Friday, August 24, 2012

Collin's Big Change

Since we hadn't arrived in D.C. yet, Bryon had to select the school Collin would attend without any help. He took all the parameters that we discussed, and did a pretty good job. Unfortunately, there are a very, very limited number of Montessori options in our area. The traffic patterns around here are comparable, if not worse to L.A., so, while there may be another Montessori, say in Manassas, it is almost inaccessible to us, because the afternoon commute (or the morning, in the other direction) would be impossible. This turned out to be a moot point anyway, as none of the other Montessori "options" were feasible for other reasons (more on that later).

Anyway, as last year progressed, I couldn't shake the feeling that while we at a Montessori school, a philosophy and education that I've been nothing but happy with, I was not happy with this school, and furthermore, that this school was not living up to the reputation of the Montessori way. My gut reaction on the first day was hard to shake, and I tried to suppress it and give the school a fair shake, but the school continuously disappointed me.

Firstly, the school was a filthy disaster. Montessori prides itself on cleanliness and organization, and in teaching these skills to children as a way of ordering their environment, themselves and teaching them to hardware patterns for learning. This place didn't seem to follow the basic fundamentals of this part of the philosophy. Sure, their room was set up in the same core areas, like most Montessori rooms (practical life, sensorial, etc), but the carpet was dirty, the shelves were cluttered, the walls were too busy with too many posters, etc. This seems like a minor complaint for a preschool, but when you walk into a standard Montessori room, the very last thing you think is, "gee, this place looks cluttered." In fact, if you aren't used to it, or you don't understand how it works, or haven't seen it in action, you think, "do the kids have enough to look at, or enough to do?"

Furthermore, aside from disarray, they never had any soap in the bathroom and the plumbing was broken. The boys room had a urinal and three stalls. The boys loved using the urinal because of the novelty of it, and because it was nice and low. This would be fantastic, if the urinal flushed. Instead, it filled to the brim with urine every day, and didn't flush. I have no idea how they emptied it every night (a bucket, a plunger?). But, I tried flushing it once, in disgust, and it didn't work. Collin told me as much as well. Since there was no soap in the bathroom, I find a urine filled urinal, coupled with the stall  next door, which Collin called, "the dirty one," abhorrent.

The school used chopped up, recycled tires as mulch in their playground. I don't have a particular problem with this, other than the fact that they are absolutely filthy. Kids get dirty. I get that. But, run your hand over your tire sometime and see what happens. Imagine your kid rolling around in a pile of that for a couple of hours every day, caked in sweat, sometimes with a runny nose, and then being unable to wash his hands because he doesn't have any soap. Oh, and then he has to eat lunch like that, with his hands near his mouth, eyes and nose. He came home so filthy, that I often had to take him directly to the bathtub before he could play. It is my belief that a good preschool teaches some fundamental life skills like how to wash hands, how to recognize when personal appearance is awry, and how to wipe one's nose in a tissue, for example. When 30 kids are covered in head-to-toe soot, why aren't teachers working to help them learn to clean themselves?

Some of this I could get over if he didn't come home injured and humiliated, more than once. On his first day of school, he came home and said that girls cornered him on the play structure and stood on his head, telling him that no boys are allowed on there. From his recounting of the incident, it sounded like it went on for an extended period of time. I couldn't believe that a grown up didn't intervene, and let it go on for so long. I called the school immediately, and I was told that a playground supervisor did intervene but that kids will be kids and that it was just a game. I wasn't comfortable, but was willing to concede that you always have to take a five year-old's story with a grain of salt, and just advocate on your child's behalf, and hope for the best.

Two days later, he told me that a few teachers and aides kept checking his pants all day, accusing him of having had an accident. He hasn't had an accident in three years. Of course, they don't know that, nor would they have any reason to, or any reason to believe me, should I tell them so. He was embarrassed, and the children called him "baby," all day because of it. Apparently, he had gone to use the restroom and found a large piece of poop on the floor. He reported it to a teacher, who accused him of having done it himself. Not believing him when he refused to admit it, they continuously checked his pants all day long for evidence of that accident, or further ones.

Throughout the year, there were countless "little" things that upset me. He came home with a large bite on his shoulder that no one at school knew anything about. I showed them the next day, and instead of being concerned about having been ignorant of such an injury that occurred during school time, or that my kid got hurt, they scolded Collin for not telling them. He came home sunburned after water fun day, despite having sun block, and a form on record instructing the school to administer it. He was so burned that it took all weekend for it to cool down. That same day, they lost his clothes between changing from his bathing suit back into his school clothes, and they had to use his "spare" clothes, which were a pair of long pants (in 100-degree heat). I found him sunburned, drenched in sweat, playing outside in long pants. No one thought anything was wrong with this, and they were quite put out that I forced them to help me find the clothes.

As the first day of school approached, I kept getting a panicked feeling him my heart, that I was putting him back in a school that wasn't right for him. He was progressing in his academics and he was still reading and writing well at or beyond his age-level. He was even doing double-digit math. But, I didn't feel comfortable there. I had to do something about it. But, we already put our deposit down for the following year, which put us in a pickle. Their contract says that if you withdraw your child at any point during the year, you are responsible for the entire year's tuition. Still, I was losing sleep about it. I kept picturing that pit in my stomach that I felt every time I dropped him off.

Then, I saw a little girl at his summer swimming class wearing a Creme de la Creme uniform. That kicked it off. Creme is a school about a mile from our house. On a whim, I called them and we went and checked it out THAT afternoon. They were amazing. They had a water slide, multiple playgrounds and the place looked like Disneyland inside. Included in tuition was two hot meals a day, and aftercare. It was more than impressive. I made them go over every inch of their curriculum, showing me every book and workbook they use for the kindergarten program. While the place was amazing, Collin was already capable of completing the work at their school. He was too advanced for their program. But, now that I'd started looking in earnest, I felt compelled to continue.

