Choosing a College for your Four-Year-Old

“When I was in school,” I have been explaining lately, to anyone who will listen, “There were two choices. One, Catholic school. Two, public school. And we weren’t Catholic, so…”

At this point, I raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders, as if to say, back in my day, things were simpler. Then I lower my eyes, shake my head, and sigh.

“But. For my kids,” I continue, voice rising as I get to the impressive part of my proclamation, “there are at least fifteen options, and that’s just for elementary school. Fifteen.”

I pause, and look up. And whether or not my friend has the decency to nod sympathetically, my opinion is evident. Fifteen. I widen my eyes, and this says: all of these choices are driving me crazy.

* * * * *

During the preschool age of our lives (preschistoric?), our two girls went to a lovely, small center where the teachers spoke in low voices, and the children set out the napkins for snack. We parents dropped them off in the morning, and, three magical hours later, we picked them up. At the door, the gentle teachers told us things like “Susie and Matthew built a zoo today out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners,” or “Olivia rode the tricycle the whole time she was outside. Her legs are getting so strong.”

And we parents would smile and say thank you in low voices, herding our children out the door. Once outside, the children shrieked and raced for the sidewalk, re-assuming their imitation of maniacal savages now that we were back in charge. With minimal safety-instructions, we let them go for a moment–stop poking your brother with pipe cleaners, Susie!–and gathered near the stairs. We had important business to discuss.

2933195848_7ab077df23_oKindergarten. There was so much to consider; we needed to compare notes. What did you put as your top choice on the magnet application? Linden has Mandarin and German, but it’s not immersion; I’ve heard that Liberty does a good job with Spanish. Did you even bother to apply for the Environmental Charter School? I heard that so-and-so is moving to Aspinwall so that her kids can go to Fox Chapel. How many kids are in a class at the Montessori?

Kindergarten. We thought about it all the time; it was like choosing a college for your four-year-old. It felt critical. Because, as we told ourselves over and over again, preschool was three hours a day, just a few days each week, but kindergarten was eight hours. Every day. And it was all up to us where they would spend all that time.

Eight hours. Fifteen schools. Is it any wonder that we were a little maniacal too?

* * * * *

School choice, as an issue, is not without controversy. It makes for a good discussion on the high school debate team. Pros: schools can be tailored to meet the needs of particular students; competition among schools may lead to better outcomes; low-income students are given (some of) the same options as their wealthier peers. Cons: an application process privileges children whose parents have/take the time to choose; neighborhoods no longer have local schools that involve the whole community; schools may ‘adjust’ outcomes in order to compete.

I know these arguments. I was an elementary education major in college, and, then and now, I can see both sides. All of this seems to play out differently in different districts, and for different families. I have no grand theory. However, now as a parent in this process I know something that I didn’t know in college–as the choices grow, so does the pressure on parents to ‘choose well’ for their children.

But maybe some of that pressure is false.

* * * * *

It’s been several years since those preschool conversations, and I’m still surprised by how everything shook out. Our two daughters are in two schools, seven miles–and seemingly, worlds–apart.

Our sensitive eldest is enrolled in a small, private, Christian school with a creative, flexible curriculum and a small (about 16:1) student-to-teacher ratio. Her school promotes service and love of learning, writes and performs an annual all-school musical, and scholarships over 85% of their students.

Her younger sister, whom a friend called “a miniature Hillary Clinton,” attends our neighborhood ‘feeder’ school–a large, loud building with state-set requirements and free lunches for all. Last year, she had thirty students in her kindergarten class and they were from fifteen different countries–her best friends are Samoan, Russian, and Iranian. At recess, she ‘organizes’ them, and they all pick up trash because “It’s bad for God’s earth, Mama.”

And it works, mostly, which makes me grateful for the school choices we have. Both places are good fits; the girls thrive in their respective schools.

But. In my time of dual-school parenting, I’ve learned something very important–the two schools have a lot more in common than I ever imagined. Good teachers, for example, and bullies. Family fun nights, and inconvenient teacher in-service days. Reading out-loud every day, spelling tests, and math drills. Gym class and music. Fundamentally, they’re both like… elementary schools. Imagine.

Are there differences? Yes, and some of them are significant, but the pros do not all lie with one option and the cons with the other. From the way we talked after preschool, you would have thought we were choosing between maximum security or the Ivy League, chaos or order, success or failure. You would have thought that this one decision determined our children’s futures.

And it’s just not like this. Please, someone, tell the preschool parents: Consider the options, make a choice, and then relax. It’s kindergarten. You–and your child–will figure it out along the way.


Photos by Thomas Hawk