Saturday, December 8, 2012

Picking A Preschool

 © Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Dec 8 2012.

I can't even begin to tell you what a hard time I had finding a preschool for my child. One that was not only diverse but included a foundation for anti-bias learning. One that put into effect daily a practice of inclusivity and strategies for resisting racism. One where my child would feel supported in the development of his multiracial identity. One where he would see himself reflected in the classroom and in the faces of his peers. One where he would feel celebrated. Not strange or different. One where he would feel invited to talk about race openly. Not a need to discover it secretly behind adult's backs. As the director of his current school said to me, "It's not enough for us to just be diverse. If we aren't talking about it - doing something about it - nothing changes." Amen.

I taught young children for over 6 years before I became a mother myself. I believe passionately in the importance of anti-bias curriculum in early learning. Particularly the approach pioneered by Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force in their book Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. That is, exploring race and racism, and teaching strategies for resistance during the formative years. Considering these are the years that set the stage for who we are to become later in life, I consider race learning at this time very critical early intervention work. Indeed research over the last decade increasingly shows this to be  true.

Despite the fact that I live in one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation however, I was dismayed to find that many preschools professing an anti-bias approach were not practicing what they preached. Attempts on my part to raise awareness or effect change were either moderately successful or completely dismissed. At one supposed "anti-bias" preschool I taught, I noticed only light beige, "flesh colored" bandaids. How would a dark-skinned child feel putting such a thing on? Seeing it scream out like a flashing neon sign against their beautiful brownness. It's one of the many ways people of color, every day, are made to feel outside, unimportant, or different in our society. I pointed out to the White director that the light beige bandaids were not a good idea and that we should remove them. They do make flesh-colored bandaids of varying skin tones now (in response to backlash provoked by the monoracial ones) - though you would be hard pressed to find them. I suggested we buy those. Or at the very least offer alternatives. Non-brown colors. Or cartoon characters.

His response? He told me it wasn't a big deal.
Then I had my son. I started looking at preschools in a different way, and struggled again. I know the preschool culture in this city well and myself am trained in early childhood education. I knew where to look and what to look for, and still felt like I was swimming upstream. When my son was about 15 mo I looked at a program down the street. It was walking distance. Had a good reputation. Beautiful classroom. Highly educated teachers who'd been there for years. It was affordable. Everything about it seemed promising. But when I went on a tour, I noticed very few families of color. I mentioned this to our White tour guide, a school parent and board member. "I know!" she exclaimed. "We've noticed that too, and want to do something about it." Comforted, I submitted our application. The school is popular. It receives more applicants than it can accommodate. To be fair, new students are selected by lottery. But consider this. The predominant number of applicants are White. It's simple math. A lottery inherently favors those White applicants. Indeed, we did not get in. I knew two other Asian families who applied. They also did not get in. A few months later, walking by the space, I looked in the window and saw the new class. Almost all White. I was livid. I emailed the registrar. Suggested to her that if the school really cared about diversifying their student body, perhaps a lottery system was not serving them well.

Though she had always been prompt about responding to my other emails, she ignored this one. I didn't get any response other than the sound of my protest echoing against an indifferent silence. In the years since, I have heard many disparaging remarks about this particular school by families of color. It is notorious for being White. I have heard it called "White-bred." In the most diverse zip code in the nation - it is not only embarrassing, but shameful.

I will say at last we did find a school that was almost everything we were looking for. But it was very hard. And it seems to be one of very few. Sometimes we feel alone in the the race education we are attempting to give our son. We don't know other multiethnic Asian families who are comfortably discussing race with their young children every day. Others seem surprised or even disapproving when they find out we do. Statistics show that multiracial is one of the fastest growing demographics in our nation. If I live in a major urban area that is "liberal and progressive," and still can't find much support for the blended cultures of my multiethnic Asian family - what is it like for other parents trying to raise multiethnic Asian children in this nation?


  1. Thank you so much for this post. Our family is in the midst of trying to find a preschool for our son for next school year. As someone who has no training in early childhood education - and who doesn't exactly know where to look or what to look for - the endeavor has been overwhelming. We've gone on several school visits now, and my experience has been that, with the exception of one school, every school has claimed to follow an anti-bias curriculum. ("Emergent learning" also seems to be commonly mentioned.) It is only recently that I've started to desconstruct what that means, or can mean, in practice. I've steeled myself with questions to ask school administrators and teachers about what it means to them to follow an anti-bias curriculum. Some have answered the questions with ease; others not so much. Some school directors and teachers have merely pointed out or referenced the racial and ethnic diversity at their school as evidence that their curriculum is anti-bias. Except, as you point out, that's not necessarily the case. And, although for our family racial and ethnic diversity is a crucial piece, I have come to learn it is but one piece.