I looked for Montessori first. No one bothered to contact me in return, or they were full. So, we had to come to terms with the fact that it was a real possibility that we were going to have to break up with Montessori before we had intended. (As a side note, the public school here is terrible. Their test scores are awful. And, not that I make a sweeping judgment based on this fact alone, but there is a high rate of students on free lunch. As much as I value diversity, I think it should be just that, diverse. The population of C's elementary is only 6% white. That's not diverse). Anyway, thinking outside the Montessori box, and outside the public school box left us with two options, religious schools or private parochial schools. Religious schools (aka Catholic, for the most part) don't take too kindly to atheist applicants (regardless of their stance of "all are welcome here") and, let's face it, parochial private schools are damn expensive.

The search began. It continued. It was exhausting. There are virtually no private parochial schools in Woodbridge. There are virtually none in Dumfries, Manassas, or the surrounding area. There were two promising ones, both about a 30-35 minute commute, in opposite directions, but they were very different from one another. One had a very strict reputation and a strong arts and classics background (think Plato and Shakespeare) and the other was a more traditional private school, with a "normal" education. The more I read about the first school, the more Bryon and I were terrified that it wasn't a good fit for Collin. Collin, as we all know is a bit of a free spirit. A school that gives out demerits for a child talking while waiting in line at lunch doesn't sound like a place that Collin belongs. Collin belongs at a place where he is forced to work hard and learn, but where he learns from mistakes and feels loved in spite of them. The fact that the first school was about 3K more a year was also a chink in its armor.

Seeing the second school, Fredericksburg Academy sold us. It is a large campus, with three main areas, the Lower School, Middle School and Upper School. It has grades PK3-12, so if we were wildly fortunate (or unfortunate, if Bryon's career suddenly took a nosedive) Collin could go there until he graduated. This would be highly unlikely. My dream would be that he goes through 3rd Grade. They had an application process, in which he had to take an admissions test, which was a little terrifying for all of us (except Collin, who didn't realize he was taking a test--we just told him that a nice lady was going to play with him for a while, but if he acted crazy, and not like the big boy that we know he is, she might think he's a little too young for kindergarten and might want him to stay in preschool). We were a little worried he'd be a little too "Collin," and they'd want to put him in Pre-K. Phew, he charmed them and they thought he was brilliant.

The school has exceeded our wildest expectations from the get-go. The kindergarten teachers showed me their entire curriculum and it's perfect for Collin. He's in a class of ten, that's right ten, students. And, he has two, yes TWO teachers. So, that's a ratio of 5:1. Can't beat that, can you? He gets foreign language instruction, music and PE twice a week, in real classrooms (like a full gym). He gets art once a week in a full art studio. They even have pottery wheels, which is super cool. The lower elementary has their own library and computer lab that they use regularly, and he can check out as many books as he wants. The campus has multiple sports fields and playgrounds and he loves it.

Immediately, we've been kept in the loop about every possible thing that has gone on. His teachers are amazing. We have contact information, home phone numbers and email addresses, and three people, who I barely met when we went on our walk-through, found us on our first day just to ask how it went. I can count on one hand how many times anyone at Collin's old school even bothered to speak to us, outside of the obligatory "good morning," nod. The PFA has already invited us to socials and picnics, and we feel like we are part of the Falcon family. I cannot be happier with our choice. Every time we go there, I feel more and more confident in our decision.

Collin came home from his first full day yesterday more full of stories than he did all year last year. He remembered his friends' names (something he never did last year), and everything he did all day. He recounted so many fun memories and activities, that I could hardly keep up. He was so happy that I wish I would have switched him sooner, despite the money. Thankfully, his old school agreed to release us from our contract, after I pointed out that their contract says the word "during" the school year. Since Collin didn't start the year, I didn't see how we were obligated to any of the tuition.

This school has only one drawback (if you don't count the tuition--which I'd gladly open a vein for, if I had to). It's far away. It's in Fredericksburg, and we live in Woodbridge. It's roughly 40 miles south of us. Since it's all freeway, this a blessing and a curse. It has consistently taken me between 30 and 35 minutes to get there, so far. Yesterday, it took me an hour, in the afternoon; but, there were two accidents on the road, so I think that was an anomaly. That was the first time I'd gone at pickup time, so we are still playing with the "how long does it take," scenarios. I start my job in Maryland in a few weeks, and the worst part of this whole thing will be picking him up from Maryland on the days that I have to work. He gets out at 3:10, and I get out at 1:55. Clearly, I won't make it. He goes to their aftercare program those days, and I sit in the car. Small sacrifice, I think, until I either find a job closer to home or to Fredericksburg. If he comes home that happy, and he's getting a good education, I'll sit in the car for a week if I have to. Time to download some audiobook apps!

So, that's the short of it. I know it was long, but it's the short version, trust me. We did site visits, interviews, curriculum reviews, more phone calls than I can count, and had more conversations that lasted well into the night than I can even remember. It was a long and painful process and I'm glad it's over. I'm even more glad that it's resolved happily. All I kept saying was that I want to feel like I'm dropping him off somewhere that he's safe, happy and getting all that he can out of school. I want more for him, just more. Now that I can work, we're able to give that to him and I'm so pleased for it. He deserves the world because he's the best little boy in the world.

So, this is our boy's first day at his new school. He was a happy camper, despite his continuing reluctance to sing.