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  1. To school or not to school? Wait, is that even a question? For hundreds of Chicago-area parents and many more across the nation, it is a very real one. In the past decade, there has been a nationwide surge in parents choosing to homeschool, unschool, or choose a non-traditional school without a fixed curriculum or grades. But why? Self-Directed Education Proponents believe that unschooling provides opportunities for children to explore their interests without the limits of a traditional classroom. Unschooling allows children the freedom to direct their own education and learn at their own pace, without fear of disapproval from teachers or bad grades. It helps preserve the natural love of learning that people are born with, and helps children develop skills of creativity, initiative, leadership, independence, collaboration, and self-confidence. [Related: How to apply for CPS preschools] Some parents, like myself, dip their toe in the water of unschooling by choosing a play-based preschool, where children’s interests drive the classroom experience and there is no preset curriculum. At that age, it is a broadly accepted philosophy that children are born with a natural ability and desire to learn. Many parents continue to follow this philosophy after preschool by homeschooling or unschooling their children. Still others are intrigued by the tenets of unschooling or homeschooling but it’s not the right fit for their family financially or logistically. They seek out one of the many non-traditional schools putting down roots across the Chicagoland area. These schools are hybrids of unschooling and traditional school. They follow the philosophy of self-directed education, but add a level of structure to the student experience and a general expectation of student attendance during school hours. My Story I had two bright and happy children who were doing fine in our excellent local public school. However, as they approached upper elementary grades, their zest for learning was starting to wane. As standardized testing pressures ramped up and homework loads increased, school started to become more of a battle and less of a joy. I did some research into alternative options and, as an educator myself, was intrigued by homeschooling. I longed for the ability to personalize the learning experience for my children’s abilities and interests. Unfortunately, despite my promise of a long recess, my kids did NOT share my interest in homeschooling. [Related: Getting into Harvard doesn't need to start in preschool] Luckily, we were able to find a non-traditional school that met most of my homeschooling objectives but gave my children the separation from me that they craved. While the fear of taking the path less traveled was pretty intense for all of my family members, we took the leap into self-directed education and haven’t looked back. My kids are ahead of a traditional school curriculum in some subjects, and behind in others, but spend every day learning about something that interests them, so we are all content. Best of all, they now wake up every morning excited about going to school. Options For every story like mine, there is one with a different ending. Every family has a unique set of needs. The great news is that there are so many education options in Chicago and support networks for those trying them out. Take the time to explore and see if self-directed education might be best for your family. Learn more about homeschooling through local networks like the Chicago Homeschool Network and Northside Unschoolers Group. Find schools with a self-directed education mindset on the NPN website or by talking to schools at the NPN School Fair (it’s where I found my children’s first school!).
  2. “When is the best time to begin my school search?” is a question often posed by families looking to start the always dreaded but ultimately necessary rite of passage known as the “Chicago School Search.” Sometimes the question is followed up by a plaintive, “Oh my goodness! Am I too late?!” Rest easy, Chicago families. The answer is not as cut-and-dried as one would think — and ultimately, you are never “too late.” [Related: Getting into Harvard doesn't need to start in preschool] As the third largest city in the U.S., Chicago is home to a vast range of school types, sizes, options, and admissions processes. Even within Chicago Public Schools (CPS), there are various pathways for entry from preschool to high school. Overlaid with the multitude of private and parochial schools, there are always choices for parents whenever they embark on their school search. That being said, one of the keys to increasing your odds in any endeavor is to know when those odds are at their best. “Entry Year” odds For school admissions, when a program begins is known as the “entry year” of a school (e.g., a K-8 school’s entry year is kindergarten). This is typically the time when the school has the most spots available. But