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Public School vs. Private School

Sarah Preston Gorenstein

This decision about where to send my son to preschool next year, when he turns three, is on my mind constantly. A lot of preschool programs are “play based” at his age, so in essence they’re not that different than the playgroups he has on a daily basis with our nanny and her circle of nanny friends in the neighborhood. I finally decided not to enroll him in a regular preschool program until next year for that reason. Our nanny takes care of Preston full time (four days a week/10 hours a day), and we usually have him enrolled in a class or two per season (he just finished an eight-week gymnastics class that my husband was taking him to on Thursdays; and I’m enrolling him in a preschool prep class starting in January—yes, preschool prep). So why do I feel guilty about waiting till he’s three to put him in preschool?

And I should also mention that starting this summer, we’re signing him up for Lil’ Kickers, for the outdoor soccer program. (The uniforms alone are worth whatever it costs.) Long story short, with everything he has going on for winter, spring and summer, I didn’t think a preschool class two mornings a week would be all that necessary right now, save for introducing the classroom structure. Also? He barely makes the cut-off: His birthday is Aug. 29, and the cut-off for school is Sept. 1. So he’s always going to be the youngest kid in his class. Waiting made sense for us.

But the truth is, I think he’ll love school. He loves to learn new things, loves playing with other kids, loves reading books, singing songs, dancing, playing with letters, reciting the alphabet, doing puzzles, and showing off the knowledge he already has—he’s been into letters and books for as long as I can remember (I’ll be gloating about this to his college professor one day, I’m sure). He’s wise beyond his years in a lot of other ways, too—take, for example, his affinity for hip-hop music. This kid can hang.

In his two short years of life experience, his resume is pretty impressive—he’s near fluent in Spanish, and last Friday he said his first Hebrew word (challah), totally unprompted. He now officially knows more languages than I do.

I’m raising a little genius, if I do say so. Which is also why I feel guilty about not sending him to preschool as early as possible—am I holding him back from an education he’s more than ready for? Will waiting to start preschool till he’s three affect his progress? I know how ridiculous that sounds—when I was his age, I didn’t go to preschool till I was three—but times have changed. It’s more competitive now. There are higher expectations. The job market sucks!

The reason we’re not sending him to preschool this year comes down to expenses: With a full-time nanny on the payroll, private preschool at two seemed like more of a luxury than a necessity. It’s cheaper to enroll him in these individual classes, and it offers more variety—the private preschools around here are rather expensive, for a couple hours a day, a couple days a week.

If I weren’t a full-time working mom employing a full-time nanny already, I’m sure I’d feel differently about this. Preschool two days a week is a helluva lot cheaper than a nanny.

So although I’ve made my decision about preschool for this year, I am now in the thick of researching and enrolling him in preschool for next year (enrollment started last month; deadline for Chicago Public School applications is mid-December).

The Chicago Public School system—in case you haven’t heard—is kind of a nightmare to navigate. For elementary school, you fill out one enrollment form, list your top 20 choices, and then it's up to a lottery. (Enrollment is free, however, which is a big plus.) The school you end up getting into might not even be in your neighborhood. For preschool, you have just a handful of choices when it comes to public Montessoris…there are only four that feed directly into kindergarten. If I were to go the CPS route, I'd probably want to send him to one of these—like everyone else.

I’m sure it’s the same for most big cities, but I know people who’ve literally had to bribe their way to the top of the lottery at their school of choice (a lottery that claims to be fair). Honestly, I don’t have time in my workweek to bring some school principal lunch to get on her good side (much less make lunch for myself). Nor do I have time to host charities for our school of choice—I’m too busy working to pay for my kid to get a decent education. I would happily donate money to raise funds for the school, and participate as much as I can. But I’m not resigning myself to bribery to prove my kid deserves a spot at a particular school.

So I’ve been looking into private preschools too, in case we don’t get into a public preschool we like. When we moved in to our condo, we deliberately chose a neighborhood and location that had a great magnet school nearby, consistently ranked no. 3 in the city of Chicago. But four years ago I didn’t know they only offered a tuition-based preschool program (the cost is comparable to a private school), and they don’t start giving priority to the kids in the neighborhood until kindergarten. I put Preston’s name on a giant waiting list for pre-K—for next year. I thought I was in good shape for the 2012-2013 school year, but was told his chances of getting in are a long shot. (We live across the street; I can see into the school from my living room window.) Frankly, even if believed in bribery, the woman who runs the program didn't sound very bribable over the phone last week.

No wonder Mayor Rahm Emanuel is sending his own kids to a private school… You certainly pay for it, but with private schools you control your kid’s destiny a little more. I’m looking into a parochial preschool with a 6:1 ratio of kids to teachers. It’s affiliated with the elementary school both my husband and I attended growing up—a school I cherish.

If there’s one factor that will impact our decision to move to the ‘burbs to raise our kid(s), it will be this. School is an important factor to us—the private schools in the city are expensive and hard to sustain, especially as kids reach grade-school age (kindergarten starts at $18k at one particular preschool, and only goes up from there). And Chicago Public Schools, beyond kindergarten, don’t have the best reputation. Some schools are better than others, of course, but it’s unlikely we’ll remain a part of the CPS system once he reaches elementary school.

“Kindergarten is worth getting your panties in a bunch over," a co-worker with two kids said in an email to me last week. She's been a great resource in trying to make sense of it all. And apparently, preschool is the easy part. 

Is your public school system difficult to navigate? Are your kids enrolled in public or private schools? Until high school I attended private school myself, and it was the most I ever got out of an education (before college). It’s hard not to factor in my own experience when making this decision for Preston.

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