Sunday, February 10, 2008

It could be worse

The kids and I spent today with my parents who just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia. They travelled independently through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia but frequently hired guides to offer a local's perspective. In Cambodia, they spent a day with a young father who spoke near-perfect English. He talked about his country's history and the Khmer Rouge, low wages and poverty, and public education. He sends his six-year-old daughter to a public school. "I have to pay the teacher bribes just to get her to give my child attention," he told my parents. He said that he attended school to become an "official" tour guide and then took a test. How was he able to pass the test? By giving the officials a hefty bribe under the table. Yes, our San Francisco school system seems rife with little problems but it could be so much worse.

35 comments:

  1. While of course things won't be THAT bad, it sounds like they are going to be getting worse around here. See this recent SF Schools posting about possible elimination of existing school salad bars and other changes on the school food front:
    http://www.sfschools.org/2008/02/tomatoes-romaine-carrots-oh-my.html

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  2. Just discovered your blog through my sister-in-law, who teaches in the public school system in San Francisco. The challenges of getting my son into preschool--and now the drama of the preschool board--have made us seriously consider ditching San Francisco and moving, against our better instincts, to the burbs. Thanks for your fabulous blog! The Minutes

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  3. Also meant to say: thanks very much for the post about Cambodia, which really puts things in perspective!.(The Minutes)

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  4. Hi Anonymous preschool board member -- don't panic! The rumors are way overblown. The minute you read this, if you haven't, go to the Parents for Public SChools website, www.ppssf.org , to learn more and join if you are so moved. They are an incredible resource and support system, both for San Francisco public schools and for parents applying for school.

    I'm a veteran mom (SFUSD students in 11th and 8th grades) who volunteers supporting parents and promoting public school. This is a great blog for young parents -- wish it had been around when we were going through the process!

    I post on a blog about San Francisco school issues -- not really aimed at young prospective applicants but more about politics and such issues. But I did a post on the social impact of private school that you might find interesting:

    http://www.sfschools.org/2008/01/social-impact-of-private-school-101.html

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  5. Thanks for the website tip, Caroline. And thanks for the link to your excellent article. If we do move to the burbs, it will be so that we can go to public school; we're really not interested in private schools, at least at this point. There's a wonderful public elementary school in our neighborhood in San Francisco, but from what I've heard from other parents around here, we wouldn't have much hope of getting in, despite the fact that we've been paying property taxes in this neighborhood for years. The Minutes

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  6. "Minutes," not to be redundant, but I'm going to paste the parts of my blog post that are relevant to your concern. Tip 1 is: Never rely on what you've "heard," without confirming and researching it for yourself. The misinformation blowing around is dismaying.


    However, admittedly, the school process is easier in the 'burbs. There was a lively discussion of suburbia some time ago on this blog, at this link:

    http://thesfkfiles.blogspot.com/2007/11/marin.html

    And here are the portions of my blog that relate to your concerns:
    ***
    In San Francisco, parents regularly criticize aspects of our school district — often as justification for choosing private — when private is no better in those aspects. You'd think the expectations would be higher for private when it costs $15-$20K a year, but oddly, parents often don't seem to see that. They seem to expect MORE from the free public school.

    -- Everyone wants a neighborhood public school they can walk to. The notion of a neighborhood PRIVATE school you can walk to doesn't exist, except possibly with some parish schools.

    -- The private-school enrollment process, with its playdates and tests and interviews and screenings, is enormously more onerous and labor-intensive than SFUSD's.

    -- The private-school process is no more certain than SFUSD's, depending (in both cases) on what schools you apply to. If your child is not desirable to private schools, it's far LESS certain than SFUSD's — you may be shut out of private school entirely.

    -- If your child doesn't get your chosen SFUSD school (initially), it was as a faceless number in a lottery, bad luck of the draw. If a private school rejects your child, it was a thought-out personal rejection based on a close assessment of your child and family; a decision that your child and your family were less appealing and worthy than other applicants.

    ... Yes, the SFUSD enrollment process can be harrowing. It's nowhere near as bad as the private school process unless you have a perfect child whom any private school would die for. But it's admittedly not suburbia, where you really can just walk in and enroll in the nearby school. That said, many families get their first-choice SFUSD school, and the vast majority get one of their choices in the first lottery round. I've known dozens and dozens of families who have gone through the SFUSD enrollment process, and I've never met or heard of anyone who didn't get a school they were happy with IF THEY ACTUALLY STUCK IT OUT THROUGH THE PROCESS (as opposed to giving up early). You know all those families you've heard of who "couldn't get" a school they wanted? They dropped out after the first lottery round and pursued something else. Honest, I guarantee it.

