of us who don't work in the schools don't get :)

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    2. Alexicographer7:16 PM

      Gosh, I don't think any of the preschools/daycares we used had much in the way of breaks, except one school (see below). Both the in-home full-time place and the "institutional" full-time place had a few holidays (actually I've just checked the online calendar of the "institutional" place; this year, they have 10 holidays -- New Year's Day, MLK, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, and 2 days at Thanksgiving and at Christmas, plus New Year's eve). That's it. I'm pretty sure the in-home place had more, certainly a couple weeks of summer vacation and maybe a week at Christmas, because of course it was just one caregiver with no opportunity to substitute/rotate. But no, not many. The one part-time in-home place we used involved LOTS of time off, some with little warning. But that was a crunchy, hippie place (also run by one person) who was very up-front about the fact that that was how she set things up.

      So -- maybe things are different around here? Or maybe we just got lucky.

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    3. I think preschools often have breaks, while day cares do not. Our day care is open some days my work is not (which is SUCH a major win).

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    4. Yeah, our preschool/daycare (they're one & the same in our case, with one kid in the preschool & one still a baby) - is closed on the usual holidays but also has a spring, fall, winter, & summer break (not the whole summer, 'just' a week but still)

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  8. Love this post! Especially your point on diversity.

    That is such a major thing for us - as in it's always been a priority to have our kids in diverse schools, and I've found it strange that none of my friends feel the same.

    The thing I most would have changed when looking for a preschool is knowing the stance on handling disagreements. Our current pre-school is very "it's our way or the highway" and not "let's work on this together" which has been VERY hard for us. The kids love the school so we've put up with the very authoritarian way of doing things but I'm not shy to say I can't wait for them to finish there. Just over a month til the school year ends and then they go to "big school" (your Kindergarten)

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  9. Oh, man am I feeling you on #1. Our oldest was a toddler biter. Right around 17 months, we were given 2 weeks notice that she would be getting expelled unless we did something to correct her behavior. During the hours when she wasn't in our care. (You can read all about it here: http://www.funkyassmonkey.com/rantsraves/2012/11/8/so-angry-i-could.html).

    We immediately started looking around - if nothing else, we needed to find another place with an immediate opening - and by chance, stumbled on a place that we loved. We switched her immediately. It sounds like your place, Cloud, in that there is a much lower than required teacher:child ratio, which in itself made a world of difference. They are able to spend more time with each child. And teachers are more experienced so they are better able to identify the root cause of the behavior & intervene. They were able to quickly correct her behavior. In fact, we never once heard about her biting ever again.

    The tradeoff is how much more expensive the new place was and is. Lower teacher ratios cost more money. Recruiting & keeping experienced teachers who just "get it" costs more money. And those costs get passed on to us, the parents. While that's left no wiggle room in our budget, we continue to make the choice that the wonderful care is worth the sacrifices we make.

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