- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Prospective students and their parents mill from table to table, looking at brochures and applications and shaking hands with school representatives. The school people, in turn, are reassuring, cheerful and eager to promote their facilities.

There is no talk of SATs, homecoming weekend or work-study programs because this is not a college fair. This gathering at the Burke Volunteer Fire Station is a preschool fair, but the parents have equally important questions:

"Does my child have to be potty trained?"

"What do you serve for snacks?"

"How do you handle tantrums?"

Choosing a preschool is a big decision for parents. Attending preschool is often a child's first step into a world without mom or dad, so it is important to tread into a place that matches a family's educational, moral and philosophical goals, says Denise Scott, senior director of program accreditation for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

The nonprofit NAEYC accredits about 8,000 programs nationally, Mrs. Scott says. To be accredited means a school has met the NAEYC's standards for curriculum, teacher-student ratio, materials, administrators and facilities. However, there are thousands of preschools that are not NAEYC-accredited that are still quality preschools.

A plethora of choices from a neighborhood program in a church basement to an academic attachment of a fancy private school can make the selection process confusing. Most preschools take applications now for spots next fall, adding more pressure to the process.

"It is a little confusing," says Teresa Coolidge of Burke. Mrs. Coolidge was at the recent preschool fair, sponsored by the Moms Club of Burke. She was checking out preschools for her younger son, Kevin, 2. "I have been through this before, so I know you have to register early. If I don't think about it until summer, we will be shut out," she says.

Mrs. Coolidge has an idea of what she is seeking.

"I want a safe, loving environment," she says. "At this age, I don't care about academics at all for him. I want a clean place with good teachers and a good reputation."

Mrs. Coolidge may send her younger son to the church-based preschool her older son attended. She still is looking around, though, asking friends and neighbors for recommendations and visiting a few preschools in person.

That is an ideal way to get an idea of whether the preschool matches the parents, says Diane Trister Dodge, president of Teaching Strategies, a Washington-based company that produces curricula for early childhood education programs.

"It is a good idea for parents to know what a good preschool should be like," Ms. Dodge says. "There is no substitute for going and spending time there, talking to the director and staff, asking what their training is like, whether the school is accredited and what the style of the school is. Most importantly, it gives you a chance to see what the children were doing, whether they seemed happy and whether the teachers were interacting with them in respectful ways.

"There are so many other factors to consider, too," she says. "What kind of hours you need, whether the school is conveniently located, what it costs. The most expensive is not necessarily the best."

What will children learn there?

At first glance, attending preschool with its dress-up clothes, finger paints, playground and sand table might seem indiscernible from playing.

However, playing is how young children learn, Mrs. Scott says. The lessons learned in making a popsicle-stick sculpture or sharing a toy with a classmate lay a foundation for the real schoolwork to come in the elementary years, she says.

"When I look at a preschool class and they are stacking blocks in a corner, what they are learning is hand-eye coordination and pre-math sorting skills," Mrs. Scott says. "Pouring water teaches measuring and estimating. Children at preschool age need hands-on learning. They learn through their senses. You want an environment that is rich with sight, touch and sound and that lets them learn at their own pace. This will set them up for later years."

Almost as crucial is the social aspect of preschool, she says.

"It is really important that children get to interact with other children and another adult from outside of their household," Mrs. Scott says.

A good preschool should have a balance of child-led activities and teacher-led activities, says Ms. Dodge, who also is co-author of the book "Preschool for Parents: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Preschool." An emphasis on writing, worksheets and other desk work is inappropriate for preschoolers, she says.

"A lot of worksheets is a red flag to watch out for," Ms. Dodge says.

Ideally, a preschool room should be well-organized because children are better able to make choices, stay involved in their work and cooperate in a structured environment, she says. There should be small areas for different types of activities, such as blocks, arts and crafts, music, books, circle time and a "house corner" (i.e., child-size play stove, store, dolls, etc.) for pretend play.

A good classroom should have a print-rich environment, with signs and labels on cubbies, a job chart and other words displayed at the children's eye level, Ms. Dodge says. Children also should be read to and have time to explore books on their own every day.

"We incorporate reading throughout the day," says Maggie Frank, executive director of Creme de la Creme, a national child care chain that recently opened its first Washington-area school in Sterling, Va.

Creme de la Creme takes the concept of a well-organized preschool room and expands it into a well-organized campus. Parents pay top dollar for the school, which features a computer lab, art room, music room, library and even a child-size outdoor basketball court and splash park.

