Sunday, April 26, 2009

Santa Monica Preschools: Oh, the Pain

As I've mentioned before, we live in Santa Monica. It's a nice area. The weather's pleasant, we tend to drive against traffic (people tend to drive to Santa Monica in the morning and vice versa in the evening), and the city has a lot of resources (it's a city independent of the behemoth City of Los Angeles). So MetaDaddy doesn't spend 3 hours commuting daily. And when there's a pothole or light out on our street, a quick call to the city gets the problem fixed within a week.

But I think a lot of people like Santa Monica. A lot of families, in fact. The real estate prices, even now, are a bit shocking. Some sellers are deluded. Did they not get the memo about the recession?

But I digress. My real point is: there are a lot of kids in Santa Monica. I found this out when I started looking for a preschool for MetaBoy. Knowing that I would be staying home to care for the kids, I didn't give it much thought early on. I'd get around to finding him a school when the time came. But when MetaGirl was on the way, we decided to find a place that would care for and stimulate MB earlier than I had anticipated. He was 1.5 at the time, and apparently, I was too late to find a school for him at the 2 year mark.

But there are few schools that allow kids to start at 2, which gave me solace. The number of schools from which to "choose" would vastly increase once he reached 3 years. So I didn't stress, and moved it to the back of my mind for a few months. After all, MetaGirl was my more pressing concern. Newborn! Eek!!

When I got back into the preschool groove, I refused to drive him very far, so I was really only interested in local options. I bought a guide with all of the local preschools listed; they weren't all there. I went to the library, but most of their resources were for K-12. I went online and found several websites promising me a comprehensive list of schools, but they didn't. Occasionally, I would drive by a place that had a sign: preschool. And of course, there's word of mouth. Essentially, I had to take all of these sources to find out which schools existed in our area. Then, the phone calls started.

I called dozens of schools, and I opted to tour the ones that seemed appropriate. I toured 13 schools. We submitted many applications, most requiring a fee. Ugh. One had an "admissions day," which required for the parents and child to show up for about an hour, play, and have a story read. Essentially, it was time to show pony. The only thing is...I think the parents were being judged, not the kids. "Are these the kind of people we want to deal with?" It was creepy, and we hated it.

When all was said and done, we were wait listed at 7 schools. I found a couple of schools that were acceptable and had space for MB, but at similar price points as others schools that had more bells and whistles (e.g., garden, music classes, fun art projects), we decided to wait and see if our position changed on any lists. I called the schools monthly for updates. Some appreciated my letting them know that we were still interested. Some were obviously annoyed by my persistence.

Finally, we were offered a spot in a sweet little school, and we're finally happy.

After this whole thing, I'm definitely annoyed at the mention of preschool admissions. Thoughts:
  • There are very, very few schools that care for kids beyond a few hours (e.g., 9-noon or 1-4). That is, they're not intended to function as a day care. So if you work, you're going to have a really hard time finding a school that will be able to care for your child for the full work day. That's tough, and I'm grateful to not be in that position.

  • Some of our local schools have a celebrity problem, in my opinion. There are a lot of parents who want to send their kids to the best schools, and if everyone's talking about a particular school, it must be the best. On that note, celebrities who live in Santa Monica send their kids to...preschools in Santa Monica! Everyone wants to send their little ones to the same school Ben & Jen sent their little Violet to. But really?!? I went on a couple of tours where you really got the impression that the director had some sort of superiority complex because of the power she wields.

  • Besides requiring fees just to apply to a school (I found they ranged from $50 to $125, but I heard one charged $200), the more popular ones have long, complicated wait lists. By long, I mean they pretty much tell you it's unlikely you'll ever be offered a spot. By complicated, I mean that some don't use the application date as the only deciding factor, but also take into consideration information the exact age, sex, and diversity of the child to make sure that s/he will fit into that spot just right (e.g., I need a boy who is 2 years, 7 months). Since there are a lot more boys than girls applying to start in 2009 in the area, this practice meant that it was harder to find a spot for MB than it would have been for a girl.

  • I went on several tours where the child to attend was in utero. That's right! The child had not been born!! The most impressive one, though, was the guy taking the tour who said that he and his wife were trying to conceive. The director told him to apply now, if possible. Application fee? Ya, $75.

  • The school that made us show pony was just wrong. We didn't know what to expect when we went, but in hindsight, it sounds like it's not far off from the experiences in this movie, which looks hilarious and I will have to see it...eventually.

  • As I understand it, preschools didn't used to be this expensive or elitist. When parents started hearing that attending preschool increases kids long term success, all bets were off. That movie mentions a preschool in New York City charging $20,000 per semester (does that mean twice a year for a $40,000 total?!?) for what I'm assuming is 3 hours in the morning. Whoa!?! At that rate, college is a bargain!