    As a public-school advocate and SFUSD booster, I wish the process weren't so stressful. Between the fact that the most popular schools (an increasing number) have more applicants than openings, and the pressure/need to diversify schools, there's no easy answer. But you will get a school you're happy with if you stick with the process.

    ##

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  7. You'd think the expectations would be higher for private when it costs $15-$20K a year, but oddly, parents often don't seem to see that. They seem to expect MORE from the free public school.

    Public school is not free. Education is not free. You can't compare $20,000 and Free. You need to compare $20,000 for private education and $9000 for public education, and observe how woefully inadequate $9000 is for funding an education.

    Everyone wants a neighborhood public school they can walk to. The notion of a neighborhood PRIVATE school you can walk to doesn't exist, except possibly with some parish schools.

    We chose the private school in our neighborhood. We walk there everyday.

    The private-school enrollment process, with its playdates and tests and interviews and screenings, is enormously more onerous and labor-intensive than SFUSD's.

    We sure didn't tour 20 schools that we had only a roll-of-the-dice chance to attend!

    The private-school process is no more certain than SFUSD's, depending (in both cases) on what schools you apply to. If your child is not desirable to private schools, it's far LESS certain than SFUSD's — you may be shut out of private school entirely.

    Where there's a will there's a way... private or public.

    If your child doesn't get your chosen SFUSD school (initially), it was as a faceless number in a lottery, bad luck of the draw.

    Not true. You went in as a statistic, one too much like the others vying for the same seat at the popular schools and "hidden gems."

    If a private school rejects your child, it was a thought-out personal rejection based on a close assessment of your child and family; a decision that your child and your family were less appealing and worthy than other applicants.

    That could be true if you were particularly odious, so thank god. But mostly it's about the school attempting to balance gender, race, socio-economic status, kindergarten readiness, age, personality type, family makeup, and any number of other factors that, at the end of the day, make you a statistic -- just a more complex one than in the public school process.

    Yes, the SFUSD enrollment process can be harrowing. It's nowhere near as bad as the private school process unless you have a perfect child whom any private school would die for.

    See above.

    But it's admittedly not suburbia, where you really can just walk in and enroll in the nearby school.

    Also not true. First you pay in real estate costs to get in the door at a good suburban school.

    Between the fact that the most popular schools (an increasing number) have more applicants than openings, and the pressure/need to diversify schools, there's no easy answer. But you will get a school you're happy with if you stick with the process.

    Public... private... same.

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  8. A few responses:

    *** Public school is not free. Education is not free. You can't compare $20,000 and Free. ***

    Public school is free to the "consumer," since it's supported with public money. The unlucky soul burdened with the $20,000/year-per-kid tuition bills still pays the taxes. On that basis it's $20,000/year vs. free.

    ***You need to compare $20,000 for private education and $9000 for public education, and observe how woefully inadequate $9000 is for funding an education.***

    It would certainly be preferable to fund public education at $20,000/year.

    ***We chose the private school in our neighborhood. We walk there
    everyday.***

    But you're well aware that that's unusual. For most private-school families, proximity isn't even a remote consideration. And of course you don't choose the private school; it chooses you.

    ***We sure didn't tour 20 schools that we had only a roll-of-the-dice chance to attend!***

    Most families get one of their choices on the first round. And they didn't have to sweat out all those playdates and tests and interviews and such.

    ***Where there's a will there's a way... private or public.***

    Tell that to a family with a difficult or disabled kid, or some other perceived flaw that makes them undesirable to private schools.

    ***If your child doesn't get your chosen SFUSD school (initially), it was as a faceless number in a lottery, bad luck of the draw.

    Not true. You went in as a statistic, one too much like the others vying for the same seat at the popular schools and "hidden gems."***

    Yes, it is true. It's purely blind lottery. The school district computer does not know your child or your family or any of your personal characteristics and is not judging you worthy or unworthy.

    ***If a private school rejects your child, it was a thought-out personal rejection based on a close assessment of your child and family; a decision that your child and your family were less appealing and worthy than other applicants.

    That could be true if you were particularly odious, so thank god.***

    I know plenty of applicants who have been rejected by private schools; I hope they weren't viewed as "odious." But they do have to worry about whether they were. That's exactly my point.

    ***But mostly it's about the school attempting to balance gender, race, socio-economic status, kindergarten readiness, age, personality type, family makeup, and any number of other factors that, at the end of the day, make you a statistic -- just a more complex one than in the public school process.***

    Either that or they're just odious. As I say, private is more complex.

