Monday, September 16, 2013

A scholarship...but at what cost?

Lina was awarded a full scholarship to attend Studio Creative Play's Studio Terra program, a kindergarten alternative in Park Slope. Lina knew it was very special to be given a scholarship and she was grateful. At $25,000 a year, I couldn't possibly afford this program on my own.

Was it the right fit for us? To find out (it's a rambling, honest analysis)...

I thought the enrichment program was a great choice for her, because she is very much ready for some academics, but she is bursting with creativity. She has learned a great deal on her own the last few years, due to her insatiable curiosity. She was so engaged and enthusiastic in the independent classes we attended together in Manhattan and Brooklyn the last three years, but I wondered if a drop-off full day program was too much for the fall (there aren't a lot of half-day options). Though I love homeschooling Lina, it would have helped me tremendously to have her in this nurturing program, so I could deal with some practical matters more quickly in the daytime on weekdays. I was extremely proud that Lina didn't even cry when she was dropped off and she dealt with the separation very well the whole day. I have the teachers and administrators to thank for the lack of separation anxiety...the SCP staff create a calm, supportive and worry-free environment (that I wish I experienced when I was young). I was especially impressed that other teachers, caring for the three and four year olds, also went out of their way to welcome us and were very encouraging and caring...they realized this is a milestone experience for both the child and parent.

But Lina didn't enroll in the program. I want to make it clear that this program can be awesome for many families, but it was not the right fit for us (and I'd like to explain why in this post). They deserve to have families enroll who are on board with their philosophy and their methods. There are so many positive aspects of this program and their web site gives an accurate indication of the ways that children will be enriched (so I'm not going to get into all that here in this post). My daughter had a blast playing with the other kids and she felt she could trust the teachers and she felt loved - which is saying a lot, because it's not easy to make a child feel that way from day 1.

But I had a vision of what it would be like, with lots of freedom for the kids. I understood there would be structure, such as a schedule of activities and planned lessons but I didn't realize how important it would be that the children (and parents) follow strict rules and policies. It was especially sad for me during pick-up to not be allowed to enter the room (they want parents to hold off from doing this until the separation process is successful for the whole group) and I had to wait for the teacher to continually command for Lina K. to sit on a rug before she could be called to stand up and leave the room to meet me. I didn't expect this from a place that's inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach, but perhaps I didn't do enough research about that approach. There was no time for an open house at SCP, since I learned about the scholarship spot late and besides they don't seem to want children at open houses or at parent meetings at SCP and Lina is not used to being left with a babysitter yet. I was surprised they don't even let parents sit in classrooms to watch how things are run during any portion of the day.

The classroom management skills are definitely something I should have asked about before the first day. I had no idea that the kids would be required to sit closely on the rug, in a "half-lotus" position, during lessons and not allowed the option to stand, move around the room, "be more comfortable with legs out" (as my daughter wanted to do) or sit on a chair instead (as another child wanted to do). The table and chairs were used mainly for eating, drawing, writing and a form of time out. I just couldn't see Lina being happy doing this a great majority of the day and feeling uncomfortable while trying to learn (the program is from 9am to 2pm, Monday through Friday, with no flexibility for half days even on the first day). I'm sure there are kids who love to sit cross-legged for hours every day on a small rug. That's not to say she can't adapt within a couple of weeks, but after attending classes in some laid-back environments, this seemed strict to us, that's all. I'm sure they have the best intentions. I guess I must have missed the information on their web site to give me a better indication of what was to be expected or else I would have been better prepared for what I witnessed at dismissal.

Also, to distinguish between my daughter and another child with the same first name, the teacher decided to call her "Lina K." (as adults we understand the first initial of our last names being used like that) but this confused Lina since no one had ever called her that before in her life. I was surprised she wasn't given the option of choosing what to be called on the first day. Lina told me later she would have preferred "Lina Celeste," since she has heard me say that a few times and responds more immediately than to a name that's foreign to her.

