Step right up, folks, don’t be shy! You are about to witness a true marvel of the modern era! The breathtakingly terrifying Mom Trying to Get Her Child Into Preschool!
No, no, don’t be afraid! She won’t hurt you! Well, I mean, maybe be a little afraid. She might actually hurt you. She is quelled only with the soothing sounds of terrible ‘90s jams and wine. Watch her as she scours her meticulous spreadsheets, school websites, local parenting forums, and notes from open houses as she descends slowly into madness.
…this is the story of me.
…you don’t want to be like me.
When we moved to Chicago my son was 6 months old. I knew nothing of what the Chicago schools were really like, public or private. The only thing I had heard were harrowing tales regarding the public schools. “You can’t send your kids to CPS!” “They have 8 standardized tests a year! All the kids do is fill in bubble tests!” “The unions make sure the kids won’t learn!” The claims now sound outrageous to my older, wiser ears, of course, but we nevertheless started looking into private schools almost as soon as we landed in Chicago. I wanted my kids to be guaranteed the “extras” like music, art, recess, and gym, and it seemed (at the time) that private school was the way to do that. Add to that my son was born in early October, which due to the infamous September cutoff, he’ll be the oldest one in his class and so kindergarten would be almost a year later for him than other kids basically his age. Private school would give him preschool for a year or two extra as well.
I Googled like a woman crazed. The more I read the more confused I got. The more confused I got the more I read, and the cycle continued. Religous vs. non-religious. Language immersion. Montessori. Reggio Emilia. Waldorf. Classical. Progressive. Differentiated.
Every school promised their methodology, their way of educating, their schtick was The Way. The Way to where or what I still to this day am not sure. The Way to successful adults? The Way to kindergarteners that can read? The Way to an Ivy League school? Just…The Way?
We went to the Chicago “School Fair,” which was just like the old college fairs for high school seniors where every school set up a booth with glossy flyers, brochures, swag, and representatives giving their best elevator pitches all while pretending that every child regardless of family income, connections, personality, or learning differences has an equal chance to get into their school.
Sure they do. Sure.
We gathered pamphlets. We talked to the representatives from the schools. We came back exhausted and overloaded. I finally just spread all the flyers in front of my son and jokingly said that whichever one he picked up and didn’t ruin with a bodily fluid is the school we’d choose.
We needed a new tactic.
Now, the one thing that scared me most about the schools in Chicago – the thing I can’t fully shake to this day – is the idea of the high school applications. For those uninitiated, I will explain since this since it was astounding to me when we arrived. While in most of the country there are three divides in school (elementary, middle, and high school), Chicago has but two: elementary (K-8) and high school (9-12). And while there are a plethora of incredible public and private elementary (K-8) schools, there seem to be significantly fewer great options for high schools. Thus, every year 8th graders in the city assemble their test scores, attendance records, recommendations, and grades from the last 2-3 years and then apply to high school, both for public and private. (Everyone is guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood school, but often these high schools are either not great or they have specialized programs within the high school that are admissions-based. Again, this is confusing. The system is wack. Also wack: the fact that I used the word “wack.”) Elementary schools post their “high school admissions” as pride points the way high schools do about seniors entering college.
And here’s where my beef with this process comes in: I do not in any way like the idea of my kids being judged on a major pivotal life course by who they are in middle school.
I’ve never met anyone – anyone – who looks back on middle school and goes, “Yup. Crushed it.” You know why? Because nobody crushed it. Nobody is their best self in middle school. We all were awkward, horrible, snarling piles of hormones and growth spurts. I would bet right now as you read this you are looking back at yourself in middle school and cringing, even if you did get great grades.
Now, my second piece of beef with this high school admissions process is this: I think of the middle school years as a sort of practice run. It’s the first time you’re really introduced to a lot more homework, different classes with different teachers, and navigating that space with substantially more independence from your parents. However, the consequences of your inherent awfulness are normally minimized. You learn the lessons of “if you don’t study for the test, you might not do well,” but in an environment that won’t disproportionately affect your college admissions. You might not get the good grade, but you also probably won’t hugely limit your future choices if you get a B instead of an A on a math test in 7th grade (and if you get the A, good job, too!). You can recover and learn from your mistakes. It is this safer zone of being allowed to mess up that I feel independence and learning how to become a responsible adult springs. And that’s what middle school is – a petri dish of hormones and awfulness in a contained environment.