it can have the most applicants, as well. For example, a school with two kindergarten classrooms of 25 students each will have 50 spots to fill, and perhaps 500 applicants (a 10% admit rate). Conversely, that same school’s first-grade class may have just one spot open, but only five students applying — so it could have a 20% admit rate in a non-entry year. Considering how difficult it is to predict if any upper-year spots may be available, a good strategy is to be in the applicant pool of the entry year for your desired school. Some common or little-known entry points are: Infants (6 weeks: Montessori Academy of Chicago) 3-year-olds (University of Chicago Lab School, Frances Xavier Warde, many Montessori schools) 4-year-olds (Chicago City Day School, Inter-American Magnet) 5-year-olds (most CPS schools) 5th grade (additional spots at Latin School) 6th grade (additional spots at Francis Parker) 7th grade (CPS Academic Centers) 9th grade (high schools) [Related: Want to make your community better? Consider your neighborhood school] September 1 cut-off Most preschool and early elementary programs have a strict age cutoff date of September 1, so keep that in mind when determining your child’s entry year. Once a school’s entry point is confirmed, be sure to apply one year before the program starts to be in the running for available seats. In other words, if you are interested in a school that begins at 3 years old, then plan to apply that fall when your child is 2 years old. Whatever year you enter a school, you are allowed to stay until the school ends, which is typically 8th or 12th grade. Targeting the entry year can increase your odds of acceptance at a school of your choice. Good luck with your school search journey, and may the odds be with you! Updated Spring 2021
  3. So, you think this fall is the right time to start preschool? If your child is three and potty trained, you’re ready to catch a ride on the pre-kindergarten rollercoaster that will decide who your parental friends are, whether or not you should move, where your child will grow up, and who their lifelong friends will be. Yes, it sounds overwhelming, but it’s never too soon to start researching. When I thought my first little one was ready, I didn’t have any “mommy friends” to consult. I panicked and started to Google, “What age do kids start preschool?” and was immediately overwhelmed by all the information I was gathering. After a few informal polls at the neighborhood park, I quickly realized every parent of a child my age was just as unprepared as I was. I had to find parents of children who were already in kindergarten to get the data I so badly needed. Through them, I developed a list of questions—all of which, for me at that time, could be answered with a “YES”: I have to go back to work. Will I need someone to watch my child all day? Is my child potty trained and able to ask to go to the bathroom when needed? Will my child be comfortable with other adults if I’m not there? Can my child listen, follow directions and handle a structured schedule? Does my child need to be socialized and learn how to play well with others? Another Google search later and I had a list of preschools in my area, and hit the road to check them out. And this was the hardest part: How do you make one of the most important decisions of your child’s formative years and know that you will not regret your decision? Answer: You go with your gut. Here is a list of basic questions to ask a preschool provider: What are your hours? Do I pay upfront, weekly, etc.? What if I’m late picking up my child? What is the extra fee? What is the ratio of kids to caregivers? What are the children’s ages in each group? Is breakfast served? Snacks? How are allergies handled? How long is nap time? Can we bring our own blanket, toy, etc.? What is the approach to socialization? Playtime? Inside? Outside? Will I be given updates on my child’s progress, how their day was, what they learned/achieved each day? Will I die without seeing every little milestone that will be accomplished when I’m not there? (Just kidding, but I know you were thinking this.) (As for No. 8: Of course you will be OK, and you’ll look back later and wonder what you would have done without so-and-so provider to help you through this portion of your child’s life.) Once you have determined who will have the pleasure of being around your child all day while you’re busy at work or wherever you need to be, you can ask for a “playdate” with the provider to let your child have some input. This will help your child to get acquainted with their new home-away-from-home and will help you to feel at ease and know that you are a great parent, and you will survive. Nikki Arana is a mother of two boys, ages 7 and 9, who attend St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic school in West Town. She works at a law firm downtown and her free time is spent as a parent ambassador to help other families learn about their wonderful school.
