I've been looking at preschool options for Nico over the past month or so. It started as a sort of a whim, just to see what was out there (and because friends from bigger cities warned me that sometimes you have to get on the waiting list a year ahead of time for preschool…that didn't turn out to be the case here). I was thinking we'd start him next August when the new school year starts, but the more I looked and thought about it, the more I started to ponder starting him in January. He'll turn three on January 15th and in a lot of ways, I think he's probably ready. On the one hand, it seems utterly absurd to be contemplating school for a kid who is currently still only two years old, who still uses a sippy cup and wears a diaper. I mean, dude, he's still a baby, right? But baby or not, he knows his ABCs, shapes, and all his colors; he can count to twelve if he feels like it; he is fascinated by letters and words and what letters spell. And he also is an only child in a single-child childcare setup, which gives me another reason to consider starting him in school. My sister and I only went to one year of preschool before we started Kindergarten, but we also had cousins of similar age that we played with two or three times a week. Nico has some friends his age, but we have maybe two or three playdates a month. Learning to share and to interact with kids his age seems like a pretty good reason to go ahead and get him started at school sooner rather than later.
I had some pretty simple requirements when I started looking (or so I thought). I wanted a school that was:
1. not super churchy - I don't mind saying grace before snack or doing Jesus in a manger crafts, but I didn't want Bible lessons or chapel time
2. half day / two day a week option - with him being so young and being in a child care situation that we love, there's no real reason to put him in full-time school, or even half-day every day school
3. kids not required to be fully potty-trained - because as much as I wish I could say that might happen by his birthday, I have no illusions
4. not painfully expensive - obviously
Once I started looking around, I realized that most local preschools are pretty churchy. I found five secular schools. The well-regarded day school and the Montessori school each cost more than our monthly mortgage payment. The Reggio Emilia school requires potty training and is twice as expensive as all the other schools I ended up considering. The cute hippie school that Nico's friend Nathan is probably going to attend starting in August only does four day a week full-day school (and is expensive). The preschool at the childcare center on the campus of my university is fabulous and affordable and highly recommended, but it's a bit of a stupidly long commute. I debated and pondered and expended more angst than is probably practical over a decision as admittedly trivial as where to send my barely-not-a-baby to "school" for two mornings a week. Ultimately, I couldn't figure out a reasonable scenario in which I could get him to school on time in the mornings and still get myself to work on time on the other side of town. My parents probably would've been willing to make the haul twice a school day if there were no other options in town, but with closer options they weren't too excited about it. Plus, they're going to have the small fry along for the ride in the fall semester, so it's not like Mom can just camp out in the car and knit for two hours while Nico's at school.
I was considering the preschool where my sister and I went as our backup to the university preschool. It's just a few blocks from our house, it's affordable, and I was impressed with the teachers when they brought their classes to a field trip at my workplace last season. But I was starting to wonder about their level of churchiness, they require full potty training, and then when I called to check about his options for staring in January, it turned out they were full and don't really like to start kids until they're closer to 3 1/2. Luckily, one of the volunteers at work recommended the school where her kids go, and it's cheap, close, and has a setup that I really like. If Nico starts there in January, he'll be in the middle of the class by age rather than the very youngest, since they do a twos turning three / threes turning four / fours turning five class division. They focus mostly on social interaction and classroom readiness and the day is set up with very short bursts of structured activity mixed in with free play. For a kid who doesn't even want to sit on my lap through a 30 minute story time, this is encouraging. I took Nico in for a visit last week after the class had let out for the day, and he was not shy at all about getting into the toys or saying hello to the teacher. He was extremely interested in the little playground.
We haven't made a solid decision yet, but I suspect we're going to go for it. I filled out his application (though I haven't sent it in yet) and he's on their class list for a January start. I'm not waffling on it nearly as much as I was. And on Saturday, Nico read his first word. He's been reciting bits of books from memory for a while and recognizing sight words that we show him over and over in familiar books or on his magnet board, but nothing that actually counts as independent reading. But Saturday we took him to a children's museum for the afternoon, and he walked by a sign there which he'd never seen before and said, "B-i-g…big!" without any adult prompting. I think he's ready. I think we are, too.