Choosing a school: it's that big parenting decision that just keeps coming back every few years. As my daughter Juliet wraps up her final year of elementary school, I find myself thinking about her first school, her preschool, and I feel grateful that we got that one right. The five years we spent at First Step Nursery School have left an indelible mark on her life, and on mine as a parent.
I will never forget the day I called to arrange a tour of First Step. The director, Ina Sinsheimer, answered the phone herself and stopped me when I was explaining what days I could leave my daughter home in order to check out her facility. “Why would you leave her home?” she said. “Shouldn’t she see if she likes it?” While this seemed remarkably sensible, I had toured a LOT of preschools before finally enrolling my older son in a fancy feeder school that was possibly harder to get into than any of his first choice colleges will be. Not one of those schools had a tour for the kids. Right away, I knew I was onto something.
In truth, I was a bit desperate. Juliet had an extraordinary amount of energy and independence and was constantly going on “runners.” She needed more stimulation than I could provide, and I needed to find a safe place for her to get that. So the two of us visited Mommy and Me at First Step one Tuesday morning and nearly never left. As soon as the gate clicked behind us, Juliet was painting at the easel, climbing on the play structure, and striking up friendships with the other children. Ina took me aside and allowed me to vent for a few moments. She then briefly observed Juliet, summing her up as a super smart, energetic, and totally focused child whom I could count upon to try my patience for years to come. She also said that the delightful times would far outweigh the stressful times, and she was right. One of the great things about Ina is that you can always sit in the kitchen with her and get advice about the trying moments of parenthood, but you always leave remembering why it is life’s greatest adventure.
We signed up for Mommy and Me, and the two of us made lifelong friends in a year of Tuesday mornings filled with the music of Jan’s guitar, art, camaraderie, and play. Bridge group was the next stop. Ina had told me about Bridge the day we met; in truth I nodded and smiled as she described the program but had no plans whatsoever to enroll a two year old in a drop off group two mornings a week. Juliet decided this for me. I could never have imagined a safer, more nurturing place for her, and what a confidence builder to go to school by yourself! It’s not mandated. Not all of the kids did the drop off. The idea of bridge is leave if you and your child are comfortable, and stay if you are not. My daughter ran into the play yard that first day and never looked back. I yearned for her to beg me to stay but it never happened. She was having too much fun and enjoying her independence. Had she needed me, Ina and the teachers would have made me feel welcome, of course.
Though totally comfortable on her own at school and accelerated in many ways, one thing my daughter would not relinquish was her diaper. She didn’t have accidents, because she didn’t even want to try. This would pose a huge problem at most schools, but not at First Step, where children are allowed to develop at their own pace, and potty training is not a requirement of enrollment.
The transition to five day per week preschool was seamless. By the time Juliet arrived in the Big House, she had a group of friends, knew her way around the playground and animals, and even sometimes asked to be signed up for after care so she could spend the whole day at her home away from home. The summer program was splendid. First Step is a few blocks from the beach, and the teachers walk the kids to the shore where they play in the sand and eat lunch.
As the end of our fourth year arrived, I had a big decision to make. Would she stay or would she go? With an August birthday, Juliet was destined either to be the oldest or the youngest in her kindergarten class. Her three best friends (and their moms were my three best friends) would all be moving on to kindergarten. Juliet was as smart and confident and ready as they. Or, was she? Truth be told she not only needed another year to play and imagine and practice the important skills of sitting still and not talking out of turn, she wanted that year. She didn’t want to leave her teachers and turtles and bunny. She didn’t want to sit in a desk. She saw her big brother and definitely didn’t want homework. I agonized about the sad fact that all of Juliet’s friends would be leaving. She never said a word. Juliet knew where they were headed, and she had no interest in joining them. She also knew that if she stayed at First Step, she would finally get to be one of the big kids, and, better yet, she would finally get to be in Hillary’s Pre-K group.
The kids in Hillary’s Pre-K group know that this is the year they will be graduating. The other children on the playground look to them for leadership and guidance, which is intoxicating if you are four to five years old. Hillary is as gentle and loving as all of the teachers at First Step, but she knows her job is to get the kids ready for kindergarten, and she does it. It looks like just another day in the nursery, but the kids in Hillary’s group are learning an awful lot. They read; they write; they study topics and create projects about those topics. They go out for walks in the neighborhood and learn to identify the local flora and fauna. By the end of the year, they are ready to be learners in an academic classroom. They can sit still and pay attention, and they like to do it.
Juliet entered kindergarten totally prepared for academic rigor and new social experiences.
Looking back, she and I both cherish her years at First Step and often visit our family of teachers: Hillary, Lurene, Lisa-Michelle, Abbey, Cydney, Ron, Nancy, Berri, Jan, and of course Ina.
Be sure to check out Mommy Poppins' LA Schools Guide for more preschool ideas.