IPS vs. UPK: One Family’s Choice

This week’s blog post was written by an IPS parent on choosing a pre-kindergarten class for her child.  The post originally appeared in our blog during the 2017-2018 school year.

Our daughter attended The International Preschools for two years:  in the Red (2s) and Green (3s) Rooms. We chose to send her to Universal Pre-K (UPK) after that because of the cost and because we knew she would ultimately be attending public kindergarten. I offered to share what our experience was to help IPS in marketing itself and to assist other families grappling with this decision. UPK programs do vary, so I emphasize that this was just our experience.

  • My daughter had a fine year in UPK.  She had a warm teacher, who created a lovely tone in the classroom. She made a nice group of friends from diverse backgrounds. She adapted to being in school for the full day through the afternoon. It was free.
  • The process of getting into UPK programs can be exhausting and frustrating. We had hoped our daughter would go to our zoned school, where we thought she would attend kindergarten. She did not get in there or at two other schools we listed, and despite me visiting the school office of our zoned school six or seven times, she did not get off the waiting list. She, instead, got into a program in the financial district, which would have taken us an hour to get to.  There were further lotteries throughout the summer, and we could not tell our daughter where she was going to school in September because we still did not know. Finally, the week before school started, our daughter was offered a spot in a program that was created in a school a 10-minute walk from our home.
  • For us, the greatest difference was class size. In UPK, the class size can be as high as 22 students with one teacher and one teaching assistant. Our teaching assistant changed twice, and then still had substitutes often. At IPS, there is one head teacher and two assistant teachers in many classrooms with no more than 18 kids.
  • IPS is preschool-sized. There are bathrooms in the classroom. The children aren’t playing on concrete. They aren’t walking through overwhelming, crowded halls for drop-off and pick-up. Going to UPK quickly forces some more independence on kids. Some schools don’t let parents into the classroom (they do drop-off outside or in another part of the building). There are often no bathrooms in the classroom, so the children have to ask to go to the bathroom and be brought down the hall. They play in yards designed for bigger kids…or not designed well at all.
  • At IPS, there is the benefit of being able to start right away in September and pick up where things left off. In UPK, it took a few months to orient the kids to the school, classroom, and routine, especially for children who had never been to school before. About a third of the kids in her class had never been to school anywhere and many others had been to informal or preschool alternative programs.
  • At IPS the children in the class were all friends, as emphasized by the teachers and environment. Boys and girls are friends, as well as kids who were together from the Red Room and children who were new to IPS. In her new class, children formed groups or pairs, almost always divided by gender, and the community was not as all-inclusive. While this happens as kids get older, there are benefits to an extra year with a familiar group.
  • Our daughter’s UPK program felt more unstructured than IPS. There were two 50-minute choice times (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) and one 50-minute recess outside. This did help our daughter with her social skills, and she learned to play more independently. It did seem like some of this time could be used for different activities and that our daughter was playing the same pretend games (back and forth between “family” and “baby”) everyday. And when there was an organized activity the kids could choose during choice time (e.g. making a mural, doing a science experiment, using math manipulatives), the kids could choose to never do them. This feels starkly different than what is expected just a year later in kindergarten.
  • There was good support in UPK if your child has special needs or behavioral challenges. Parents whose children needed services (physical, occupational and speech therapy) seemed pleased, and services were delivered on site for those with IEPs. Teachers spent a lot of their energy figuring out systems to support children who were having behavioral challenges. While everyone’s experience is different, there was a feeling that the program would meet your child where they are at.
  • There was less support in UPK if your child is advanced. My daughter was an early advanced reader. UPK didn’t do anything to encourage that beyond being in a verbally enriched environment. The children had to write their first names every morning when they came in, and even though my daughter had mastered this before she started the year, she was never asked to write anything else. She was clearly capable of being encouraged in this way, as just a few months later in kindergarten, she is writing paragraphs.
  • IPS moved across so many different topics throughout the year, keeping kids engaged. IPS displays of work change all of the time.  In UPK, the children worked on four units for the entire year (i.e. two months on trees and two months on bread). This was a long time to spend on one topic if your child wasn’t so interested in it.  In UPK, holidays were not acknowledged and displays changed only every 6-8 weeks.
  • While many Universal Pre-K programs have specialty classes, our daughter’s school did not. A mom volunteered to occasionally do sing-alongs, and an outside art program came in for a few months. There was no weekly music, technology, library, science, handwriting, or STEM program like there is at IPS. There were also no afterschool programs at my daughter’s program (although some UPK programs do offer afterschool).
  • Communication was more limited. There were no photos sent home, and updates were sent about once every two months for the whole Pre-K program. We were invited into the classroom one morning a month to participate in activities with the kids. IPS sent home regular photos and updates of classroom happenings, so parents know what is happening in the classroom and can talk about it with their kids.  
  • While the teachers did a lot with what they had, art materials and sensory materials were more limited in UPK. At IPS, kids used varied materials. In my daughter’s UPK class there were markers and paint (although she never once brought home a painting), and they worked on a two-day clay project. The classroom had a sensory table, but it changed infrequently. There was no play dough or flubber. We, as parents, bought the school a colored printer. There was no lamination.
  • We felt nurtured as a family at IPS. When my daughter became a big sister, she was meant to feel like a celebrity at IPS. She had a big sister party and received a big sister book. The parents also threw us a baby shower. This likely would not have happened in a UPK program.
  • The Parent Association community and events at IPS are also particularly strong, as you all know. There was no parents association in my daughter’s UPK.

We do not regret our decisions. Our daughter is now settling into kindergarten at a public gifted and talented school, and speaks fondly of both IPS and her UPK program. That said, I think one more year at IPS would have been valuable. If families can easily afford it or stretch to afford it, their children will have a nurturing, familiar environment to grow in comfortably for one more year and families will benefit from the IPS community.


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