    *** Public... private... same. ***

    No, because you don't have to pay to attend public school, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the K-12 years of two (or godforbid more) kids.

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  9. The public school process is not a "purely blind lottery." You arrive to it with a diversity index profile -- a whole bunch of statistical information that you have provided about your family. If your profile does not add diversity at the time a seat is assigned, you will not get that seat.

    Also, people who think that the schools they want to get into are running solely on government money are in for a rude awakening when they realize that they will be asked to make up the governmental shortfall.

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  10. That's misleading, though, Anon. The process takes your demographics into account (as does the private-school process), but does not in any way assess your child's and family's personal quality/worth/value (or odiousness or lack thereof) as the private-school process does.

    Yes, families are ASKED to donate to public schools and otherwise fundraise. They are not required donate or fundraise, and they are (obviously) not required to pay tuition. At private schools, families are required to pay tuition AND asked or even required to donate and fundraise.

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  11. Oh all right then, you win. Public school is a safe haven for odious people, difficult children, 4-year-olds, and bullies.

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  12. er, and lots and lots of really great kids from all walks of life, including mine :-) ... i wasn't really aware we were odious!

    just came from a school event and realized how much i am going to miss my kid's 5th grade classmates as they go on to several different middle schools next year. they are really great kids and good friends to each other.

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  13. I just read the "minutes" blog and I have to say, there's little chance in hell that this woman would consider SFUSD schools. She enrolled her son in a preschool filled with the spawn of other mothers who apparently are cruel backstabbing materialistic social climbers, yet this is what she wanted.

    Obviously, most of us know that not all preschools are that way, and that many, if not most, allow parents to serve on the parents association without joining The Board -- which of course is code for making a large financial donation.

    She will certainly be in for an awaking when she learns that a parent need not suffer the insufferable to enroll their kids in great schools in SF, be those schools public or private!

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  14. i just read The Minutes blog. is that for real? are there really preschools like that? what the hell? all i can say is i'm happy to be in my little co-op bubble, if that's the case. sounds horrid.

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  15. I too just read it. It's definitely fiction, and, nothing personal, not that compelling. Maybe I just resent people posting here in order to market their personal project (but trying to do so as if we didn't notice?). There's just no way.

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  16. Wow! I'm surprised by the vitriolic response of Anonymous. I should repeat, I AM committed to going to public school, just not necessarily in the city. Caroline, you make many good points about the difficulties of getting into private schools in the city, but you're preaching to the choir here.

    The process is simply daunting in the city, whether one is looking at public or private schools. The advantage of some suburbs, any that we would move to, is the fact that a child can go to a good public school in his own area, without the extraordinarily competitive and stressful admissions process.

    Anonymous is wildly off base in assuming that I want to be in a preschool in which there is a lot of fighting among parents. Again, not true. We applied to five different preschools, some as long as two years prior to enrollment. We got into two. The one we chose seemed like the best of the two for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it is very close to our home and doesn't require a long commute. And we loved (and STILL love) the teachers. We had no way of knowing, prior to enrollment, that there would be so much in-fighting among the parents. But again, much of this goes back to availability. When it's time to go to Kindergarten, I don't want to go through the same thing we went through trying to get into a preschool.

    --The Minutes

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  17. Hm. I don't know anyone except for the annoying social climber set who had problems getting into the preschool they wanted. Then again, I don't have friends at those Pacific Heights preschools - Little School, Lone Mountain etc. Seems like a whole different world to me. Just like with elementary schools, there are far more preschools that have nice people than those who don't.

    BTW, public schools in the suburbs are not a sure thing. We have friends who bought their dream home in Palo Alto half a block from Walter Hays, just to learn that the school was oversubscribed, and that their kids may not gain entry. A lottery and months of appeals later, their twins are now in kindergarten there. But I'd hardly call that "non-stressful." They almost lost their minds.

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  18. Re the 'burbs vs. city debate -- I have previously mentioned friends (middle-class white professionals) with an 11th-grader who moved out of the city with great reluctance last summer. The son (an only child) had just finished 10th grade at Balboa High School and was really happy there. Mom, a pediatrician, had taken a job in San Jose, and they decided they just couldn't stand the commute.

    They kept their small house in S.F. (a foggy part, too!) but rented in a Mountain View apartment complext, and enrolled the son in Mountain View High School.

    Well, they all hated it. They decided the commute was worth it and just moved back into the S.F. house. The son happily started back at Balboa over the semester break.

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  19. Re: Hm. I don't know anyone except for the annoying social climber set who had problems getting into the preschool they wanted.

    Really? I don't know anyone who didn't have trouble finding a preschool and I'm not exactly in the social climber set. We were on all sorts of wait "pools" - co-ops, home daycares and regular preschools - and finally got a 2 day/wk slot at the only preschool I know of that has a wait list, not a "wait pool" of applicants. They didn't take a dime to get on their wait list and I don't think they balance for gender, they just go to the next child on the list - no exceptions. (Thank you Lakeside Presbyterian!)

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  20. "Just like with elementary schools, there are far more preschools that have nice people than those who don't."

    Whoa, there. There are lots of nice people at popular preschools who have no interest in social climbing.

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  21. Of course. That was a reference to the woman who wrote "The Minutes" blog, who claimed that the only preschool she could get into was one populated by awful people who scrutinized her clothing and shamed her into making a multi-thousand dollar donation (purchasing a subzero fridge or whatnot).

    I personally am a bit removed from the competition-for-preschool world, because when we enrolled our older child in our preschool, it wasn't on a lot of people's radars, and we just filled out a form and got in. Now it is a fully subscribed preschool, but I don't think it is crazy-hard to get into, but it's hard to know.

    It seemed to me that there were a small number of preschools that were always hard to get into (Eureka Learning Center, Little School, some others), but none of those preschools had full time programs (until 6 PM) so those were not schools we even considered.

    I am sure that there are lots of nice people at all preschools, whether the schools are hard to get into or not. But I do have a feeling that the schools that are considered more "prestigious" probably have a greater number of people concerned with prestige - would make sense, no?

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  22. Anonymous at Lakeside Presbyterian, it's clearly a good preschool -- we live nearby and lots of people we know have sent their kids there, and we have friends who've been on the board. But any private institution that tells you they strictly go to the next name on the waiting list is, um, fudging. Of course they pick the most attractive candidates. That does a service to their school and to the other kids and families in the school.

    I'm not trying to encourage wanton cynicism, but you will be a better advocate for your children if you are savvy about these situations. Naivete can be a disservice to your children.

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  23. I'm sorry Caroline, but in this case your cynicism is misplaced (unless things have changed drastically in the last few years, there is only the exception for church members and siblings). I know that most of the preschools in the city, including the co-ops, pick kids based on their family profile, interviews, interest level, and connections. Lakeside's application was pretty much our address, phone number, and child's birth date. We were clearly not interesting enough for any of the other dozen or so preschools we applied to (and called and wrote essays for and all that crap). The downside of their policy is that it is a pretty homogenous crowd and the boy-girl balance can be way off.

    While I'm singing Lakeside's praises, they also get very high marks for working patiently with kids who would be thrown out of most preschools. (In fact they end up with kids who have been thrown out of other preschools - see acceptance policy above).

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  24. I have been reading this thread with interest, so this morning I asked my preschool how hard it is to get a spot, and apparently there were 5 applications for every opening this past year. We absolutely love the preschool (JCC-Brotherhood Way campus) but when we applied many years ago for our almost-5-year-old child, I don't think it was hard to obtain a space there. We actually moved our daughter from one popular preschool to the JCC after the school year had begun, for a number of reasons I won't get into here :)

    That said, there are a number of preschools that were super-hot the year our daughter started out that I don't hear as much about now (e.g. Phoebe Hearst) but of course I'm really out of the preschool loop. It seems like there are more preschools now than there were then, too -- Pacific Primary is opening a second location, and Marin Day opened at least one new location (Mission Bay), maybe more.

    I wonder if there are more kids in the City now? Or maybe parents just apply to multiple schools because they think their chances are lower?

    NYC has been claiming to have a "baby boom" for a while now - are we having one in SF too? (Not to stress anyone out any more than they already are!). I'd love insight into that. It also will be interesting to hear if the SFUSD applications rose this year.

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  25. Oh, also, a few preschools have claimed that they go by "list only" - I think that Peter's Place was one of those, as was Eureka Learning Center, maybe a few more? I don't know if they still have those policies, but when they did, you had to apply basically the second you found out you were pregnant, which is a limiting fact in itself.

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  26. Yes you have to apply by the time your infant is eight weeks old. But Lone Mountain fills its entrant class by lottery only. No shenanigans.

    All the preschools are harder to get into. I'm guessing more people are having kids in the city (and leaving before they hit kindergarten).

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  27. I think the comments on this post are evidence of what a stressful process preschool and school are in the Bay Area! And, despite the bickering, I think we all want the same thing: to have our children in a healthy, loving environment. The preschool we ended up at has wonderful teachers and many good parents. But that doesn't keep a few parents from causing distress and fighting among themselves.

    The person who thinks only "prestigious" schools are difficult to get into must have better connections than I do! The preschool we ended up at is moderately priced, located in a far-from-stylish neighborhood, and by no means the kind of school that wealthy parents are clamoring to get their children into! I think part of the reason that donations are needed and expected is because it is NOT a school with wealthy backers. We didn't even apply to any of the ritzy schools (like Lone Mountain), because we both work and we certainly don't have a nanny to drive our child around and fill in all the missing hours. This is just to say that ANY good preschool in San Francisco has a waiting list. I do know families who have had an easier time getting into preschools, but these tend to be families who can meet certain requirements--i.e. low income, single parent, etc.

    Many thanks to Caroline for this excellent blog, and for providing some sanity among the madness!

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  28. oops, I meant thanks to "Kate" for the blog, Caroline for the comments on this post and helpful links.

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  29. Minutes blogger,

    Don't feel intimated by the comments above. I read your blog and enjoyed it. It gets at a truth about education in SF. Not everyone's truth, but a truth for some.

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  30. Regarding preschool, though I guess it's technically off topic: I did an article for Bay Area Parent a couple of years ago on how to pick a preschool (this was journalism that I researched, since I had not done it myself for quite some years). One important point to remember:

    Parents are routinely advised to get on the waiting lists for five or six preschools. That means that a good percentage of names on the waiting list are illusory, so don't panic about how long they look. If you overlook the fact that some schools will be more desirable than others, each waiting list may be only 1/6 to 1/5 as long as it appears.

    But I STILL repeat my caution about naivete. DO NOT believe that a private institution is going by "pure" lottery, or purely down the waiting list in order. Your naivete may limit your own children's options. I'm not saying it's a bad thing for preschools (or private schools) to select in that way, either -- they run a much better preschool if they pick the best fit -- though I disapprove of making those misleading claims.

    One way they make that claim is to screen whom they put INTO the lottery, of course.

    Even if you think I'm a cynical b**ch, I urge you to act upon the assumption that you are being judged and that your pro-active participation in the process may make a difference, for your own children's sake. If you're on the waiting list and you want that spot, keep in touch; don't just sit around trusting that you'll get a call.

    Thank you to whomever thanked me.

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  31. On the preschool topic:

    One thing that has changed is that family sizes are growing. In the past a lot of people stopped at one or two kids, but more and more frequently people are having 3 or 4 kids. Even if they ultimately leave SF, that still makes for a bigger pool of preschoolers.

    The other thing to remember is that the preschool crunch is happening outside SF too. We used to live in the suburbs and sometimes it seemed like people lived and died over where their kid went to preschool. Some of the hype in SF is among people who see the preschool playing into private school admissions. But for all these people in the 'burbs who were planning to send their kid to the neighborhood public school were STILL going crazy about the "hot" preschoool. It was nutty...

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  32. My three kids used to go to Marin Day School Pre-school in the city. The facility is first rate and the teachers fantastic, I loved them. But, some (not all, but enough)of the parents were horrific to the point of unbearable, snipey, rude, ignorant to the teachers, generally all round unpleasant. After a few years we left.
    I heard it said that some would much prefer their kids to be home with a nanny (rather than mixing with the likes of us no doubt) but by getting them in to the system as babies they up their chances of getting into the real school when the time comes. I can only say that not running into those people on a daily basis has made life so much more relaxed for my family and there is no way I would want to go back to it.

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  33. I'm the director of an infant/toddler program in Berkeley, I used to run a childcare center in SF with over 100 kids. The comments about waitlists are providing me with lots of entertainment.
    Any good program has a waitlist. There are simply not enough programs, in any community for childcare or preschool. Look at any statistics for number of kids and spaces, its amazing.
    Having said that, the centers I've run have been great (NAEYC accreditied, very enthusiastic, happy parents and kids) and I've ALWAYS filled from the waitlist - if I interviewed parents and kids my job would be easier, I'd leave all the high maintenance, social climbing parents out, but thats just not fair - likewise leaving out the high energy kids would make my job easier, but thats not fair either. But I also close the waitlist when it exceeds 2X our number of spaces (yes in the old center that was 200 on the waitlist). At my current program we have 50 spaces, and I field 20+ calls A WEEK from parents looking for a program...
    Just saying, I'm finding kindergarten apps easy in comparison. at least there are some choices.
    MCL

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  34. To "The Minutes" - why is your blog password protected now? I was interested in reading what all the fuss was about. Any chance I have the wrong link?

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