Except if you and your parents go in thinking your entire future might ride on every test score, grade, and attendance figure. The environment is no longer contained.
I believe in letting kids make mistakes within a reasonable safe space to learn how to recover from setbacks, learn from their mistakes, and eventually become ready to be independent successful people in their own rights. I believe that to my core. But how can that happen when the stakes in middle school are so high? If I know my kid will be competing for a limited number of slots in high school that could ultimately affect his future chances at making college admissions, job interviews, and everything easier, and also know all the other parents know that, how can I not hound him to finish his homework? How can I not hover over his test study schedule? If my kid is competing against the other parents in a rigged system, am I really willing to make his life harder when I have the perspective he literally cannot have due to his age and, um, middle school-ness?
It’s all wack.
And there I go with the “wack” thing again.
I can’t help myself.
With all this swirling in our heads we started going down the path of narrowing our search down to schools that had the option of continuing through to 12th grade. Our plan boiled down to this: if our kids wanted to apply for a different high school, they could, but they wouldn’t have to. The pressure cooker valve could release a little bit. Because, frankly, middle school is pressure-filled enough.
This search for a school that went through 12th grade narrowed the field significantly, which was actually good for us. But then the application process began.
Since coming out on the other side I’ve tried to come up with the words to describe how I feel about this entire admissions process. I’ve tried to distill my emotions, my cerebral analyses, my experiences into a coherent summary of what the private preschool admissions process is like. Are you ready for it? Because after all that, this is all I’ve got:
The process for the schools are all a little different, but typically involve the following components: the open house, the application, the parent interview, the individual child “interview,” and the child group “observation.” Here, I’ll take you on the journey.
First, you go the open house: when you first decide you want to look at a school you’re highly “encouraged” (also known as “required”) to go to the open house for the school. This is where you, the parents, sit in the school’s auditorium or large open space filled with uncomfortable chairs and listen to the admissions director, principal, and maybe some other designated speakers talk into a microphone about why their school is the most special place and not at all like the “other” schools you’re probably looking at. You are then led on a tour by any combination of students and parents so you can get the “real feel of the experience” of the school while it’s completely empty and devoid of all life that actually gives the real feel of the experience. Think of the open house as a pilot episode for a TV show: you get the basic premise, an introduction to the cast of characters, but usually not the full experience or understanding before the series is ordered, but for some reason you’re all there, sitting through it, befuddled as to what this thing is actually really about or what it’s going to be like.
Next comes the application. You decided you didn’t immediately hate the school at the open house. Great! Now comes the application, where you send the school a signed form with any number of personal questions and potentially essays about your 2.5-to-3-year-old child. You’ll be forced to consider questions such as, “What are your child’s passions?” to which you will try to answer with something other than, “Throwing tantrums in the bread aisle of the grocery store.” You will also have to go ask your child’s current teachers for letters of recommendation, where they are forced to rate your child’s developmental progress on about 10 different areas as well as what you, the parents, are like as parents from the school’s perspective. You try not to get too irate as you remember the school’s insistence at their open house they know “every single child is unique and grows in their way, along their own path,” yet clearly judges them for entry to the school along the path of averages.
For the pure privilege of filling out these forms, you get to pay anywhere from $50-$150 to the school in order for them to read about your 2.5-year-old’s “passions.”
