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Last spring I showed my oldest daughter Abigail where she would attend kindergarten and tried to explain the exciting potential of attending Vista Grande Elementary School.

Her only comment when hearing about the prospect of kindergarten was merely to ask, “What kind of teachers do they have?”

I responded as honestly and optimistically as I could to my precocious four-year-old, which was to say “The best … I hope.”

This month, I got my first chance to see for myself at the school orientation days before the start of school.

While painfully aware of the stunning school start time of 7:40 a.m., I had prepared with a list of questions. Questions such as: Would Abby need a backpack? Does she need to bring a lunch? What does the classroom look like? Are the schools really without any money?

During orientation parents were first presented a pitch on funding an art program, followed by a pitch to support the school foundation. Then, the principal offered us an optimistic message about being active in our children’s education, and we were encouraged to volunteer at school.

I had low expectations for my first visit to Abby’s classroom based on news reports of schools cutting budgets and the impact it was having on classrooms. I expected barren room much like those I recalled from college, but the condition and the advance preparation of the classroom was far better than I could have imagined.

It was clear from the room the pride Abby’s new teacher Ms. Mann took in the preparation of her classroom. It was obvious that the room not only matched the curriculum but it also reflected this teacher’s unique personality and teaching style. The room was inviting for Abby and exactly what I would have wished for in her classroom.

The thought immediately crossed my mind that Abby’s teacher must have spent days preparing the classroom for the upcoming year and I worried that she might have had to use her own personal funds to help prepare the displays, decorations and pre-set activities already bearing the name of each of the new students.

During the orientation with Abby’s teacher, parents were told the class (one of three kindergarten classes at the school) would be roughly 24 students in size. Parents were also told that the school could lose funding from the state based on student attendance and the message was delivered that if kids were absent the school would suffer as well. We also left orientation with a wish list of supplies for the classroom.

Would we need a backpack? Yes. I learned during the first week that the backpack is really more of a parcel to send messages or forms back and forth between teacher and parent. While the backpack also should contain a change of clothes, in our case it would also include an Elmo doll that Abby smuggled into her pack.

Abby was one of 132,000 students who walked into a San Diego Unified School District the first day of school, and we were ready for the anxiety and the milestone moment that was being repeated hundreds of times all over the County. There were tears of fear from some of the children and tears of sentimentality from the parents.

As I walked away from releasing Abby into the wild of kindergarten the thought crossed my mind that the first day of school might actually be harder on the parents.

When I picked up Abby at the end of what was a long and perhaps traumatic first day she seemed a bit stunned.

I peppered her with questions. Did you have fun? She responded: “I don’t know.” Did you make any friends? Did you eat your lunch? “I don’t know.”

I knew I should have given her a bit of space to get settled but I was desperate for any feedback on her first day at school.

As I was about to ask her one other question she turned to me and said, “Do you know there is no nap after lunch?”

She didn’t have much more to share and I figured I’d let her get settled at home before jumping on her again with questions about her day.

That night Abby disappeared into her room and returned asking me to follow her into a room she had divided up into a number of stations such as a reading station, writing station, computer station, etc. She had stuffed toys at each station and gave a tour of the room instructing me that only two friends could be at each station at a time. Obviously this was what she experienced at her first day of school however I doubt Cinderella and Tinkerbell were occupying the reading station in her classroom as they were at home.

It was through Abby’s own processing of her day like re-creating her classroom with toys at home that I was able to learn more about her first day of kindergarten. I found out what days she plays on what playground, that tall friends use the hooks on the top, and that a gingerbread man was in the library. (I still have no clue what that means.)

While she learned that there was no nap after lunch on her first day of school, as a parent I learned that perhaps the best strategy might be to give her a little bit of space to allow her to process her school day experience and then allow for the opportunity for her to share her day to happen more naturally.

I guess we both learned something on the first day of kindergarten.

Geoff Patnoe is president of Public Policy Strategies, a leading government and public relations firm that represents numerous private, public and non-profit clients. He has been active in civic matters for more than 15 years, including serving as the head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and as chief of staff to Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

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