Czech state preschools: An increasingly tough placement situation

May 15, 2009
colourful kites hanging on preschool garden fence

Finding a spot in a state preschool is as likely as winning the lottery

For the past several weeks my life has been consumed by the search for a Czech state preschool for Anna Lee. When I look back at my calendar, the month of April is a blur of školka related tasks: Visits to “den otevřených dveří” (open house days) at the školkas to get application forms, visiting the doctor for a mandatory stamp for the application, and repeating this process at additional školkas. In the meantime, I forwent other activities like grocery shopping and Oliver’s naps because they conflicted with registration times, which incidentally overlapped with each other. The process seemed like an endless merry-go-round of bureaucracy. Luckily, I got to know the nurse at our doctor’s office well enough that in the end she would accept our forms for the mandatory stamp without asking any questions.

Although it seems like a ridiculous amount of time, energy and paperwork, I know I’m not the only parent doing an extensive školka search. In fact, at most of the local village preschools I visited I recognized many of the same faces as we navigated our way through the application process.

Despite the prevalence of numerous školek in certain districts of Prague, in the neighborhoods surrounding our village the školky operate at max capacity and a free space is rare. Recent years of increased construction in the satellite villages surrounding Prague without accompanying investment in infrastructure like state preschools, has led to the rise of a new problem among parents of the under-6 set. From talking with Czech friends in populous towns such as Liberec and smaller towns like Vysoké Mýto, I’ve learned that the problem isn’t isolated to the greater Prague metropolitan area.

Since children in the Czech Republic start the first class at age 7, preschool operates as an essential precursor to the Czech grammar school program, and it is where kindergarten is held. However, apart from the předškolní rok, preschool is considered a privilege and space is not guaranteed.

Thus, special admission criteria, including factors such as parents’ permanent residency in the town or district, the employment status of both parents, school-going status of siblings and age of the child help determine which lucky students gain one of the cherished few spots. Previously, a preschool director was considered to have the last word with regard to admittance/rejection. However, every school I visited this year revealed a similar set of criteria issued by a higher school-authority, posted prominently for all parents to review.

Even though Anna Lee will not be considered předškolní until the year after next, I naively assumed that on the basis of her age alone, she might earn a spot. After listening for a year to the sympathetic “tsk tsk” of other well-meaning Czech mothers and babičky as they warned me that not being in “the collective” would be detrimental to Anna’s later development, I wanted to scream. Of course, I also believe that Anna will benefit from attending preschool, but, along with countless other frustrated Czech parents, I have no way to magically create a place for her.

Although the birth rate of Czech children has increased in recent years, presumably because women born in the “Strong Seventies” are now having children, the capacity of state preschools has remained relatively static (a large number of schools were closed during the post-seventies low birth years and never reopened). Therefore, countless parents who anticipate putting their child into preschool at age 3 have been forced to come up with alternate plans, such as investing in comparatively pricey private preschool programs, hiring a nanny or sweet-taking babička into taking over childcare.

Finding out that your child hasn’t been accepted to preschool isn’t pleasant on any account. However, for those parents who have committed to their employer to return to the work force once their child turns 3, it seems particularly unfair. Although these children are naturally given priority, sometimes there still aren’t enough spots to go around.

After witnessing first-hand the schism between available preschool space in the villages surrounding ours and number of qualified applicants, I grew increasingly despondent. In one preschool I visited, the director told me she’d had over 100 applicants for 24 spaces. Since we didn’t have permanent residency in that particular village, she wouldn’t even accept Anna’s application form. Another preschool in the same village posted a notice on their website that they would not hold registration at all this year as they had no open spots.

Since our village township is one of a few that does not have its own preschool, time and again, I spoke with directors who told me that applying to their village was a waste of time and that I should appeal to my own mayor to build a new školka for our township instead.

One particularly adamant director even printed out highlighted pages from the školkský zákon (preschool legislation) for me to take to the meeting with my mayor. In addition, she suggested that I already begin thinking about where Anna Lee would go to grammar school, as the overcapacity situation would logically begin to influence local grammar school capacity as well. Although Anna Lee would have to be granted a place somewhere in the region once she started school, it wasn’t required to be convenient.

We’d already talked to the mayor who told us he had no funding for the proposed village school, although there was a fancy plan for it on the town’s webpage, so I knew that this route wouldn’t likely result in a spot for Anna Lee, and probably not even Oliver at the rate construction tends to proceed here.

So we continued our search. At each prospective school, Anna Lee and Oliver immediately jumped into playtime with the other children, happy for new company and companionship. Even at 4, Anna Lee realized that visiting 8 different preschools was out of the norm, and she wondered why she couldn’t pick which one she liked best.

After submitting all the required forms and documentation, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I knew that I’d done what I could to jumpstart Anna’s entry into the Czech educational system. Later when I surfed the site, I found numerous letters from Czech mothers stating similar problems getting their child enrolled into preschool, so I felt better. Although the problem isn’t rampant throughout the country (at least not yet) it is a legitimate problem.

Now I have to find the nerve to write a petition for neighborhood parents to sign to let the mayor know how badly our children need a preschool. My husband and some others I’ve talked with are skeptical, saying that if the town doesn’t have the money, what can the mayor do? But I can’t think of a better way to prioritize the issue than by bringing it (repeatedly if necessary) to the town’s attention. It will be too late for my children, but I doubt the problem is going to disappear overnight. Besides, at least I’ll get some practice using my best persuasive Czech.

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