Now it’s your turn: the parent interview. I would say I could help you prepare for this part, but I can’t. Here’s the best way I can describe this experience on average. You and your spouse will have to take off work and hire a sitter to come into a school and sit in the admissions office of the school and talk to someone from the admissions office for an undetermined amount of time. They will all claim this is not an “interview” but rather a “conversation.” It’s an interview. They think because they phrase the questions as open writing prompts such as, “Tell me about what makes your son unique,” they’re being clever and “opening a dialogue.” You won’t be fooled. And you’ll be nervous, because, again, your child is 2.5-3 years old and you wonder if maybe, just maybe, it’s okay if he doesn’t have any “passions” yet. You’ll work in some points they were very keen to make during the open house about the school that you like and why it works well with your “educational philosophy.” You’ll say things like, “educational philosophy.” The admissions folks at these schools are almost always kind, understanding, and give beaming smiles. They nod in agreement with what you say as you talk about your little one.
Because the next part is proof they don’t care one lick about what you say. Because the next part is…
The child observation(s). This piece of the admissions puzzle makes me so angry I often am reduced to sputtering noises and questionable language. The schools ask children under the age of 4 to come in and perform a handful of selected activities in a new environment for new people for 30 minutes. Sometimes they are with other children in a “classroom setting.” Sometimes they are with a child psychologist who asks them to perform inane tasks and the children have no idea why. Sometimes you have to do both for a school. Some kids are natural “performers” and love nothing more than to please other adults. Other kids literally could not care less about pleasing a random adult they have just met and question why they’re being asked to in the first place. And other kids are just scared. Because they’re three years old. So for these people to think they can judge these children whose brains are still learning to process the world around them, whose development isn’t linear, in a strange environment around strange adults and children for 30 minutes and say, yes, I can say this child will be an academic success at our school in the long-term at 2.5, but no, this other child won’t…it baffles me. No, it enrages me.
These schools say they want “diversity” but diverse learners? No. These schools say they understand young children’s brains all develop differently and welcome that, but just be sure the brains are all within a certain deviation, of course. These schools are filling out their rank with people who think very similarly, who excel at a very small subset of tasks similarly, and who might struggle with things that are not deemed important at these observations like sticktoitiveness, self-starting, or independence.
Apple just became the first trillion-dollar company, and what was one of its most famous slogans? “Think different.” As a culture we claim to revere those who “think different.” They are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the gamechangers, the ones who inspire us. We claim to love those who “think different,” but a kid who quite literally “thinks different” at age 3? Forget it, these schools say. They’re too different for us.
These schools are doing a disservice by so willingly throwing out kids who don’t live to please other adults, or whose speech is developing differently, or who maybe just get nervous in new situations and need to assess before joining in a group setting. They’re doing a disservice to the teachers, saying, we don’t truly trust your ability to teach. They’re doing a disservice to the kids who are in these schools, by saying, you will never have to stretch your brain to interact and work with kids who may not think like you do.
And I get that it’s any private school’s prerogative to admit or deny any child they choose. They can make a private school whose entire admissions rubrik is based on whether or not a child can recite the “Star Spangled Banner” backwards in Latin. That is their right. But would that not still raise some red flags that maybe they’re not looking wide enough to fill their ranks?
After the whole process is over, you get your emails/notifications that you can go see your admissions decisions after about a month, typically.
The school we ended up choosing ended up being the right one for both my son and our family. It goes from PK through 12th grade. They have small class sizes, which will be great for my son. The “child observation” at this school wasn’t a child observation, but a no-pressure “meet the teacher” session with me, the teacher, and the admissions officer, where he was allowed to choose what he wanted to do, and we all talked about the classroom and what the day-to-day is like. He fell right into playing and the activities in the classroom and was comfortable. The teacher knew every child’s development, where they were, where they had started, and what each child brought to the classroom. The school has a differentiated model, where students are allowed to progress through where they are excelling, and get help when they need it. They seem to embrace diversity in all its meanings, including in learning styles. We found the place we needed to be.
So for now, it all worked out, and we made it through the other side of the preschool admissions hell in Chicago. I would be lying, though, if it hasn’t made me reevaluate almost all my feelings and thoughts on education from where I started.
Which means the show’s over, folks. The breathtakingly terrifying Mom Trying to Get Her Child Into Preschool booth has shuttered. You can now step right up and witness the Mom Who Is Far More Invested in Bachelor in Paradise Than Any 30something-Year-Old Should Be.
Now that is terrifying.