"Play is children's work," Mrs. Frank says as a group of 4-year-olds squirm tummy-first on scooter boards through Creme de la Creme's gym. "Some people understand that; some don't. We have a basic curriculum, but academics can be worrisome at this age if you take it too far. I believe [if] children fall into the idea that this is work, they will shut off. Most of them are learning without even realizing it."

The emphasis on academics for all ages is a natural fallout of changes in society in the past few decades, Mrs. Scott says. As more women entered the work force, greater numbers of children entered organized care in the form of preschool or day care at younger ages.

Kindergarten, which used to be many children's introduction to ABCs and 1,2,3s as well as to group dynamics, has become a faster-paced environment, preparing students for the high-pressure stakes and standardized testing ahead.

About 70 percent of 4-year-olds participate in some form of early childhood education, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 1999 National Household Education Survey.

However, several education studies show a direct link between household income levels and preschool attendance. The higher the income, the more likely it is that children will attend preschool.

That is why Georgia, Florida, New York and Oklahoma have phased in universal preschool free, state-sponsored programs for any 4-year-old whose parents want it, regardless of income. Head Start, the federally sponsored preschool program for low-income students, is another option.

Several other states have proposed initiating a universal preschool program. The idea of universal preschool has met with mixed reaction, though, as critics say it will take options away from some families and lower the mandatory school age.

Your school style

Making the preschool selection process even more confusing is the different school styles. No one method is best, Mrs. Scott says. However, it is important to ask before visiting a school what philosophy the program embraces.

Many schools have combinations of styles, such as a mix of appropriate academic goals as well as child-directed activities. Some of the most popular options include:

• Play-centered At this type of preschool, most of the activities are initiated by the children. Students are free to move from one activity to another as they feel motivated. This type of school stresses free play and socialization among children but also introduces organized concepts such as clean-up time, sharing, songs and games.

• Academic These schools have a more structured approach to learning. Teachers usually plan activities and guide the children in them. There is more of an emphasis on paper-and-pencil schoolwork, but the work still should be age-appropriate (such as making letters out of clay rather than memorizing the alphabet by rote).

• Co-operative A co-op school may follow any philosophy, but parents are a big part of running the school. In a co-op program, parents do everything from assisting in the classroom to restoring mulch on the playground.

This program might not be right for parents who work full time or whose children have trouble adjusting if their parents are at school with them. Other families like the idea of seeing what goes on at school and deciding what will be taught.

A co-op program may be less expensive than a traditional school, too.

"Parents are active in their child's classroom about once a month," says Trish Brinkman, director of Sleepy Hollow Preschool, an NAEYC-accredited program in Annandale. "It keeps the parents involved."

• Montessori These programs are based on the principles of Maria Montessori, an Italian educator who said children learn best through individualized attention and careful structure.

Children are grouped in large, mixed-age classes, and older students help the younger ones in their lessons. Teachers tend to play a less demonstrative role in instruction and nurturing. There is an emphasis on practical knowledge such as learning to sweep the floor or pour juice as well as academics.

Montessori programs are certified by one of two national groups (the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale), but there are variations among schools, so parents should spend time observing the class as they would any program.

• Waldorf Waldorf schools, built around the principles of German educator Rudolf Steiner, are play-centered as well as structured. The emphasis is on creativity, storytelling, art and nature, with less stress on academics, and teachers tend to be nurturing.

• Religious A good number of schools are affiliated with churches or synagogues. Religion and culture usually are incorporated to some degree into the usual play-centered or academic environment.

Amy Myers-Payne, a Reston mother of two girls, looked at five preschools for daughter Mallory last year. After observing a mix of Montessori schools, a co-op and a church school, she still was confused. She didn't like it that most of the schools offered just a two- or three-day program for 3-year-olds.

Mrs. Myers-Payne decided to send Mallory to two preschools. Her husband, Sean, got up at dawn to secure a coveted spot at one on sign-up day last winter.

Mallory goes to a church program at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church two mornings a week and to a co-op at Reston Children's Center the other days.

"I liked the small classroom and the Christian curriculum at the church," Mrs. Myers-Payne says. "We have some friends who go there and spoke highly of it. At the other school, I liked the creative spaces, the art and pretend areas, and the story area. I didn't even consider anything like, 'Are you teaching them to read?'

"I was more concerned with how the teachers interacted with the kids and whether they seemed happy. I care whether a preschool is total chaos or organized chaos."

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