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Choosing the Perfect Preschool

When it comes to child care and preschool selection, thorough research is critical.

By Kayleigh Kulp

Liz Annis knew from the time her now 4-year-old daughter Olivia was born that getting her into the right preschool would be tough. After all, schooling for children under age 5 is scarce in their hometown of Chesapeake Beach. There’s only one public elementary school in the area, and it gives enrollment preference to low-income and English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Still, Annis was determined that Olivia would form valuable skills early.

“I wanted her to start learning, getting into a routine,” she says. “Now, every day, she’ll have chores and go over the alphabet.”

More Working Parents, Increased PreSchool Demand

Child care has become an increasingly important factor to Maryland parents in recent years. Seventy-five percent of the entire child population under 12 years old in the state of Maryland has mothers in the workforce, according to Child Care Resource Network’s 2007 Report.
“More children are needing child care because both parents need to work,” says Debbie Langer, executive director of Anne Arundel Child Care Connections, an organization that works to pair parents with compatible, licensed child care providers and preschools. As a result, she says, child care options have become more competitive — high quality programs, especially so.
“With the demand for children to be ready for school, parents want to know, ‘When my children are in [this child care center or preschool program], what is my child getting? Are they teaching them numbers and shapes, how to handle problems, and all the social skills a child needs to enter school?’” she says.
Langer admits that it’s sometimes difficult to find a full-time, curriculum-based preschool program. But, she says, many child care centers and family child care businesses offer similar preschool activities. They can’t call themselves “preschools,” though, because in order to obtain that title the organization’s curriculum must be officially accredited by the Maryland Department of Education.

Starting the PreSchool Search

Annis enrolled Olivia in Little Lambs Preschool in Sunderland after she heard other moms raving about it. First, though, she checked it out for herself.
“The staff meeting was important and scheduling was good. At another school I’d visited, they had the attitude of, ‘Oh, here’s another one,’ whereas Little Lambs gave us special attention. The kids [at the other school] kind of ran about and had no set activities either,” Annis says.
Langer urges parents to consider several key factors when deciding on a child care program or preschool for their young one.
“They should sit down and decide what they want in a program. Talk to family, talk to friends. Once you decide, then I would give myself as much time as you can. It’s never too early to start. This is a big decision. If you know what you want, it gets easier,” she says.
Factors to keep in mind are the curriculum, staff-to-child ratio and atmosphere. There are official preschools, which are approved by the Maryland Department of Education, child care centers and family child care centers to choose from, all of which can offer enriching programs depending on your child’s needs and interests.
“Parents need to think about their child’s personality and temperament when choosing a preschool,” advises Cheryl Panek, principal and founder of Premier Academy in Davidsonville.
“If their child is inquisitive and wants to do ‘academic’ types of activities, the child needs to be in a preschool that will do these type of activities or the child will be bored. If, on the other hand, the child just wants to play, which is also a way that preschoolers learn, they want their child in that type of preschool. Ideally, good preschools will have a combination of academics and social playing,” she says.
Panek says quality learning and a healthy environment were her priorities when she opened Premier Academy three years ago.
“I believe parents get a feeling whenever they walk into a preschool and meet the people that work at the school. They need to feel good about the place; it’s a gut feeling. If they are uncomfortable speaking with the director or the teachers, they shouldn’t put their child in that school. The atmosphere in the school is just as, if not more, important than the curriculum. If the curriculum is excellent but the atmosphere is poor, the curriculum will not work like it is supposed to,” she explains.
According to the National Child Care Resource Report, educational value ranked third among the most important factors in choosing a child care option among Maryland parents, behind proximity to home and quality of care, according to the report. Cost ranked fifth. In the 2005-2006 school year, 48,626 students were enrolled in private preschools as opposed to 24,219 in public preschools.

The Preschool Readiness Difference

According to the Maryland State Department of Education’s 2006-2007 school year report on school readiness, students entering kindergarten in Anne Arundel County who came from non-public nursery schools (defined as preschool programs with an educational focus for 3- and 4-year-olds) had the highest rate of school readiness at 80 percent, followed by 70 percent of students who came from an accredited child care center, 66 percent from home or informal care, 65 percent from public pre-kindergarten, 63 percent from family day care centers and 58 percent from head start programs.
For some parents, numbers like these are compelling evidence that educational, curriculum-based preschool programs are the best places for their children. Other parents maintain that quality of care and healthy child development — not academic achievement — are the top priorities in choosing child care.

Timing Is Critical for Preschool Registration

Langer recommends that parents start looking for curriculum-based child care at least two months in advance. Panek is even more cautious. She encourages parents to begin their research at least one year in advance. In the Annapolis area, she says, many schools have waiting lists.
“There’s such a limited number of instant spots. If you find the right program, get on the waitlist,” Langer says. “Sometimes they go quicker than parents think.”

Preschool Cost Not Always Indicator of Quality

Child care is expensive. No doubt about it. The average weekly cost of child care for one child in Maryland is between $125 and $140; in Anne Arundel County, Langer says, the average is closer to $150. The average total amount that Maryland families pay for child care is $16,781 — almost 20 percent of the family median income, according to the National Child Care Resource report.
Not surprisingly, cost was a big factor for Annis, who chose Little Lambs over schools with higher tuitions. Price is obviously a consideration, Langer says, but she encourages parents to look beyond the finances whenever possible. Cost should not be the ultimate deciding factor, she says. “If you let cost make the decision for you, then you could be missing out.”
A program with a low price could actually have a fantastic program, Langer explains. Or a program with a high price might have a less challenging program. Cost, she says, is not always an indicator of quality.
What’s more important, according to Langer, is to research options thoroughly. Visit three to four programs at a minimum and make a point of visiting again when you’re not expected. The school’s staff shouldn’t have a problem with visits from the parents of prospective students.
“If they have a problem with that, there might be something wrong,” Langer cautions.

Preschool and Child Care Credentials and Licenses

In the state of Maryland, all public child care facilities and programs must be regulated and licensed to ensure adherence to basic health and safety standards. Many programs voluntarily undergo an additional state credentialing review that indicates the administrators’ desire to exceed the minimum standards set by the state.
Langer recommends that parents ask prospective child care providers if staff members are currently going through the credentialing process. If they are, she says, ask what level of training they’ve obtained.
“That’s going to tell you, OK, this is someone who is serious about what they do, which can say a lot about the program,” Langer says.
If the program’s administrators have chosen not to seek this extra level of accreditation, Langer encourages you ask why. 
Other key accreditations to ask about are those from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

These steps — along with the advice of trusted family and friends — could help you match your small child with the perfect preschool program. It’s not always an easy process, but a good match is well worth the effort.

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