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My Quest for Child Care/Preschool

Since the stories from parents of children starting kindergarten got good response, today I'll show my own hand and tell you the tale of finding day care/preschool for my son, now 2 years old and known online as LT.

Since he was born, LT has been at home, cared for by a combination of me, his dad, and a succession of part-time babysitters. We love Chicago, but don't love the fact that neither of us has family here to help out.

Just over a year ago we were very lucky and found someone who has been our son's steady sitter while I work. Together, they've done a million craft projects, hung out at the local park and even ventured to the aquarium on public transit. I was hoping we'd be able to keep our sitter until next fall, when LT will be 3 years old and ready to start an official preschool, but her life's complexity has made it hard for us to keep a regular schedule, which makes it hard for me to work. And we need my income.

Plus, increasingly, LT is ready to be someplace other than our small home (especially in the Chicago winter!) and more than ready to be playing with other kids every day, which he doesn't always get to do now. But finding a good place at a price we can afford has been a challenge. We took a look at a downtown center called Little Green Tree House, but I nearly passed out when informed they charge $200 to get on their wait list! Then I put us on wait lists for a bunch of nonprofit, local centers, but we're not needy enough to be high on their priorities. I nosed around a bit for family day care, but just didn't have time and energy for the due diligence that requires. Our local elementary school has state pre-K but LT's not old enough yet, and it's need-based, so we wouldn't qualify.

This is a story not unlike that of other working parents. A New York advocacy group just released a set of case studies of working parents eligible for child-care subsidies, but not able to receive them due to limited public funding. Though our family makes too much money to receive child care subsidy here in Illinois, the story of a couple now paying $295/week for their son's center-based care while they work resonated with me.

"It's like renting a two-bedroom apartment!" exclaimed the mother. The father, a physical therapist originally from France, is now working a second job so the family can give their son not only adequate care but the preschool experiences research shows pave the way for school success. Because this family knows how it's done in France, their experience here leaves them frustrated: "Their child care is based on a sliding scale and available to all people, not like here," the mother noted. "Here, it's only for people earning six figures!" Substitute "families" for "people" and I'd say exactly the same thing.

Since last May my husband, who is originally from Mexico, and I have been eager to start LT at one particular licensed, private, day care center with a Montessori orientation and dual-language in Spanish and Mandarin available at preschool level. (The center does not make its website available on search engines so I'll respect its choice about privacy and young children.) The center is bright, spacious, and uncluttered. Materials are accessible to children and always kept in the same place, part of the Montessori philosophy. It's a welcome contrast to our small and less-than-perfectly organized home. Plus, the center is close to a beautiful park, and the kids go every day, weather permitting.

It's also surprisingly affordable—for day care, that is—$190/wk for 2 year olds, a bit less once a child turns 3 and ends diapers, plus a discount for automatic payment. And it's convenient to our house by both car and public transit. So that seemed like a no-brainer.

But then we got wait-listed. Originally we were told LT could start in June, but a child who was supposed to be moving stayed on, and we had to wait and wait and wait. By October, I was frustrated and took a look at the Parent Co-op for Early Learning, an NAEYC-accredited, parent-run center in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. (Its web site is public, so I'll give you the link.) Then the second-guessing began.

The co-op has been around a long time, it's accredited and the feeling was warm, friendly, and very stable. But it's far from our house and not easy to access by public transit. That's hard on my husband, who doesn't drive.

In my head, the co-op's strengths played against the center's weaknesses. The center has been around less than three years and there's already been some staff turnover, a strong contrast to the staff stability at the co-op. The feeling at the center is also a little more hands-off, independent, than at the parent co-op. Makes sense; it's Montessori, right? I want LT to have exposure to a more independent setting to balance my parenting style—more unstructured and maybe too-willing to baby my baby—but I also wonder how he'll take to it. The center appealed more to my head; the co-op, to my heart.

Dad made the final call: He preferred the center, where he can pick up LT. After some frantic calls, emails and drop-in visits, the center director was able to give me a firm date to start LT in early December. So he'll be starting soon.

I hope we'll stay all the way through kindergarten. But I've learned the hard way about the importance of backup plans when it comes to child care. So we're on a wait list for preschool at a local Catholic school that features Spanish-English dual-language instruction. They say chances are 90 percent we'll get a call.

And recently I went to visit a hidden gem on Chicago's South Side—a budding Waldorf preschool, just six years old and much more affordable than its peer on the other side of town. (Its web site is under development, so no link yet. Sorry.)

Waldorf's been getting some buzz lately for the high-tech families who choose it despite its hard-line stance against computers.


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