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How to Choose a Preschool

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By: Rachel Rubinstein   |   August 26, 2021

Preschool is your child’s first step into their school life, and sure, it’s “just” preschool, but it sets the foundation for the academics to come. 

It’s easy to get caught up in what other parents are wanting or doing for their children, so first ask yourself, “what kind of educational experience do I want for my child?”

Do you want a program that explicitly teaches number and letter recognition? Do you want a neighborhood school that you can walk or bike to each day? Or is a program that is play-based, outdoor and nature-based more in your lane? How involved would you like to be in the classroom? 

All of these options are not only available in Marin but are also plentiful in choice, quality and fit. It’s up to you to decide what is right not only for your child, but for your family. 

Based on my experience working in education, here are some of the top questions I hear from parents when touring schools:

Who are your teachers and what is your hiring criteria?
What is the educational philosophy of the school and how does it compare to other models?
What is the school’s stance on technology and its place in the child’s day?
How are social-emotional needs met and how are student behaviors managed?

Take time to put your own list of questions together, then visit or speak with each school. Find the educators who you want as partners on your child’s educational journey. You will know when you’ve found the right fit. 

Education can be thought of as a continuum, where teaching and the student’s experience intersect. On one end of the teaching axis is test-based teaching, or what is referred to as “teaching to the test”, and on the other is “unschooling”, where learning is about the experience. Note that this is different from homeschooling, though the two terms are often linked together.

The learning axis is split with child-directed on one end and class-directed on the other. Class-directed learning is based on the idea of “no child left behind” or the class moving as a group through the content. 

All schools fall somewhere on this continuum.

The Class-directed / Test-based Model 

Public schools are class-directed and test-based, where individual support is usually offered outside of the traditional class setting, though many schools are finding new ways to support students in the classroom. A huge benefit of public school is that it is free, but also that it is usually close to home and many families love being able to walk or bike with their kids to school each day. 

Charter schools have more freedom with how they present content but ultimately need to meet the same criteria as a public school, therefore they too are test-based and class-directed. 

Waldorf schools, surprisingly, fall under this test-based and class-directed category as well, insofar as the learning is about the whole class and individualized supports are not usually offered. Rudolf Steiner created the Waldorf pedagogy as a response to the trauma in Germany post WWII. What most families notice right away is a calming and regulating environment. It is important to note that academics are a bit fluid, but reading is usually not taught until 3rd grade and evolution theory is not taught. 

The Child-directed / Test-based Model 

Prep schools, more commonly seen on the East Coast, are child-directed and test-based. These programs often individualize a student's learning in order to master standards-based content and testing. 

International Baccalaureate Education is programming adopted by various schools to support students' academic achievement. While AP classes are reserved for high school academics, IB programs offer elementary and middle school programming as well. 

The Unschooling / Child-directed Model 

Homeschooling could fall under the umbrella of test-based and child-directed as well, because there may be families who are homeschooling their children in order to offer academic remediation or accelerated learning using a structured program. Families may also choose to homeschool for religious reasons. More often, homeschool is thought of as being an opportunity to teach children through experience. This is where the idea of un-schooling can come in. 

Reggio Emilia is a child-directed, self-guided curriculum that uses self-directed, experiential learning within a relational environment. Reggio Emilia is not a school but rather a philosophy that schools adopt. 

Montessori emphasizes independence, the academics are based on self-directed activities and hands-on experiences. Montessori and Reggio Emilia are similar, the noted difference being that Montessori’s curriculum is structured, while Reggio Emilia’s curriculum is emergent. 

Caulbridge School is a new education model developed in Marin County which weaves together best practices, and teaches math and language arts in small, skill-level classes. It also offers opportunities for hands-on learning through structured academics, projects and curriculum. The teaching-learning matrix was developed by Debra Lambrecht. 

Rachel Rubinstein is a new mom and the Director of Education at Caulbridge School in San Rafael. She is the creator of the Rise Parenting Podcast and enjoys sharing resources with other parents around pregnancy, birth and child development.
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