Choosing a quality preschool is more important than ever.
By Susan Peck
Photography byBrandon Schwartz
Stakes are high as parents. You don’t want to gamble when it comes to one of the most important things in your children’s lives — their early education.
If you have preschool-age children, you’ve probably Googled “school readiness” and have a skills checklist taped to your refrigerator along with a list of preschools to check out. That’s good because all research shows “the sooner the better” when it comes to early childhood education, and it pays to be on top of things.
“The expectations for children coming in to kindergarten are higher than ever now,” said Joni Gabriel, reading recovery teacher at Wattles Elementary in Troy. “Pre-K programs are more important today to prepare the children so they aren’t behind when they enter kindergarten.”
Gabriel and the other reading specialists, Natalie Haezebrouc and Dr. Jennifer Anderson, at Wattles Elementary put the incoming kindergarteners through an assessment test to see where they are regarding the age-appropriate skills expected for entering school.
“The test is standard for most elementary schools in the area,” Gabriel said. “We like to see the kids coming in being able to identify uppercase and lowercase letters, count verbally up to 30, identify numbers up to 20 by pointing to them and naming them, identify four basic shapes, and write their first and last names.”
NOT LIKE THE OLD DAYS
The consensus from early child development educators is that kindergarten is now more like what we used to think of as first grade, and parents need to be aware of this. “There is a radical difference between the kids who come through the door on the first day of school who have had a preschool experience and those who don’t. Those who don’t will generally start kindergarten behind the rest and will have to spend a lot of time and effort to try to catch up,” Gabriel said.
If your instincts are telling you that your child isn’t quite ready for kindergarten, even though she is old enough, there are many preschool programs to help with the transition.
“Young Fives is our program designed for children who turn 5 between June 1 and Sept. 1 [or as late as Dec. 1 with a signed waiver] and may need an extra year of social or emotional growth,” said Lisa Marion, director of Clarkston Early Childhood Center of Clarkston Public Schools.
“Especially for the young boys, this modified kindergarten program gives them a chance to grow physically and academically, giving them a much more positive experience when they are placed in traditional kindergarten the following school year.”
CHOOSING A PRESCHOOL
To make sure your child comes to kindergarten equipped with the right stuff you definitely want to enroll in a quality preschool program that’s not merely a daycare that babysits. Here are three easy steps to help you track down a premium program, including information on teacher qualifications.
Do your homework: Knowledge is key. Contact your local public school to get referrals; and word of mouth from seasoned parents will give you some great input.
Shawness Woods-Zende, a master coach for Excellent Schools Detroit, says parents and guardians can also check out the Great Start CONNECT website, powered by the Early Childhood Investment Corporation. This site allows parents to search for preschools and early childhood group homes — all registered and licensed. You can also get information you’ll need such as ages accepted, application fees, payment schedules, hours of operation, meals provided, how long centers have been operating, curriculum, accreditation of staff and much more.
Consider curriculum: You may have heard debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) curriculum for kindergarten. Some are arguing that these standards are too demanding; others say they are a key to improving U.S. education.
Regardless, some of the most research-validated preschool curricula to look for are Creative Curriculum (infant and toddler, preschool), High Scope Curriculum (infant and toddler, preschool), Montessori, Parents as Teachers, Project Approach and Tools of the Mind.
Aside from the curriculums, here are some of the questions you might ask the school before you register: Is my child going to be given lots of opportunities to move and change activities (versus sitting in one place for long periods of time doing the same thing)? Does the teacher adjust instruction based on what each child knows and is able to do? Is there an emphasis on reading to the children and a beginning reading process with my child?
And maybe most importantly, ask if the school implements the American Academy of Pediatrics’ philosophy that play is the key to successful pre-K development in kids. Most good preschools do.
“Because young children learn best while in a play-based program, we have developed our curriculum around their interests. We’ve even used the characters from Frozen, superheroes and other imaginative figures that really engage them,” said Sara Meier, director of Grosse Pointe Schools Child Development and Preschool.
Lori Ulewitz, early childhood educator in the Troy school system for nearly 30 years, agrees and also suggests making sure the preschool you choose is designed aesthetically with youngsters in mind. “The environment should be child-centered with everything at the child’s eye level, with toys and imagination stations that mimic real life like a kitchen, office or store that allows them to engage in play-based learning and to foster independence,” Ulewitz said.
Visit your top picks: Now that you’ve got a few preschools in mind, it’s time to pay the centers a personal visit. Meier says they encourage parental visits and any reputable school will have an “open-door policy” for families to stop in.
“If parents are doing an initial search, they can visit more than once. So maybe do a scheduled visit and then another drop-in visit later on,” Meier said. “And if the school won’t let you visit, that’s a big red flag. If they don’t encourage a visit, then there’s something wrong.
“Another important thing is to not only pay attention to the interactions and what the environment looks like, but also what do you feel when you visit? Your gut reaction is something you really want to pay attention to,” she added.
TEACHER AND CAREGIVER QUALIFICATIONS
Teacher-effectiveness is one of the most important factors that impact the quality of a pre-K program. “The more educated and experienced the teacher is, the more knowledge they have in early childhood development, how children’s brains work, how they grow,” says Sarah Babcock, director of Grosse Pointe Pre-Kindergarten, a private school not affiliated with the public school.
“The credentials have just gotten stricter for Michigan pre-K teachers. They now have to have more hours of hands-on experience with children, more credits and on-going education in the way of conferences and seminars. You want to look for pre-K teachers who have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood or elementary education,” Babcock said.
The best advice from experts is not to get too worked up about school readiness for your preschooler. And never underestimate your influence as a parent on their development.
Everyday experiences with your child like counting the ducks at the park, learning colors while working in the garden and writing the letters of the alphabet in the sand at the beach are priceless learning moments that only you can give.
“Parents are the first and most important teachers when it comes to language development and other skills for very young children,” Gabriel, an early child educator for 29 years, said.
“If I can give any advice, I’d say put away your cell phones and technology and talk and communicate as much as you can with your kids. That’s the greatest way to enrich their lives. And read to your child every day because that’s the way they become good readers and great students.” NS
WHERE TO GO:
Grosse Pointe Child
Development and Preschool
20090 Morningside Drive, Grosse Pointe Woods
Email: Preschool@gpschools.org; Phone: (313) 432-3809
Troy School District
4400 Livernois Road, Troy, (248) 823-4000;
Clarkston Early Child Development Center and Preschool
6397 Clarkston Road, Clarkston, (248) 623-4350;
Grosse Pointe Pre-Kindergarten
17150 Maumee, Grosse Pointe, (313) 886-4747;