Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Choosing a School

I had their school picked out already.

Both of my girls would attend a small Montessori school in our neighborhood. A two block walk every morning, and again every day before lunch to a small house with a large yard full of toys. The teacher lives on the next street over, and we already know many of the students and their parents. The youngest child is 2-1/2 and the oldest will start kindergarten in the fall. They practice Montessori as Maria meant it, with play-focused learning and mixed-age classrooms. There is only 1 class, and it is intentially kept small, but still diverse with a good distribution of ages, gender, race and socio-economic class. The teacher focuses on justice, the enviroment and other facets of right living. It is a wonderful school, and I looked forward to being a part of its community.

And then we moved to Shanghai.

In America, children start kindergarten at age 5 or 6. Many children attend day care before that age, and often those day cares provide preschools. In that sense, many children begin preschool quite early in the states. But parents not placing their children in day care have many choices about their child's pre-school activities. Full-day and half-day preschools and pre-kindergartens abound. Most of my stay-at-home mom friends will begin their child in a 2-mornings-per-week program at 3 years old. At 4-years-old they will move their children to 5-mornings-per-week. At 5, most children begin kindergarten. In the St. Louis Public Schools, kindergarten is a full day, 5 days per week. This is the transition I prepared myself for. This is the transition that I think would be perfect for L--, who will be 3 in September.

In Shanghai, many children start some sort of "school" before they turn 2. By 2 years old, most children are attending a bilinguall program 5 mornings per week. So by 3 years old - the landmark we look forward to this fall - these children are thought to be ready to transition into "school" at 5 full days per week, sitting in desks and learning how to read, write and count.

My options are quite limited.

Some schools have a cut-off of August 31st. L-- was born on September 4th. In these schools, L-- is eligible for a 2-year-old class. Already knowing her letters and numbers, ready to interact with other children, this is clearly not acceptable for my daughter.

Some schools expect full days, 5 days per week. For an introverted child who currently spends no more than a few hours per week away from her family, this transition would be too difficult. Beyond which, I see it as entirely unnecessary. In my opinion, children of this age ought to spend a good portion of their day with a primary caregiver who is able to give them focused love and attention.

Many schools hold waiting lists up to 1 year long. To attend the most prestigious schools in Shanghai - preschools included - a parent must enroll their child 1 year in advance.

Most international schools are located in the expatriate neighborhoods. We live in a business communnity, which is quite diverse but primarily Chinese. The expat population is growing, but few older children live here and only a few nursery schools are located nearby.

I did my research, and chose only to visit 3 schools. In January, Daddy joined the girls and I to visit Montessori School of Shanghai. Last week, the girls and I toured Shanghai Community International School. Today, the girls and I attended The Wonder Center.

Montessori School of Shanghai is a beautiful facility. We visited because I love the Montessori program, especially for L--, and they are reported to be the best Montessori school in Shanghai. They have just completed their second location, which we toured in the French Concession. The building was lovely, and we met the new teacher, whose class is currently being enrolled. Teddy was fabulous, and related well to both girls. They serve organic food and have a greenhouse on the roof. The school circles around a large playground with grass - a rarity in Shanghai. Unfortunately, they only allow children aged 3 and older to attend full days. Further, the commute would add an additional 45-60 minutes onto each side of her day, pulling her away from her home for nearly 9 hours every day. Too much. MSOS is out.

Shanghai Community School is a preschool through 12th grade school located in Pudong. It took us 50 minutes to get there, but I am assured that 30 minutes is a more regular commute from our part of town. The entire school only has 500 students, with only 15 students in each classroom plus both a teacher and an aid. The days only run from 8:00 - 11:30, which I see as perfect. But the classroom runs like the rest of the school - the children are scheduled from minute 1 until minute 210 with no "scheduled" free time beyond a 20 minute recess. Acceptable, but hardly perfect. Especially combined with the commute.

But then we found The Wonder Center. And I love it. Dave and I fell in love with The Wonder Center by the website. Our visit this morning confirmed all of my feelings. L-- and S-- and I sat in the car nearly 90 minutes, due in part to our driver's lack of navigation skills. Upon arrival, S-- was fully ready to play. L-- had made herself quite nervous and wanted to go home. She held my hand as we sat in the car, quietly telling me that she didn't want to go to school. She didn't want to play with the other kids. She wanted to play at home today. And I felt so nervous for her. I felt that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the same one I always feel before joining a new crowd.

We arrived at the school late, but Mrs. Leary didn't mind a bit. The children were still having free explorations and L-- was invited to come pet the bunny, who was hopping around the floor eating rice. She kept a tight grip on my hand, but led me to the bunny's general area. S--, on the other hand, dove right into this colorful, busy room and had no use for me the entire morning. We joined the class for their circle time, and as they explored different seeds and nuts in their investigation time. Then we all walked together to the playground in the compound, where L-- finally let go of my hand and ran off with the other kids.

Although ready to leave after the playground, she said that she liked school, she liked the teachers, and she'd like to go back.

Mrs. Leary and I talked on the playground. We discussed the dearth of playful preschools in Shanghai, and she noted documented proof that children this age learn best through at least 1 hour per day of free play. We talked about where we live, and how we have no good options close by. Quite simply, she said that we've got to move.

And I think she's right. This school is located in Hongqiao, an expat community on the opposite side of Shanghai. We are renters - there is no reason why we should not move this summer. We could find a place within walking distance of the school, which also puts us within walking distance of a large park and near the grocery store and loads of restaurants and shopping. That gives Dave a 20 minute commute, up to 40 minutes during rush hour. Or we could split the difference, finding a new home near the church from where Dave could still bike to work and L-- could ride 10-20 minutes to and from school. Exploring another part of Shanghai would be exciting, and making friends is so simple. And being in the middle of an expat community would be lovely.

After spending a morning at The Wonder Center, I'm completely sold. We need to enroll L-- and move to Hongqiao.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is good news! Sure hope it all works out great. Love you all!