Wednesday, June 20, 2012

D For Debenture

When I was a kid growing up in a small country town, school was pretty basic. I went to "pre-school" a couple of times a week at the ages of 3 and 4, and when I turned 5 I went to "kindergarten" at one of the local primary schools. I stayed at the same school until year 10 and from there went to a public high school because it was the only school in town that offered the last 2 years of secondary school. University was a pretty big shock but I loved school, so I wouldn't have had it any other way. Here in Hong Kong the options seem endless, and deciding where to send Josh has already caused us inconceivable stress.

For those of you who don't know Hong Kong (or for those who do but haven't gotten this far yet), let me break it down for you...
  • There are three types of schools here: 1. Local or government schools which teach the local curriculum, in Cantonese with some English. 2. ESF schools, which are partially government funded, entirely English speaking and offer either British curriculum or PYP (primary level preparation for the International Baccalaureate). 3. International schools, which offer a wide range of curricula, languages and subjects, but are also expensive and selective. 
  • Children start "Kindergarten" the year they turn 3. Some schools base their intake on the year the child was born. Others base it on a school year or similar August-August type criteria. 
  • Waiting lists are standard. Many schools won't accept children onto their waiting list until 12 months before they're due to start. While others will quite happily take applications from birth. I have heard rumours of some parents attaching ultrasound scan photos to application forms, it's that competitive. You generally pay a fee for the privilege of having your child's name on a list, and another fee each year to keep it there. For people who move here with their kids already at school age this can be a huge obstacle. And don't get me started on how much the dragon year baby boom has affected waiting lists...
  • Many international schools require parents to pay a debenture, a concept that was entirely foreign to us before we came here. It's basically a "donation" to the school to ensure a place, and the more you can afford to pay, the greater the chances your child will get in. 
So, Josh turns three at the end of this year. Many of his little friends are gearing up for kindy in September. Crazy, laid-back parents that we are, we thought 2 years 8 months was just a little too young for our guy to be heading off to school and we looked into keeping him back a year. I look at all the boys who were born earlier in 2009 and they all seem so much bigger than J. Unfortunately, holding kids back is not something that's encouraged here, and it seems to be a case of sink or swim. At this age it probably isn't such a big deal, but I know from my years as a teacher that it can make a huge difference in primary school. Given the issues with his eyesight we really want to get this right, and if he has the advantage of being one of the older kids in the class, it could really help preserve his confidence. Another option for us was to apply to schools with a different age intake, which we did. We found a couple of schools where he would be right in the middle of the age bracket, and they just happen to start with "reception" at age 4. Perfect, right?

Once we found schools with the right age bracket and good reputations, we then had to narrow them down based on whether or not they offer special needs support, and how many children are in each class. J's ophthalmologist assures us that he should be able to cope with mainstream schooling, but we don't know yet how much support, if any, he'll need. We want to make sure it's at least available before we commit. I'm also really conscious of the fact that many schools think nothing of cramming 30 students into a classroom with one teacher, and expecting him or her to meet the needs of all of them. But I know that even the best teachers find this very difficult. I don't want J to get lost in the system, so small class sizes are crucial in my opinion. 

After taking all of this into consideration, we had two great schools on our list. This is when we encountered enormous waiting lists and that dirty word, debenture. One school requires a minimum $100, 000 HKD debenture which depreciates over 7 years, for each child. You only pay the debenture when you accept a place at the school. But there are limited places available, and those who can pay more have a better chance of getting their child in to that school. We don't have $100, 000 just lying around, but we could scrape it together (i.e. sell the house or a couple of kidneys), and we would, we just hate that we have to. The second school on our list appeals to me more because it's different, and it seems like it would be a really exciting place to be, as a student or a teacher. There's no waiting list as such, you just have to prove that your child will add to the "diversity" of the school, but the debenture is $400, 000 per child... 

In the meantime, Josh needs something to occupy him, so we have been looking at kindergartens. We applied to two schools with fairly good links to great primary schools, and we attended "playdates" (i.e. interviews) at both this week. We weren't really sold on either to be honest, and I kind of knew as soon as I walked in that neither of them were the right fit - occupational hazard I guess. So, we've decided that since we're unable to decide what to do, we'll do nothing. He's TWO after all! We'll keep him where he is, where he's happy and it's familiar and they're not asking us to hand over our life-savings, or lack thereof, and we'll wait and see what we get offered. Some families don't have that luxury and some big changes need to be made to the system, soon.

There's always homeschooling I guess!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Second Time Around

You know all those things I said I'd never do again? All the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned the first time? Well... I'm doing it all again - rocking Charlie to sleep, giving him a dummy, carrying him around wherever I go when he absolutely refuses to sleep, feeding him in bed till we both fall asleep, and sitting around all day just enjoying his company instead of getting off my butt (which apparently did not receive the memo that we are no longer pregnant) and doing something resembling exercise/housework. I've given myself permission to do it all over again because I know what I'm doing this time, I know we'll end up with some bad habits and I'm ok with that. It's all about survival at the moment and if I have to take the path of least resistance to get through the next 6 months, so be it.

I read through book after book trying to find answers when J was smaller, and when I realised that none of them answered any of my questions, I tossed them all out. Some were a little helpful, but despite the one-size-fits-all solutions offered, my child just didn't comply. When Charlie came along he surprised us by being a comparatively easy baby and I didn't feel the need to turn to "experts" for advice. Then he hit the baby version of menopause - "the 6 week change" as Robin Barker calls it - and started napping for no more than 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. It was all too familiar...

I didn't have much of a plan in the beginning, I just knew I wanted to do things differently the second time around, I was determined, perhaps somewhat naively, to nip it in the bud. When Charlie went through "the change" I had no choice but to go back to the books. I borrowed one from a friend called "Sleep Sense" and it really did make sense. There were a few new, and genuinely helpful, pieces of advice in there but it was all just a bit too familiar. Again I was left asking, "but what do I do when...?" So I've decided that, for now, rather than trying to find one philosophy, one solution to all my problems, I'm going to do whatever the hell feels right at the time. At least once a day we practice attachment parenting, and Charlie naps on my chest or in the Ergo. Other times I channel the Baby Whisperer and take a firm but fair approach. Then there are times when he needs some serious Gina Ford style wrangling to go the f##k to sleep...  At least I'm consistent in my inconsistency, and I now have a 3 month old who goes to bed at 6pm every night and sleeps for 12 hours. I'm always going to stress about whether or not I'm doing the right thing, and I will question myself every step of the way but that's just one more thing the books can't help me with.

A friend told me, before Charlie arrived, that I'd appreciate baby number 2 all the more for the simple fact that, unlike with the first child, I wouldn't end up resenting the disruption to our lives. I wasn't sure I got what she meant at the time but now I do. Our lives were already chaos, and Charlie fit right in, like he was meant to be here, and we simply carried on. What has struck me the most is that the first 3 months of his life have gone so much faster than Josh's first 3 months (which dragged on FOREVER!). We got to the 12 week mark, looked at each other and said, "you know what, that wasn't so bad." And we gave ourselves a little pat on the back for making it through. There are still tough days, really really long days, and days when I have no clue what I'm doing, but unlike the first time around, I know they won't last. And there's a good chance that when Charlie is a strong and independent little man, I'll long for the days when he needed me wrapped around him to fall asleep. So I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, making those mistakes, setting us up for bad habits, because I know that, if in making those mistakes again we risk history repeating itself, we'll be ok. Because we survived the last two years and we have a pretty awesome 2 year old to show for it.