Headed to First Grade

November 19, 2010
Anna putting her backpack on her desk first day of school

A look at the Czech primary school registration process

Just when I’d ironed out all the kinks in our preschool routine, I realized that it’s already time for me to start thinking about Anna Lee’s entry into first grade next September. Although it seems too early to be thinking about next year, in the Czech educational system the move from školka (preschool) to škola (primary school) is a big step. Registration for základní škola (Czech primary school) is held in January and most schools offer an open house day in late November or December, when parents and potential students can visit schools and pick up registration paperwork.

Before I attend my first open house, I wanted to make sure that I understand what criteria I should be looking for and how the actual registration process is carried out. Luckily, just as I began to do school research, I received an invitation to a Q&A session with a panel of parents from the US, UK and Ireland, who have children enrolled in Czech primary schools. In its second year running, the primary school information night is sponsored by Class Acts, a multicultural, kids-focused organization. Like last year, the event promises to provide parents, especially those who aren’t familiar with the Czech educational system, with vital information on how to proceed in the school selection process.

Generally speaking, the games and free-play that comprises the bulk of preschool instruction gives way to more regimented school days and class work in primary school. Although Czech preschools pride themselves on preparing students for school, they are primarily responsible for helping improve social skills and for introducing children to the concept of the collective that they’ll need in their primary school career. There is no school readiness in terms of reading, writing or even the alphabet taught in most Czech preschools. It is only once a child enters primary school that “formal” schooling officially begins. Many of my Czech friends claim that they purposefully didn’t teach these skills to their children to prevent them from being bored or acting out if they already knew the material.

As a non-Czech the idea of educating my children in the Czech state school system is a bit daunting. Although I know that the Czech educational system is well-respected on many accounts, particularly with regard to subjects like foreign languages, mathematics and sciences, the system has traditionally placed an emphasis on learning hard facts with techniques such as rote repetition and memorization. Creative writing and critical thinking are rarely taught in Czech primary schools, though recent changes in the educational system are emerging with the younger generation of teachers. I’ve heard tenured Czech teachers tend to deride freer learning styles. However, I also know of some Czech parents who’ve chosen a school particularly because of its alternative methods, which may include anything from learning block letters instead of traditional script or having learning sessions away from the desk.

Within the Czech primary system, it is typical for a student to be placed with the same students and possibly even the same teacher for the first five years. This is a major change from the American system, where, like most of my peers I changed classmates and got a new teacher every fall. Finding out who was in my classroom and which teacher I got was the most exciting part of going back to school. I couldn’t really imagine how it would feel to know that I’d see the same faces year after year. Yet when I talked to one of my Czech teacher friends, she couldn’t believe that American students were expected to adjust to new classmates and a different teacher every year and vice versa. She felt that important learning time would be wasted adjusting to the new personalities and getting a rhythm established. She reasoned that keeping the collective together promotes stronger learning. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if you didn’t click with your teacher. My friend explained that it was always possible to change to another classroom, but that it didn’t happen often.

Bearing in mind that I attended the only public school in my small town and the only choice for my parents to make was whether to let me ride the bus or to drive me to school, I tried to relax and trust my instincts as I researched potential schools. If we lived in a neighborhood or a village with its own primary school, I might not have much of a decision to make. However, since our village doesn’t have its own school, we have the opportunity to consider any of the village schools in our surrounding area, as well as the schools in the closest district in Prague. Every Czech child has the right to attend school from the age of 6, but there’s no guarantee that a particular school will have a free spot.

Although school registration is mandatory for children who turn 6 on or before September 1 of the school year, currently about 20% of families apply for a deferral to keep their children home for another year (most often boys, whose may not yet have the emotional maturity or ability to sit still). It is also possible to apply for early admission, although this is less common. In either case, a physician and an educational psychologist assess a child’s readiness.

From talking to my neighbors, I have an idea of the schools that are popular around here. Yet on our small street alone the children go to three different schools and the reasons for choosing each school, like the schools themselves, vary. One neighbor needed a school with an easy drop-off on the way into town, another chose a school based on its strong English language program, and a third picked the school because of low-class sizes in the entry-level grades. I haven’t yet rated my priorities. Radek and I did a preliminary drive-by of some of the potential schools just to see how their physical buildings, gardens and outdoor space looked, as well as to determine how easy they’d be for daily drop-off and pick-up.

Ultimately, I think that Anna’s school experience is going to be shaped by her own attitude, with influence from her teacher and the school’s environment, too, of course. At the moment, she’s thrilled to be starting school next year. Playing school is her favorite game with older children. I’m trying hard not to include my own educational experiences with my expectations of my daughter’s education, although I know it will be impossible not to compare, the good with the bad, along the way.

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