The first preschool we toured was our favorite. Montessori Shir Hashirim seemed perfect. I couldn’t believe that a friend of ours who toured with us hated it.
“There’s no joy in the kids. They’re not having fun,” she said.
NONSENSE, Joel and I thought. The kids at Montessori Shir Hashirim seemed happy. Sure, they weren’t laughing or running around. but they seemed… content. And they were learning Chinese! They were putting on Shakespeare plays! They had a yearbook! And it was shot by a professional photographer! And the kids were so well behaved. We wanted in.
Sure, the director drove a Porsche which lead me to wonder what the ridiculous tuition of almost $19,000 per year (including the required summer program, the accepted-student “parent and me” classes, and a $1,500 “enrollment fee”) was really paying for. But these kids appeared to be geniuses. What price can you put on that? I’m guessing about $19,000.
Besides, there are basically two kinds of toddlers. There are “spirited” children who are assertive and well suited to Reggio Emillia and an “emergent curriculum.” And then there are quiet, observant kids like Laszlo who are more suited to something like Montessori. And this Montessori school was a quick drive from our house.
Like many preschools in Los Angeles, the first step to getting into this school is 10 weekly “parent and me” sessions, which are actually auditions. Laszlo just barely made the cut-off age, so he was one of the youngest in the group. This was last January, 2011. My husband and I agreed that he would be the parent who would go to most of the “parent and me” classes, which were on Saturdays. Joel is way more charming than me, so I left it up to him to woo the director.
I dreaded the few Saturdays when I had to take Laszlo to the class. There wasn’t any warmth in the classroom. The director was intimidating. The parents weren’t allowed to talk to each other. The point of the no-talking rule is that you’re supposed to focus on your child and the way he approaches his project. But the effect is one of an increase in the air of competition and an awkward intensity. One mom I know dropped out after the second class, not caring that she forfeited her money. She just wanted out. On some level, sticking with it felt like an accomplishment to me.
Part of the Montessori curriculum is project focused: Your child picks out a “job” that is often on a tray on a shelf and he carries it over to his desk. At this school, the desk may have been only a few feet away, but when you’re dealing with a toddler who isn’t even two years old yet, carrying a beaker full of water on a tray felt like a football field away.
Since the teachers there didn’t allow you to assist your child, the project often ended up spilled or broken on the floor. While the director and teachers insisted that these accidents were okay, you could cut the tension in the air when some kid dropped something.
During these classes, Laszlo would occasionally be drawn to a job that was apparently beyond his capabilities. At this point, the director would swoop in, take the job away and say sternly and mysteriously, “He’s not ready for this job.” Not ready to try to put beads on a string? Hmmm. Okay. She would put the job back on the shelf and hand him the box where you bang on balls with a hammer like a neanderthal, leaving me with the nagging feeling that she suspected my 21 month old was a moron.
You’d think that my stress about going to the class would be a warning sign. Or the fact that Joel and I were afraid of the director (as is everyone else I’ve talked to who knows her, including parents at the school). Or the fact that we always felt like we were doing things the wrong way. (Both parents and toddlers were constantly being corrected.) But I thought that the director was some kind of brilliant education guru and maybe I just needed to get past my intimidation.
Besides, we had already endured the hell of many “parent and me” classes, so we didn’t want to quit now. We were invested and Laszlo was familiar with the school. The classes had been a war of attrition. Parents had been dropping out because they couldn’t deal with the pressure or the director. But I was learning how to deal with her and I wasn’t giving up now. I was going to win. And Laszlo was going to advance to bead-stringing level one of these days, if it killed me.
We got accepted. We enrolled and gave them a deposit.
We turned down the other two schools that accepted Laszlo.
We were to officially start school there that fall (last September). It was March, and the director told the parents of all the accepted children to sign up for another round of the “parent and me” classes. This was a smaller group of about 10 kids: The children who were deemed worthy of acceptance. The first group had been 20 or so scrappy kids who were all vying for a spot. But this new group was the kids who were in. We were the chosen.
When we got home from the first class of the accepted students group, the director called us at home and said that Laszlo couldn’t come to school there in the fall. I couldn’t believe she was saying this. She said it was because he didn’t seem “ready.” He was less than two years old! No shit he wasn’t ready. It was April and he wasn’t even supposed to start classes until September. Never mind that she had accepted him and we had signed a contract and given her a deposit.
She was reneging on her acceptance? She was sending our deposit back! Never mind rude, was this even legal? We had already done 10 sessions of the “parent and me” group from January-March and she had already said he was “ready” because she accepted him into her school. She just… changed her mind?!
I was in shock. That day, I went over and over what Laszlo could have possibly done to deserve getting kicked out. These are my notes regarding the worst of his behavior from that class. I wrote it down that day: I wanted to make sure my facts were straight….
Two times, he walked over to the door to the playground during the group music class and said “Cars! Cars!” because he wanted to play with the cars outside, instead of doing the group music class inside. Keep in mind, he was less than two years old, and had the discipline and focus (or lack thereof) of a typical child his age. Also, one time during his job that involved scooping dried beans, he dropped some of the beans outside of the bowl, onto the table, because he was getting bored with it. Did he bite someone? Did he throw a tantrum? Did he cry? Did he kill a man? No. She dismissed him on the grounds that he wasn’t “ready.”
Even if he had done something “wrong” that day, so what? She had already agreed to take him into her school!
She totally screwed us over. We had turned down the other preschool acceptances. We were left with nowhere to send Laszlo that fall. I was mad. I cried. I freaked out. Finding a preschool was a year long project that I had succeeded at, and now I had to start all over. Worse, all the spots for the coming fall at all of the schools I knew of were completely full.
Desperate (and ashamed), I tried calling the other schools we had applied to, but the spots were full, of course.
Since talking to other parents about this school, I’ve heard of two other kids that this director kicked out, for what sounded like no reason. What kind of a person kicks out a kid from preschool?! And what can possibly be a good reason? What kind of a preschool decides it can’t handle a two year old? That’s their job! On top of that, there was a lot of inexplicable teacher turnover. I wish I had known these things ahead of time and taken them as the warning signs they are.
Friends tried to comfort me in the weeks after that it was a blessing in disguise. But the fact that Montessori Shir Hashirim reneged on us ended up costing us a lot more time, effort, stress and money. I had to look into day cares. I toured new preschools (upping my total preschool tour tally to 19). I signed up for new “parent and me” classes. I spent more time and money on new applications. Everything I spent the last year doing, I had to do all over again.
I still believe in the whole Montessori thing. Just because a preschool is Montessori, doesn’t mean that it’s a scary place. The vibe at the Montessori school where we will be sending Laszlo this fall is the complete opposite of Montessori Shir Hashirim. So, in the end, the whole debacle did turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The children at his new school greet the teachers with hugs. The director and the principal are warm, approachable people who don’t judge the students or the parents. Most of the staff has been there for years. There is no “parent and me” try-out period. They choose their students on the most democratic basis of all: A waiting list. Which means that they accept anyone. They don’t care how well your child can scoop a bowl of dried beans because they are there to help him, not to judge him.
I never should have set my sights on a preschool where I felt stressed out when I walked through the doors. When deciding on a preschool, trust your gut. Find a place where you feel comfortable and that you can trust. Don’t over-think it. Don’t get caught up in the bullshit. Just because a school is difficult to get into, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s great. And most of all, make sure the director is not just smart, but also approachable and kind.