How to find a high-quality preschool
Based on surveys of kindergarten teachers and other sources, the Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) estimates that more than half of the state’s children are not ready to succeed when they enter kindergarten. This “preparedness gap” puts some children — especially low-income and at-risk kids — two years behind their peers in language and learning skills. And they may never catch up.
Hence the enthusiastic promotion of preschool for children ages 3 to 5, providing them with a better readiness for kindergarten on the social, emotional and academic levels, an ability to get along with others and follow directions, and an excitement for learning.
The caveat is that it must be “high quality.”
We talked with Juliet Morrison, mother of a 5-year-old daughter and DEL’s assistant director for Quality Practices and Professional Growth, about what “high quality” means and how parents can evaluate preschools they visit. Here are her suggestions:
Look for highly trained, supportive teachers because teacher-child interactions are the most important facet of learning for this age group. Do they know a lot about the developmental level or preschoolers? Do they challenge the children? Do they leave them time to figure things out on their own and come up with answers to questions? Are they responsive without being intrusive? Although the state is moving toward employing more preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees, that is not make-or-break criteria. Ask whether they have training in early childhood education content and whether they are staying current and fresh with that training. Ask if they participate in DEL’s Early Achievers Program, receiving on-site guidance and support and continual assessment.
Aim for a small class size. This is defined as no more than 20 students for each two teachers (the ratio is 1:10, but there should be at least two adults in each classroom).
Look for age-appropriate curriculum and stimulating materials in a safe physical setting. For this age, curriculum should be play-based and hands-on, not relying heavily on deskwork, flashcards or worksheets. Ask what curriculum the teachers use (and check out its contents in printed form or online). Ask if the teachers are specifically trained in the curriculum and whether they get ongoing support? Are there any assessments built into the curriculum? Does it allow a lot of time for children to explore new things and practice their skills? Is it responsive to the family’s culture? Can it be individualized? Does it examine all areas of development, including social and emotional skills, as well as letters and numbers?
Look for plenty of child-to-child interaction, and observe whether children are engaged.
Make sure that the materials are plentiful, clean, age-appropriate and well organized.
Make strong family engagement a priority. Can you participate in the classroom if you want to or contribute in other ways? Do you feel comfortable sharing information about your child, including her strengths, weaknesses, needs and culture?
Children from low-income families may be eligible for preschools meeting these high-quality standards through the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) or the federal Head Start Program. Call DEL at 1-866-482-4325 or visit del.wa.gov to find out if your family is eligible.
The Co-op Option
High-quality preschool can be expensive because of the cost of paying the best teachers and buying good materials.
However, if you have time to participate once a week in a classroom and prefer to have your child in preschool three or four mornings or afternoons a week, a parent cooperative preschool may be a great option. Each preschool is organized by parents and led by a highly qualified teacher and parent educator hired through a community college. They are grounded in the philosophy of learning through play and full of materials, from paint to dress-up to science experiments. Most meet all of the high-quality criteria at a fraction of the cost of many private preschools. Contact your local community college to enroll.
Getting School Ready
“Getting School Ready” is an incredibly practical resource for parents of preschoolers. It describes, from a child’s point of view, exactly what she needs to know to succeed in school or homeschool.
Goals, with tips for helping your child meet them, include excitement about exploring the world through all her senses, expressing herself, following directions, getting along with other children, waiting a turn, standing in line, sitting in a circle, dealing with feelings, being familiar with books and songs, using words and numbers and knowing shapes, sizes and colors.
Download it free — in nine languages — at gettingschoolready.org.