Next September may seem far away, but most preschools begin their registration for the fall in January or February. Finding a preschool for your child can be a confusing and overwhelming process. Here, representatives from three very different local preschools – Katie Heimbach, Director of Blair Road United Methodist Church Preschool; Sheila Locklear, Director of Open Door School; and Bianka DeGabrielle, Admissions Director for Anami Montessori School – weigh in on how to start your search and find the best preschool for your child.
When should I start looking?
“When” can be a difficult question to answer because so many factors are involved: your own family’s needs, your child’s age, and your child’s personality and development all come into play. “It’s a hard question to answer generally,” says DeGabrielle. “It depends on family circumstances and the child.” For example, homes where both parents work may need to consider preschool earlier than homes where one parents stays home. Moreover, all children develop differently, and not all children are ready for preschool at the same time.
However, most professionals agree that you should begin looking into preschools well in advance of when you expect your child to begin school. Anami Montessori admits students beginning at age three; from this perspective, DeGabrielle suggests you begin looking when your child is two. Heimbach, who admits students 18 months and older at Blair Road United Methodist Church, encourages parents to start thinking about preschool “as early as possible, preferably by age 1.” Locklear agrees that it’s “never too early” to start looking into preschools, especially for parents who will be looking for full time care.
Locklear’s Open Door School admits students beginning at age two, “but this doesn’t mean all two year olds are ready,” she says. Two important developmental factors to consider in terms of preschool are how willing your child is to be separate from his parents and how willing he is to play with other children. All young children have some degree of shyness around strangers and some degree of separation anxiety, but a child who is completely unwilling to separate from mom or consistently becomes very anxious playing around other children may not be ready for preschool yet, even if he is the “correct” age.
I think my child is ready. How do I get started?
One way to get started in your preschool search is asking friends and family for recommendations. “The best way to begin your search for a preschool is to ask everyone where their children attended to get their honest opinions of their experiences,” says Heimbach. “Many parents choose us based on word of mouth recommendations from families currently enrolled or whose children have graduated.”
DeGabrielle recommends using the Internet for an initial search, making sure to read reviews of the schools you find. A simple Google search can help to identify schools that are close enough for you to consider. An online resource that Locklear recommends is Childcare Resources: http://www.childcareresourcesinc.org/. In addition to providing lists of five-star and nationally accredited facilities, the site provides many articles that go in-depth about the topic of choosing a preschool and what to look for.
What should I consider?
Knowing what you want – and which factors are most important to you – is important when choosing a preschool. There are some basic factors to take into account and weigh against your needs when choosing a preschool: the school’s hours, the ages of children they admit, location and cost, for example. One important factor for many parents is location. “Keep in mind the amount of time you will be driving to drop off and pick up,” says Heimbach. “The closer to home the better for this purpose.”
In addition to these basic factors, you will definitely want to consider the school’s curriculum. Blair Road UMC uses The Creative Curriculum with a Christian Foundation. “This curriculum has components to develop the student in the following key categories: social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, and literacy,” says Heimbach. “The students will also engage in Mathematics, Science and Technology, Social Studies, and the Arts. We are strong believers in play-based learning across all of the age groups.”
Open Door School offers a progressive, play-based education. “We meet the child where they are,” says Locklear, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and moving with the child instead of following a set curriculum where everyone does the same thing at the same time. There is a strong emphasis on social learning, and ODS refrains from teaching any religion or celebrating any holidays.
Anami Montessori is recognized by American Montessori International and follows the AMI curriculum 100%. The Montessori curriculum, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, utilizes larger, mixed-age classrooms that encourage the development of independence. Teachers provide one-on-one lessons in different areas of the classroom, like practical life, sensorial, mathematics and language. Students are free to choose any work on which they have received a lesson.
Another factor to consider is the student-teacher ratio, though a higher student-teacher ratio does not necessarily equate to a worse school. For example, Anami may have up to 26 students aged 3-6 in a classroom together. “You have to have the higher numbers for it to be successful,” says DeGabrielle. “If you have a class with eight kids, there’s not a whole lot of work going on to spark the interest of a child.”
An additional factor to consider is the school’s faculty; for example, what education or training is required and the turnover rate. Though all these factors can seem overwhelming, understanding what you need and want of a preschool will help to effectively guide your search.
I know what I want in a preschool, and I’ve found some I like. Now what?
Once you’ve narrowed down your criteria and formed a list of schools you’re interested in, you will want to attend an open house and/or tour the school. “Once you have a list of prospective schools,” says Heimbach, “call the school and talk to the Director to schedule a tour, see the classrooms and get a feel for the school and the staff.” Locklear suggests that parents use the visit to get a feel for the school and how the teachers interact with the children: How do adults speak to children? Do the children seem happy? How do teachers discipline the children? Most importantly, Locklear says, ask, “Does this jibe with my parenting?”, a question she asks parents who tour Open Door School. While older children can adjust to different expectations between school and home, it can be difficult and confusing for young children to deal with different approaches.
How can I prepare my child to be successful in preschool next fall?
If you are in the midst of the preschool application process right now, there are several things you can do to help your child experience success next fall. One thing you can do is provide your child with the opportunity to interact with other children through things like story time or play groups. “Also, short times of being with a caregiver other than the parents can help the child be accustomed to being away from their parents,” says Heimbach. Heimbach also encourages parents to promote independence in their children. “Experiences such as helping prepare food, age appropriate chores, and meeting new people will help them feel confident to begin attending preschool,” she says.
Once you have chosen a school, Locklear encourages parents to visit the school often – play on the playground, use the bathroom, stop by the office and say “hi” – so that the child becomes familiar with the school. Locklear also encourages parents to make themselves known to the school and be as involved as they can. In addition to helping acclimate the child to the school, this good relationship between the home and the school conveys an important message that is often said but not modeled: “Education is important and my family values that.”
Blair Road United Methodist offers preschool classes for children ages 18 months to 5 years old. They also offer an afterschool program for rising kindergarteners through sixth graders. The school day runs from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm. Community registration for the 2017-2018 school year will begin February 6. Tours of the school are available by appointment between the hours of 9:30-12:30; afternoon tours can also be arranged if necessary.
Anami Montessori serves children ages 3-12 in two mixed-age classrooms. The primary classroom houses students ages 3-6, and the elementary classroom children ages 6-12. Three and four year olds attend for a half day; 5-12 year olds attend a full day. Anami conducts rolling admissions throughout the year for three-year-olds and offers open houses year round. The applications process begins with attending an open house and/or touring the school, which includes observing in a classroom.
Open Door School offers half-day preschool programs for children ages 2-5 as well as a full day care program for children ages 3-5. Registration for the 2017-2018 school year begins at the open house, held at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte on February 7 at 6:30 pm. Prospective families must attend an open house or schedule a tour in order to apply.