  • I had to remind myself to not get frustrated and keep the goal in perspective. I wanted MB to socialize, have fun, and learn some fun new things. Preferably, the school would provide him with projects and opportunities that we can't replicate at home due to a lack of space, materials, or experience. But at the end of the day, it's just preschool. If he learns to socialize and gets a head start on elementary school, then he'll be fine. All of the extra bells and whistles are more for the parents than for the kids; things to impress us and make us feel that our child needs these experiences. Some parents need to say "my kid goes to XYZ preschool." Some parents think that their kid will be missing out on too much if s/he doesn't get into the "best" school. It's important to sift out the child's needs...while trying to avoid putting yourself into debt for a 3 year old ;-)
I hope things are easier where you are, but I'd love to hear any stories! Oh, and if you can relate to this post at all, at least check out the trailer to Nursery University. It looks hilarious in an appalling sort of way.


ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

I remember a colleague looking at preschools on the westside and saying that at one school, she was told she really should have put her kid on the waiting list before he was born. Ugh!

There are excellent preschools that also function as daycares, thankfully. I love my kids' school and am so grateful that it's convenient and affordable (relatively speaking, at least).

The really awful thing, of course, is that we're just getting started (unless you're totally satisfied with your local public school).

MetaMommy said...

You're lucky that you found a place that works for you. And once you establish it with one child, it makes the decision for later kids so much less stressful. Though I feel terrible for the parents who decide that they didn't like the place that they chose for their first, so they have to go through the process again with their second.

We're happy enough with Santa Monica public schools. We've heard pretty good things, and know several parents with kids in local schools who are happy. That's encouraging. That said, despite the good public schools in the area, there's still the "that school is better than this school." Sigh...

kristan said...

Haha, your blog post came up in one of my zillion searches for preschools in Santa Monica. The whole process makes me want to throw up. My kid is barely a year old, and the playground mommies are stressing me out with their questions. I might be willing to make the drive to Culver City, where my husband works, to find something with a little less anxiety involved.

MetaMommy said...

@ Kristan - There's nothing wrong with Culver City! Like Santa Monica, it's a city independent of Los Angeles, so it's got a lot of things going for it.

Personally, I think it's tough when you feel pressured, and the best thing is to keep in mind that a 3 year old will learn from doing the most mundane thing, like taking a walk. So offering a million things is a preschool's way to appeal to parents more than to the kids. Which, to be fair, is something to take into consideration. If you'll be involved with the school, shouldn't you feel comfortable going there and interacting with the director, teachers, and parents? I went to this one school that just gave me the creeps...having to deal with the pretentious parents every day would have done my head in!!

fix said...

I'm so happy to find your blog! We just found out that my husband will be transferred to Santa Monica from Chicago. We (me, three kiddos and cat) will follow him out as early as Christmas or at the end of the school year. We are sad to leave our great life, school, friends and home in Chicago, but we are hopeful that our kids will have a great life in Santa Monica. Thank you for your post on preschools. I am just starting the school search. I am interested in St. Monica Elementary, but might change my mind when I learn more about the public schools. I have a 6, 4 and 1.5 year old. Looking forward to reading about family life in SM on your blog. Thanks again!

Cindy Wasson said...

dear metamommy,
Ii think I may be the director of the preschool who holds admission days. As far as I know, Ii am the only school who has admission days. I am so sorry you feel this way, and wish i could have addressed your concerns at the time. We feel so strongly about the importance of this day, the response has been so positive over the past 20 years, and our current families support us by keeping their children home on this day. Our intent wasn't to show pony, it was to give prospective families another opportunity to visit, to get a feeling of being on campus, to meet our teachers and have the experience of watching your child play on the big yard. This time is to sing together, have a snack together and play together and it feels more personal to us. Choosing a preschool is a daunting task, and it has been our experience for 20 years that families enjoy being able to take another peek inside our red door. Its a chance to make another personal connection, to form and build relationships. We have lovely realtionships with many of our applicants who are already enrolled in our toddler groups, but we have not had the pleasure of meeting every family that applies. Admissions Day gives us this opportunity. Our philosophy is the opposite of your experience, and that makes me sad. We believe in joining with our families to create a loving environment where the parents are the experts. I would encourage other parents to voice their concerns personally to the admissions or directors, so that these feelings can be resolved and communication kept open.
Megamom, we all want to find the best match, we are a team.
Thank you,
Cindy Wasson
10th Street Preschool

Kate said...

Hello - I was wondering if you might be willing to share which preschool you finally decided on? I would love to know! Thanks, K

Rachael said...

Great blog post, in the thick of the same fun times now for my 15m old....I would love to hear your thoughts for any places I should checkout. Thank you for any help you can provide!

Kristina said...

I know that this post is two years old but I'm wondering if you'd be willing to answer a couple of questions over email. I'm a SM mom trying to figure this whole thing out, too, and I'm sort of at a loss! If you get this, please let me know if I could shoot you an email. My email is ksabol (at) gmail (dot) com.

annaicorwin said...

Thanks for a great post! I'm a Santa Monica Mom who's gone through a similar search. I can now happily say that we found a wonderful preschool (Bright Start Learning Center) that is affordable and my son (and I) love it. It's play-based, no-frills, very warm, with wonderful teachers. It reminds me of the preschool I went to as a child myself - back before the flood of intense preschool-pedagogies. Good luck to everyone else in the same boat!