All preschools are not created equal; in fact, there are so many options that finding the right one can seem like a bigger chore than choosing a college. But help is on the way for parents confronting the dizzying array of choices. Here are some simple steps to help you hone in on that perfect preschool.
Nuts and bolts
Start with the obvious: logistics. If you work full time, you might require a preschool program that does double duty as before- and after-school child care. Those with more flexible schedules can opt for one that is only a few hours a day, or a co-operative where parents participate. Many preschools run on a school-based calendar from September to June. Others are open year-round. Take a long look at your scheduling needs and rule out anything that isn’t a fit.
Next, think money. The cost for preschool can range from free for families below the poverty level at a government-funded program such as Head Start, to thousands of dollars a year at one of the private schools. The price you pay will also depend on the number of hours your child is in school. For example, two mornings a week at Mountlake Terrace Recreation, a city-sponsored program, runs about $100 per month.
The costs for co-operative preschools can start at $90 per month (plus fees) for three mornings a week. The public Montessori preschool at Graham Hill Elementary costs $315 per month for five mornings a week ($2,835/year). A similar schedule at the French American School of Puget Sound costs $6,850. Before you rule out a program you like but can’t afford, ask about financial aid. Many programs — public and private — have need-based aid that can make a big difference.
Now, consider location. Should the preschool be close to your office or closer to home? If you stay in your neighborhood, you can develop relationships with other families who live nearby, something that’s harder to do at a preschool across town.
Narrow the search
After using these basics to narrow the field, it’s time to start looking at individual preschools. Philosophy and teaching styles can vary drastically. Some preschools stress academics; others, arts or socialization. Watch for day-care centers masquerading as preschools; age range can be a tip-off.
There should be a definite curriculum geared toward early childhood development, and a qualified staff that can implement it. A good preschool will offer a variety of activities. Art and craft projects develop fine-motor skills; music and story times encourage language development; free play promotes socialization; dance and games foster large-motor skills.
At least one of the teachers should have a degree in early childhood education and be certified in any specialty program offered, such as Montessori or Waldorf. Low staff turnover also indicates a quality program, and kids benefit from having a stable teaching staff.
Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P., recommends checking for accreditation with the nonprofit National Association for Early Childhood Education (NAEYC), a leader in high-quality early childhood education. The NAEYC’s website maintains a regularly updated listing of accredited preschool programs (www.naeyc.org). However, many high-quality programs are not NAEYC accredited. You can also use the NAEYC’s guidelines to help figure out if a program is up to its standards.
Here’s a look at some of the most common types of preschools.
Community centers and organizations such as the YMCA can provide quality preschool programs at reasonable rates because they are usually not-for-profit.
If you’ve got a little time, you might consider a co-op preschool. These tend to be run by parents, who volunteer for all aspects of the organization, including fundraising, hiring teachers, maintenance and classroom assistance. In return, parents generally pay less for preschool and often get free parenting classes in the bargain.
Find out if your local community college sponsors a co-operative preschool. These programs put an emphasis on parent education and usually have a monthly class just for caregivers.
If you’re shopping for a preschool with a special philosophy or emphasis, consider yourself lucky. Choices abound in this arena. The Montessori Method is a teaching style based on the child’s innate ability to learn at his own pace, in an enriched and supportive environment. The Waldorf curriculum draws upon myth, legends and the arts to nurture a child’s creative and emotional side.
Language immersion and bilingual preschool programs are also popular options. Around here, you can find French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese preschools, among others. These programs build on research indicating that children are most adaptable to learning a second language at a very young age.
Churches, synagogues and temples often offer preschool, and the amount of religious instruction can vary drastically. Many schools welcome students of all faiths. Do your homework: Make sure a program conforms to your family’s values.
Bayla Friedman Treiger, early childhood coordinator at the Seattle Hebrew Academy, notes that the preschool's curriculum is definitely Jewish based, but is not dogmatic about practice. “We are very open to all of the various backgrounds,” Treiger says.
Lauren Leiker, director of St. Mark’s Cathedral Preschool, echoes that sentiment. “We do consider ourselves an Episcopalian preschool, but our practice is interfaith,” she says.
If you have a child with special needs, you have special issues to consider when choosing a preschool. Do you want your child to be in a special-needs program, or would you prefer he go to school with typically developing kids? If so, look for a program that accommodates your child’s challenges but also builds on his strengths. Visit several schools and find out what they have to offer in terms of facility, resources and staff.
Jennifer Taylor, founder and director of The Storybook Center in Redmond, says parents at her school want a mixture of special-needs and mainstream curriculum. “Their children might be on the cusp of not quite qualifying for special needs, or want to be with typically developing students,” she says. “We’re for kids who need a little extra help.”
Children with severe disabilities often qualify for government preschool programs, and parents should work with their health-care providers to find the right preschool.
Pre-K and beyond
If your child doesn’t like big changes, consider sending him to a preschool attached to an elementary school. These are usually offered by private K-5 schools, and enrollment in the preschool often guarantees admission into the elementary grades. The Seattle School District even offers a few public preschools with this option.
All the careful planning in the world can’t replace the most important step of all — your personal visit to the preschool. Don’t just go to the open house; if possible, visit while a class is in session. Most schools welcome the opportunity to show off their programs; be wary of those that won’t.
The NAEYC suggests that parents make sure the physical space is well maintained, and that toys and equipment seem safe, clean, and age-appropriate. There should be a variety of activities available, both indoor and out. Television should have a small role, if any. There should be at least one adult for every 10 4-year-olds. Watch the kids interact with each other and their teachers. Do they seem positive and respectful?
Now, Dr. Needlman suggests, consider your own child’s personality: Will the environment, activities and the attitudes of the teachers suit your child? Is the program structured enough, or too structured? Does the classroom seem warm and joyful?
Ask for a written description of the school’s policies on discipline, pricing, and curriculum. Check out the staff’s credentials. Find out whether the school has any licenses or accreditations. And ask to talk to parents already participating in the program; it’s a good way to find out how involved parents are expected to be in the school community — and how happy they are with the school.
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and daughter in South Seattle. Their next big education choice will be high school.
Originally published in the January, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.