This week’s blog post was written by a former parent whose older child attended The International Preschools’ 86th Street Location. We were reunited with this mom when the family reapplied this year to IPS for their younger child. She offered to share her experience with the New York City public school’s Universal Pre-K (UPK) program to assist other families grappling with making a choice between UPK and The International Preschools.
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 her year in the Green Room because of the cost, and because we knew she would be ultimately attend public kindergarten.
My daughter had a fine year in her UPK class. 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 through the afternoon. And, of course, it was free.
However, 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, was accepted into a program in the financial district, which would have
taken us an hour to get to each day. There were further lotteries throughout the summer. We could not tell our daughter where she was going to school in September. Finally, the week before school started, a spot opened up in a program that was created in a school, located about ten minutes away from our home.
Overall, here are the differences that we, as parents, found between UPK and IPS:
- Class Size: For us, the greatest difference between UPK and IPS was class size. At UPK, there can be as many as 22 four-year-olds in one classroom, with only one teacher and one teaching assistant. Our teaching assistant was changed twice, and still had substitutes often. At IPS, there is one head teacher and two assistant teachers in many classrooms with no more than 18 children per class.
- Facilities: IPS is preschool-sized. There are bathrooms in the classroom. The children aren’t playing on concrete playgrounds. They aren’t walking through overwhelming, crowded hallways for drop-off and pick-up.
- Playgrounds and Transitions: Going to UPK forces some more independence on kids. Some schools do not let parents into the classroom; instead, drop-off occurs outside or in another part of the building. There are often no bathrooms in the classroom, so children must ask when they need to go and be escorted down the hall. They play in yards designed for bigger kids, and sometimes, are not designed well at all.
- Daily Routines: 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 children to the new school, classroom and routine, especially for those who had never been to school before. About a third of the students in her class had never been to school before, and many others had been to informal or preschool alternative programs.
- Friendships: At IPS, the children in the class were all friends, as emphasized by the teachers and environment. Boys and girls are friends. Children who were together from the Red Rooms, as well as new children, were friends. In my daughter’s new class, children formed groups or pairs, almost always divided by gender, and the community was not all-inclusive. While this happens as kids get older, there are benefits to an extra year with a familiar group at such a young age.
Structure: 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. These free play times did help our daughter with her social skills, and she learned to play more independently. However, it did seem like some of this time could be used for different activities (both free play and teacher-directed), and that our daughter was playing the same pretend games – back and forth between “family” and “baby” everyday. When there was an organized activity the kids could participate in 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 (both private and public).
- Special Needs: There was good support if your child has special needs or behavioral challenges. Parents whose children needed services (physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy) seemed pleased, and services were delivered on-site for those with IEPs. Classroom 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 with modifications for wherever they are at.
- Individualized Attention: In UPK, there was less support 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 entered the classroom, and even though my daughter had mastered this before she started the year, she was never asked or encouraged to write anything else. She was clearly capable of building upon her skills with a teacher’s direction, as just a few months later in kindergarten, she is writing paragraphs.
- Classroom Themes: IPS moved across so many different topics throughout the year, keeping kids engaged. IPS’ displays of children’s work change frequently throughout the year, to display the themes taught within the classrooms. Displays in UPK changed every six to eight weeks. In UPK, the students studied a total of 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, particularly if your child was not as engaged in the study. Additionally, UPK did not acknowledge holidays.
- Specialty Classes: While many Universal Pre-K programs have specialty classes (i.e. music, library), our daughter’s did not. A mom volunteered to occasionally lead sing-alongs with the children. An outside art program came in for a few months. There was no weekly music, technology, library, clay, handwriting or STEM program like there is at IPS. There were also no after school programs available at my daughter’s school (although some UPK programs do have after school offerings).
- Parent/Teacher Communication: Communication was limited. There were no photos sent home, and written 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 children. IPS, on the other hand, sent home regular photos and updates of classroom events, so parents know what is happening in the classroom and can talk about it with their children at home.
- Art/Sensory Materials: While the teachers did a lot with what they had, art materials and sensory materials were more limited in UPK. At IPS, children had access to a variety of materials. In my daughter’s UPK class, there were markers and paint (although she never once brought home a painting), and they once worked on a two-day clay project.While the classroom had a sensory table, the materials inside of it changed infrequently. There were no play dough or flubber. We, as parents, bought the school a colored printer. There was no lamination on-site for projects and materials.
- 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, a big sister book. The parents threw us a baby shower. This likely would not have happened at a UPK program.
- The Parent Association community and events at IPS are also particularly strong, as you all know. There was no parent association at 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 can stretch to afford it, their children will have a nurturing, familiar environment to grow in comfortably for one more year. Families benefit from the strong community at IPS, and this is something that children will take with them as they move on to an ongoing school, whether that is public or private.