Liza started going to "school" in 2006, when putting her in a one-day-a-week preschool program was the only way for me to retain my sanity (and get some Lazy Mama work done). It was a place for her to play with other kids, eat food-coloring-saturated cupcakes that dyed her poop rainbow colors, and run around like a hooligan.
When we moved to Cleveland, I was able to find a two-day-a-week program for 2-year-olds, and after a bit of adjustment (read, "I spent the first two months sitting in there with her so she didn't scream her head off"), she enjoyed that, too. Okay, so maybe she just liked the ball pit and the building toys, but at least she tolerated being away from me, which was the whole point.
I wanted to get her into a program a little closer to home the next year, and she really loved it. We kept her there for pre-K, too, and she made it through graduation with flying colors.
We had originally planned to send Liza to the (very highly ranked) local public school system, seeing as how the kindergarten is like 1/4 mile from our house and our tax dollars are paying for it and all. I'm a big advocate of public schools, but the more I learned about our local program, the less thrilled I was. It's only a 1/2 day program, which translates to around 2 hours of class a day, plus almost as much time on buses to get there and back (if we didn't just drive her to school ourselves). They say they're set up to handle "kids who can read already," but the teacher's descriptions of how they handle those kids basically sounded like keeping them busy while the other kids caught up to them, not helping the early readers to continue advancing. The kindergarten isn't even in the same building as the other primary grades, so they can't send the advanced kids down the hall to the older grades for reading or math. Art, Music, and Gym classes all happen ... once every three weeks. With only 2 hours a day to get even the completely illiterate kids up to speed, there's not much time for things like science or social studies, either, except where they can include it as part of the reading curriculum.
We looked into a Montessori elementary school, which I think would have been a good fit for Liza if we could have justified the cost ($6K a year, I think it was) and the distance (me driving the kid 30 minutes away twice a day really eats up my free time, you know?). Then an acquaintance mentioned a local community school that's designed just for gifted kids ... and things started to look up.
Community schools are public schools funded by the state but not by any local school district, so they accept students from anywhere in Ohio. They also operate on a much smaller budget than standard public schools, which means that parents have to step up and volunteer to help keep the school running, and there's quite a bit of fundraising required, too. They're often set up to fill what parents perceive to be a gap in the standard school districts' coverage - in this case, parents were ticked that budget shortages were causing schools to get rid of whatever gifted programs they had in place for elementary school kids, if they even had them to begin with.
Because this school is specifically designed for gifted kids - kids who generally pick things up with less repetition than typical students - they can meet the state standards and still fit a lot more into their curriculum than standard school districts. All the grades K-7 take Spanish, for example, and Mandarin is offered as an elective. Art and Music and Gym happen each week, as does Technology. Violin lessons are offered as an elective, as are some club activities like crafts and chess. Things like science fairs and Lego robotics competitions are encouraged extracurricular activities.
The curriculum is also designed to be flexible to meet the needs of kids who may be advanced in some areas while being typical (or even delayed) in other areas. Reading and math groups are assigned based on ability, not age, so Liza may end up going up to the second or third grade classroom for reading and the first or second grade for math, while spending the rest of the day with her 5-year-old peers.
The school has open enrollment, which means that students are accepted throughout the year. But to get in you have to score above a certain level on one of a couple dozen cognitive ability tests which are administered free by school districts. We took Liza in to the community school to be tested so she could begin the year there (rather than waiting to have her tested later this fall in the local school district), and she passed with flying colors. Actually, her results classed her as "genius level," although these tests are notoriously unreliable for really young kids (and we did prep her pretty thoroughly for the test).
And because the only entrance requirement is academic ability - not location, not income, not religious affiliation - the students are way more diverse than those in our local school area (according to wikipedia, it's 97% white around here ... it's like we live in WASP-World or something). Of course, that means that the kid Liza is sitting next to in school right now has a last name that's a "V" followed by about 45 letters, but I'm sure we can all get used to pronouncing some new names, right?
