|Written by Nina Wolgelenter|
One Potato, Two Potato…
Picking the right preschool, the right way
Choosing a snowball and a preschool have a lot in common: numerous choices, long lines, several sizes to choose from, and seemingly outrageous prices. Some seem better than others. And when you finally find a good one, you’ll keep coming back. As your child grows, your choices for elementary and secondary education grow as well…much the same as your child’s desire for an even larger snowball.
Finding the right school, of course, is a more sensitive and far-reaching issue than choosing a sugary New Orleans treat. Questions about curriculum, continuity, transition, teacher-to-student ratio, settings, tuition, disciple, private, public or parochial, location, aftercare, and overall feel all factor into your decision.
Ultimately, it all boils down to one thing. “Whether the learning is at home or in the community, nurturing the total child is what matters most,” says Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., a Developmental Psychologist who delivers a presentation entitled The Right Child for the Right School, helping parents understand the purpose of preschool.
Whether you want a parochial or private preschool, the New Orleans area offers many choices, but where do you begin? “One thing I ask parents is: Would you want to spend all day here?” says Teddi Locke, Director of the University Montessori School. When touring a school, it’s important to observe the setting, staff morale, if the children are busy and engaged, and evaluate the sense of community.
“A positive preschool experience advances a child’s emotional development and self esteem in the context of self-directed play and peer interaction,” says Dr. Blackwell. “A cognitive curriculum that overpowers children and pushes academics may ignore or damage emotional development,” she adds.
When it came time to move their four-year-old daughter Lily from daycare to preschool, Steve and Lisa Wolfram of Uptown put a lot of thought into their options. Choosing Ecolé Bilingue was a carefully considered choice for Steve who admits learning foreign languages was not his forte. “Exposing her [to language] and art at an early age would be a huge gift,” says Steve. Within a few weeks, it was evident they had made the right choice, especially with Lily walking around the house singing—in French.
“The tie that bound her to the daycare program was her relationship with her teacher. [At Ecole Bilingue] it’s her relationship with the program,” says Steve, who sees it as a real opportunity for her to stretch her mind. His two-year-old son Will has since joined her.
Another important issue to consider, says Montessori’s Teddi, is class size, which can often be linked with the staff’s qualifications and expertise. “The lower the staff ratio, the more costly it becomes,” she says, well aware of parents concerns regarding tuition. “What you really want are highly trained, highly experienced people. One of the best pairings is having a very seasoned teacher, paired with a younger, trained, enthusiastic teacher,” adds Teddi.
Time becomes another important consideration for many parents. Do you want a half-day, full-day, or maybe a three-days-a-week program? For working parents, more often than not full-time preschool is their only option and they require programs offering aftercare until 5 or 6 pm. When preschool is not a necessity, Dr. Blackwell asks the question of whether or not a child or the parent is under or overwhelmed in the home environment and whether or not preschool would be a good option. If this is the case, Dr. Blackwell suggests at least a part-time program as a good option.
Another consideration is transitioning your child from a pre-k (pre-kindergarten) program to elementary school. Some parents look for a program offering pre-k through high school—to avoid transitions from one school to another in later years—while others don’t necessarily look so far into the future. This is not an option with the public schools as they tend to start at kindergarten.
According to Teddi, transitioning from pre-k to kindergarten is a natural progression parents should understand, and they should realize that changing programs is in no way a setback. “The way children learn at ages three and four is different than the way they learn later,” says Teddi. “You can put six year olds in desks and have them all do the same thing. That’s impossible with three and four year olds. Preschoolers are not goal-oriented, they don’t care about the end project; they are process oriented,” more concerned with how things work.
Even as early as preschool, some programs use testing to evaluate students as opposed to open enrollment. The thought of testing a preschooler can be daunting for both parent and child, so it’s crucial to understand the process—how your child is being tested, and what he is being tested for—before you start. Most schools use the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Revised. The Wechsler, as it’s referred to, is considered age-appropriate intelligence testing, not knowledge-based.
“I didn’t set it up as a big deal for them,” says Aimee Freeman of her two younger kids—eight-year-old Ella and six-year-old Scott—who both attend Metairie Park Country Day. “As a parent you have some anxiety but I didn’t let them know,” she adds. According to Dr. Blackwell, “The schools use the test scores as a portion of the total picture of a child’s potential success. These test scores have been found to correlate positively with academic performance.”
Transitioning from preschool to elementary and secondary education vary for each child depending on the type of preschool they attended and what characteristics you are looking for in a school as they move up, whether it’s parochial, private or public. “When they are that little, it’s not as easy,” says Aimee, referring to the preschool years, having already been through the processes with her two older children. “You know their strength and weaknesses as they get older and what environment would offer good learning skills to them.”
“Each school has something unique to offer,” says Katherine Diliberto, Director of Admissions for Stuart Hall School for Boys. “Get onto campuses, look at schools, ask questions, and talk to parents” she says.
After all, it’s more satisfying eating that snowball yourself than just hearing about it.