    This was made starkly clear to me during one of our school visits. I mentioned above that one school we visited didn't purport to follow an anti-bias curriculum. The school is a religious school; their curriculum is a religious curriculum. The school is incredibly appealing in many regards. I value the school's history and certain aspects of the mission it espouses. The teachers and many of the students share the same ethnicity as our son. The classrooms we visited were filled with Tagalog words and pictures of adobo, pancit, and lumpia. But, in our short visit, I also saw many things that concerned me: the students were required to sit "boy/girl, boy/girl;" memorization (of prayers, letters, and numbers) was highly encouraged and praised; as an activity, students were given worksheets and told to connect the dots; and once the dots were connected, students were instructed to "color within the lines." (Thankfully, there weren't enough worksheets for my son, and he was given a blank piece of paper. He immediately set to drawing to his imagination's desire.) I don't know enough to know if what I observed is a feature of the fact that the school is a religious school. Could be there is no correlation. But, it drove home for me the realization that diversity, alone isn't enough.

    Finally, your story about the lottery reminded me of something that happened when my son was younger. I was touring a neighborhood co-op. The families at the co-op appeared to be entirely white. When I raised this with the parent tour guide by email after our tour, mentioning in my email that our family was a transracial adoptive family, she acknowledged the issue and suggested if our family were to join the co-op, we might take that on as our project. I wanted to laugh out loud. It was telling to me that this parent thought that my family - the transracial family - could/would/should take on diversifcation of the co-op as our project, or our problem. Needless to say we didn't apply.

  2. Really appreciate you sharing your story. I connect deeply with everything you say. It's incredibly tricky to get the best of all worlds. We have recently just started hunting again too. This time for a Chinese preschool. Though we love K's American school, we REALLY want to add a language, cultural component specific to his heritage. Unfortunately what I'm finding is that the Chinese schools often (because cultural values are so different) don't incorporate what I would consider American "best practices" in early childhood. Things that I highly treasure as an American. Like play-based. Creative, open-ended, free thinking (vs the color-between-the-lines approach you mention above). It's truly one of the many challenges we face raising multiethnic kids that monoethnic families don't ever have to worry about.

  3. My daughter has been going to a Chinese school on Saturdays on the East Side. As we are a Buddhist family, my wife and I both appreciate the ethical foundation and focus on teaching children to care with kindness for each other and the earth. However, as you point out above in your comment, the play based learning may be lacking. I say "may" because to be honest I'm not 100% clear what goes on in the school. However, our daughter loves the Waldorf (very play based/multi-disciplinary learning curriculum) school she goes to during the week, and sometimes protests going to the Chinese school because it isn't as fun. It's not easy helping mixed race kids maintain their (Asian in her case)cultural heritage in 2013 America. Friendships with mixed race peer families are important, and your blog is great. Thanks!

  4. Yes absolutely. After I wrote my Dec 14 comment, I visited a Chinese preschool that horrified me. The children (ages 3-5) were required to take academic "courses" throughout the day. This includes 1-hr of Mandarin instruction followed immediately by 1-hr of English instruction in the morning. I observed the Mandarin language hour. The children were expected to sit quietly through a power point presentation on characters, numbers, weather, etc. I would say 80% were completely disengaged. The younger ones, overwhelmed by boredom, often ended up sprawled across the floor at which point the teacher (who I was told had a degree in Early Childhood Education) would reprimand them. She told one young girl if she didn't sit up, she wouldn't be picked for play. The children also have a math course later in the day. They are grouped by ability. Older children who are not as "capable" are placed with younger children. And younger children who are "advanced" are placed with older children. The director took me on a dizzyingly fast tour during which she would not let me ask questions. The school was located in a church basement with no locked door or security (this was in the immediate wake of the Newtown massacre btw). The classroom was drenched in Christmas decorations (fine, but what if your family is Jehovah's Witness, Buddhist, Jewish, etc?) AND the walls/floors were plastered with Christian imagery. It sounds ridiculous but believe it or not, this is one of the most well established Mandarin instruction programs in greater Seattle. They're huge. Being half-Taiwanese, I recognized the attempt there to teach certain cultural values like self-discipline, hard work and academic excellence. But talk about "not fun" eh? For multiethnic Asian children who have American play-based, creative environments to contrast against, a more traditional Chinese rigid learning environment just isn't going to hold up. And how does that color code their ethnic heritage as they grow? How do they learn to feel about the American vs Asian parts of themselves?...