  4. When you ask your kids the question, “How was school today?”, count yourself lucky if you get an “OK” or “fine.” As parents, we all want to know: Are they having fun? Are they playing nicely with others? Are they nurturing healthy relationships with their friends and peers? And the one that worries us the most, Are they eating lunch? Every day, tons of us suffer from not being able to communicate effectively with our children. As a mother of three and a parent educator, I’ve had to learn how to communicate with young children, especially after school. Here are some tips and examples to get the communication between you and your child started. Be mindful. Know that they have been sitting for most of the day (at least six hours!), and some days they may be frustrated about the day and not ready to talk. Bite your tongue and resist the urge to wear your FBI hat. Do not interrogate them. You may want to wait until dinner or bedtime to ask. In the meantime, concentrate on making the time fun and relaxing by asking easy questions, e.g., example “What would you like to eat for dinner?” Ask open-ended questions and be specific: “Tell me about something new you learned in Math today.” “Where is the coolest place in the school? Why?” “Who is the funniest person in your class? Why?” Share something about your day and ask about theirs: “I had a tuna sandwich for lunch. What about you?” “I am getting ready for a meeting tomorrow and need to create an agenda. When is your next exam and what is it going to include?” Use their artwork as a conversation starter: “Which technique did you use here?” “What were you feeling when you drew this?” Ask silly/fun questions: “Tell me something that made you laugh today.” “If you could be the teacher tomorrow, what would you teach and how would you teach it?” Know the school schedule: “Today is Thursday: Tell me about the new song you are learning in music class today.” Don’t forget the not-so-nice questions: “Tell me about something that made you sad today.” “Is there someone in your class that needs a time-out? Why?” “What can you do when you feel sad or frustrated in school?” Finally, listen. As soon as your child gets in the car, stop whatever you are doing and be present in the moment. Let them be the first to say anything and do not come up with conclusions before you hear the entire story. Children gain confidence as they relate their day and you affirm them. Be aware of signs. Your child may be showing off more than just having a bad day. Remember to stay in constant communication with the teacher. Teaming with the teacher helps the child be successful because after all, it takes a village! Nilmari Donate is the founder of HKC Parenting and School Consulting Services. She holds a BA in Public Health and an MA in Parenting Education and Support from DePaul University. She is the mother of three young bilingual and multicultural children.
  5. Parenting a toddler can be hard enough without the pressures of finding that “perfect” school for your curious, inquisitive, rambunctious and eager little one. You’ve heard the rumors before: ”Get into the right school now so that your path to Harvard is assured. If you miss your window, you’ve missed your chance!” But is that really true? Is there even such a thing as a “golden ticket” to those coveted universities? Are we doomed to let go of those lofty dreams if we send our child to the up-and-coming school down the street? Does it really all start with preschool?! [Related: Play all day? That's exactly what your preschooler should be doing] Rest assured that the biggest predictor of student success is engaged, involved parents versus a hefty tuition bill or a storied, exclusive school. As parents, our main job is to make sure our child is thriving, growing, staying inquisitive and learning how to get along with others in whatever environment they find themselves. While rumors abound among new parents (especially from the exclusive and pricey enclaves of New York City) that a child’s path to educational nirvana starts with the right brand-name preschool, the real skinny is that it simply isn’t true. Here in Chicago, we are lucky to have a breadth of school options that can all spark a lifelong quest for knowledge. Plus, the diversity of our city makes for a rich educational experience in its own right. Angst-ridden nights worrying about how and when to get into the “right” preschool become unnecessary when parents realize that not only do kids at “top” high schools come from all pathways (public, private, well known, under the radar, selective, traditional, etc.), but the coveted colleges only accept a small number of students from each high school, no matter the caliber of students. In the end, the goal for parents is to find schools that allow your child to unleash their potential and develop their self-confidence, no matter the name on the school’s door. [Related: What's up with Universal Pre-K? Here's what we know] But what about entry years and getting into a certain school? Is it worth the anxiety? While it’s true that more spots can be available if you apply when a program starts, there is always attrition and families can and do make school changes based on a child’s evolving needs and desires as he/she grows. The array of Chicago school choices means that finding a great school fit at any time along your child’s school journey is possible. From the play-based preschool to the Reggio-inspired elementary to the international baccalaureate high school, all experiences shape each child’s unique skills, interests and goals, which combine into the thoughtful, empathetic and well-rounded high schooler that the coveted universities are looking for. Research different types of school options at NPN’s Preschool & Elementary School Fair to learn about the many school offerings in and around Chicago. Remember: If a child begins his/her early education at a school that feels right for your family but isn’t necessarily a “big name” draw, don’t fret or feel pressured to make a change. That “happy fit” preschool is creating the spark that will go on to shape the innate curiosity and interests of your future college-bound child, wherever they ultimately attend!

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