I'm certain that my questioning of their rules and policies, requesting some flexibility and being anxious about how their approach was going to affect my child specifically was not how they want parents to act to prove that they are part of the SCP "community." But I tried to digest a great deal of material the night prior, since I hadn't applied months earlier, and it was hard to keep it all straight in my head by the first day, so I made a couple of missteps that I wish I could take back. For example, this isn't the sort of program where you can discuss a couple of challenges regarding their rules and pass on a few bits of care-taking tips to the teachers at the beginning of the first day of classes. It's better to schedule an appointment with them or email them. It's not the sort of program where you can discuss with the teacher, as it's happening, something that is of concern. It seems I had a different priority and I wasn't going to change anyone's mind about it on the spot anyway.

The rules were more important, it seemed, than how joyful that first day was going to be for the kids. My child was left with the impression that all the kids kept doing the wrong thing that day and had to be told many times what the right thing to do was. Perhaps they had a lot of behavioral problems to deal with in the past, so they wanted to nip it all in the bud quickly. With a ratio of 11 kids to 2 teachers (one lead, one assistant), they have it better than most places, though, in terms of getting control of the room fast enough.

Lina and I attended the Villaggio Studio Workshops together when she was 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old, which were led by the founder of Studio Creative Play, and they were fabulous. Just like back then, I found the kids enrolled in Studio Terra, and their parents, to be bright, creative and friendly; the best of Brooklyn. In NYC, it's not easy to find settings where I know kids will not be rough toward Lina and she will feel safe and secure. SCP is amazing in this regard. Lina is incredibly social (whereas I am shy) and so, I felt sad for her...though they were celebrating "friendships" at SCP for this month, she was not allowed to have more time to talk to a new friend in class. The enrichment program was similar to most school programs in that kids are asked to remain quiet a substantial portion of the day, except during scheduled play periods.

Too bad NYC doesn't have "forest kindergarten," because children come alive outdoors. No wonder schools are so focused on pushing healthy the point where this program even discourages the packing of granola bars and chocolate milk for snacks, since they believe sugar affects focus and cooperation. Her pediatrician is fine with such snacks for her, though, since she is healthy, active and not an ounce overweight. They should worry about the fact that these young kids are sitting still most of the day indoors. Though they do have a couple of breaks outdoors, of course, but I don't think it's enough for a five year old.

The silver lining to this experience is that Lina is now more confident with self-care. She insists on doing as much as possible to show self-sufficiency. In the past, even though she was more than capable of performing certain tasks for herself, she was concerned about proficiency and requested that I take care of some things "just in case." I didn't want to pressure her; I kept things positive and waited for her to be ready (since that has worked, in general, in terms of raising her). In one week, though, she went from 80% on some tasks to 100% (without any assistance from me)...and went from 0% to 25%-50% on other tasks (asking for a quick check from me that it was done well or asking for a reminder in terms of the steps involved). That's a lot of progress in a short time. That's a great benefit of this program, a rapid progression in self-care and independence, which carries over to the home easily.

I believe in the advice given by attachment parenting experts that we should not teach our children to ignore their inner voices and simply follow our ideas or else they will become more dependent and insecure in the future. Telling Lina to just do what she is told and ignore how she feels inside...would set her up to accept other types of social pressure in the future. But there was no room in this program for her to assert her will regarding whether to even sit on that rug in a half-lotus position for most of the day. My first step to find out why a child avoids doing something is to ask her. I found out it hurts her legs to have them in a half-lotus position for long periods of time...and she preferred to sit on the pretty colorful rug, instead of the plain one. She may have a valid reason for her choice and behavior or it may be a silly reason. But her reason may need to be acknowledged before she is pressured to learn limits and not question what the teacher is telling her to do. But it may not be efficient to listen to each child, so the teacher loudly repeats the same command and doesn't move on to the next activity until everyone complies. I realize that's the way things are run at most programs, kids staring at the ones being singled out, as a way to get all the kids to conform to being a part of a group.

I'd rather give Lina another year of freedom, because I feel that will benefit her most in terms of her growth.

She was happy to pick out a backpack and lunch pack. But she can still use them when we go to various classes, the library and on field trips.

 Here are two drawings she made before leaving the SCP program: