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Commentary: The 'extravaganza' that is pre-school registration

BY ERIKA BUTLER, ebutler@theaegis.com

3:32 PM EST, November 14, 2012

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I had my first experience with the Fallston Community Pre-K registration "extravaganza" this week.

Extravaganza isn't my word, it's what the school's director, Jan Bracken, calls the Monday morning registration for the next school year. Another mom called it a "rite of passage."

Henry, my son, is in the two-day program this year, and I can't believe what he's learning. Out of the blue the other day in the car, he says, "Mom, camels like it where it's warm."

"Why, yes they do," I replied, caught a bit off-guard.

"And penguins like it where it's cold," he continued.

"Yes. Yes Henry, you're right. Where did you learn that?" I asked.

"At my school."

Every day is like that. He may not be telling me what he's learned in school, but when he comes out with comments like that, I know he's learning, absorbing every single morsel.

Because he's already enrolled at Fallston Pre-K, he is guaranteed a spot next year. But what class he's in isn't guaranteed, and that's where the extravaganza begins.

I wanted a specific class for Henry. It's what works best for us and what his dad and I think will be best for him. To ensure I got the class we wanted, which proved to be a pretty popular one, it meant having to get to the school pretty early Monday morning.

It really is self-imposed and the "frenzy" is really created by the parents, Bracken said. She's right. If I didn't care what class my son got, I wouldn't show up that early. But we all want what we think is best for our children, and it if means getting up at 3:30 on a Monday morning, we'll do it.

"Really, it speaks highly of the program," Bracken said.

So when I arrived at the school around 4:15 Monday, I was the 19th person to get there.

Fallston Pre-K has a volunteer, Dave Merow, who gets to the school super early to give out numbers as places in line. (He's also the school's volunteer bookkeeper.)

For Merow, it's a game, he said. Last year, he was turning off the lights in his car when the first parent arrived. This year, when he got there at 3:23, four parents were already there. He was super happy for that early in the morning as he offered hot coffee and cinnamon rolls and us parents our places in line.

(He kind of reminds me of my dad. He used to show up at the barber at 3 a.m. or so to be the first in line.)

Fortunately, we didn't have to stay there – I went home to get a few more hours' sleep, though I had a hard time falling back asleep – I was nervous about getting my class. I did eventually, and as long as I was back by 8 a.m., I still had my place in line.

Between 8 and 8:30, when registration started, the church sanctuary was packed with parents. It gave me a chance to talk with other parents, which I don't get to do often. So it was nice and relaxed. We compared notes on what numbers we were in line and discussed what classes we wanted.

My early arrival got me the class I wanted, three days a week, in the morning, but it was close – I was the 17th person to enroll my child in the class, which has a 20-student limit. Had I gotten there any later, Henry might not have gotten in. I was done before 9 and on my way home.

This process happens at pre-schools across the county. I have a friend who's planning to be in line at 2 a.m. to get her son into the class she wants, and I've heard dozens of stories about similar situations.

Pre-school seems much more intense than when I was there years and years ago. When I was in kindergarten, I had a word bank, and I was learning to recognize simple words. These days, children are expected to be able to read, or at least close to it, by the time they get to kindergarten.

Henry and Emily (she'll be in the parent-tot class next year) are going to the same pre-school I went to 35-plus years ago. When my mom was registering me and my brother, she recalled this week, she was in line at 6 a.m., doing for me and my brother what I'm doing now for my kids.

My friends, whose children have gone through the same program, have said their kids are more than prepared for kindergarten. That's all I can ask, and as long as I think getting up at 4 a.m. to get my spot in line to get what I think is best for my child, I'm going to do it. If we didn't care so much, we just wouldn't do it. And what kind of mom would that make me?