The school is located less than a dozen miles from our house, and best of all - there are enough local kids attending that they actually run a bus from our school district, with pickup and drop off right in front of our house. The bus ride involves a transfer at one of the local schools (which she would have had to do if she rode the bus to the local kindergarten, anyway), and it takes longer than if we just drove her there - but it's a pretty convenient option to have available.
I've been very impressed with how welcoming the other parents have been so far. This summer one of the mothers of an incoming kindergartener organized a series of "get to know each other" playdates at the school playground, and we had a good time getting to know some of the kids Liza is going to see in class every day. And one of the local parents had a picnic for all the students from our school district so that they could meet each other before that first awkward bus ride to school.
Liza has been trying to make up her mind all summer - is she super-excited or completely terrified about school? She was really excited ... then she found out about the dress code (white or navy tops, navy or tan bottoms, NO PINK OR TUTUS WHATSOEVER JUST KILL ME NOW) and decided she hated school. She was super thrilled to pick out her school supplies - PINK SCISSORS AND A BACKPACK WITH A PINK STUFFED KITTEN KEYCHAIN CLIPPED ON IT OMG THAT'S SO COOOOOOL - and then horrified when I mentioned that she wasn't going to be the only kid in the class, she was going to have 19 strangers in there with her. She loved riding the bus at Safety Town this summer, but sitting with strangers on the bus was thought to be a fate worse than death.
Sometime last week she made up her mind, though, that she was excited beyond belief about going to school. We made up a poster with her morning before-school schedule on it, and we practiced getting up early and getting out the door by 7:10 without forgetting lunches or overlooking the rat's-nest hair problem. We laid out her outfit for the first day ("Stupid uniform. At least my backpack is the coolest thing ever!") and got in lunch supplies. We checked out her class list on the school web site and read the bio of her teacher ("She likes art and music! Could she be any cooler? And look, she likes to crochet, so you'll have something to talk about with her!"). We had a ceremonial Last Field Trip of the Summer, and Tuesday we went to the open house at school to meet her teacher.
I think we got really lucky with the teacher assignment this year, because she seems like such a good fit for Liza's personality. She's artsy and friendly and kinda goofy and enthusiastic and honest and she was smart enough to assign Liza to a desk that's right smack next to hers, which pleased the kid no end. The teacher sent each kid a postcard at home telling them how excited she was to have them in her class, and she made up a scavenger hunt for them to do during the open house so they would get comfortable in the room. I thought we were going to have to peel Liza off of the poor woman, she loved her so much.
Yesterday Liza was cranky all day because it wasn't a school day and she wanted to be at school NOW, darn it, not TOMORROW arglflarblgahhhhhhhh! I ran her into the ground at two separate playgrounds with two different friends, then threw her in bed early and prayed heartily for a good night's sleep.
While I wouldn't say she popped out of bed all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at least we didn't have to deal with the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that sometimes accompanies an early reveille. Clothes on, hair and teeth brushed, breakfast ignored, lunch packed, backpack on, and out the door with plenty of time to spare. My big girl is ready to face the first day of kindergarten!
I'm generally not the sappy type, and I've been planning for years what form of partying would occur at my house once I got that kid on the bus (final decision: blogging, followed by a pedicure). While I was nervous this morning, it wasn't because I was horrified that they were taking away my ittybittylittlepreciouswumpkins, it was because I was afraid she'd have a last-minute change of heart and I'd be stuck manhandling her onto the bus and it would be all tear-streaked face and blubbering for her all the way to school. But I will admit I was a little nervous about her ability to make the bus transfer at the local school, so I went into StalkerMama mode and drove over to the school to make sure she got on the right bus.
That would have been a much better plan if you could actually see the bus loading area from the car parking lot ... as it was, I could confirm that her bus made it to the school and the kids were waiting there for the transfer bus to arrive, and then at the next stop I'm fairly certain that I saw a small blonde head in the window at the front of the bus before all the other kids got on. I haven't gotten a panicked call from the school (or a neighbor of the school who found a kid wandering on their lawn), so I'm assuming everything went fine. I guess we'll find out for sure tonight around 4 when she gets home.