10 QUES­TIONS TO ASK ABOUT PRESCHOOL

10 things to know about your child’s preschool

201 Family - - FRONT PAGE - WRIT­TEN BY MICHELE JA­WORSKI PHO­TOGRAPHED AT RIDGE SCHOOL, RIDGE­WOOD BY ANNE-MARIE CARUSO CLOTH­ING AND SHOES COUR­TESY OF PUMP­KIN & BEAN, EN­GLE­WOOD FASH­ION STYLING BY HEATHER ZWAIN AND JO­RAM MUSHINSKE

This month, thou­sands of chil­dren will en­ter kinder­garten in our area. There will likely be trep­i­da­tions and tears, but many chil­dren will sim­ply wave good­bye to their par­ents as they saunter in with all the con­fi­dence and poise a 5-year-old can muster. That’s be­cause for many, if not most, this is more back to school than off to school.

Na­tion­wide, 42 per­cent of chil­dren have had some kind of school ex­pe­ri­ence prior to kinder­garten, and in Ber­gen County it is rare for a child not to have that head start. For some young­sters this may have been a one year pre-K pro­gram. Oth­ers may have up to three years of preschool un­der their belts. Ei­ther way, young stu­dents are en­ter­ing kinder­garten more aca­dem­i­cally and so­cially ex­pe­ri­enced than their par­ents were at that age.

How im­por­tant is it that chil­dren have preschool ex­pe­ri­ence? “Very,” says Lor­raine Castel­lano, the owner and direc­tor of LEAP Preschool in Ram­sey. “Having a pos­i­tive preschool ex­pe­ri­ence sets the stage for higher learn­ing later on,” she says, “as well as fur­ther­ing so­cial and emo­tional devel­op­ment.”

In­deed much data bears wit­ness to this and many public school and state- funded pro­grams are ex­tend­ing preschool ac­cess to more and more chil­dren.

Still, much of the preschool land­scape is pop­u­lated by pri­vate pro­grams. The ma­jor­ity are non­sec­u­lar in­de­pen­dent schools. But you will also find church/tem­ple-af­fil­i­ated schools, cul­tur­ally af­fil­i­ated schools and co­op­er­a­tives where par­ents are required to vol­un­teer at the school a cer­tain num­ber of hours per month. With tu­ition some­times ap­proach­ing that of a state col­lege, preschool can be a sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment. So it pays to do your home­work when se­lect­ing one for your child.

Here are 10 things to con­sider:

How old must my child be to at­tend?

That de­pends on the school. Preschools are li­censed to take chil­dren as young as 21⁄ 2. Any younger and they need to ad­here to a dif­fer­ent set of guide­lines. Even so, some schools may only take chil­dren older than 3, or just have pro­grams for 4 and 5 year olds, so you will need to check with the school. And while you are at it, ask about the di­a­per pol­icy. Some schools won’t ac­cept chil­dren who are not yet toi­let trained, so be clear about the school’s pol­icy.

What’s the cur­ricu­lum and phi­los­o­phy of the school?

Most preschools are ex­pos­ing chil­dren to aca­demics in some form; it’s more a mat­ter of when and how.

LEAP in Ram­sey fol­lows an eclec­tic play-based ap­proach where con­cepts and in­for­ma­tion are in­tro­duced within the con­text of play­ing. This is ap­pre­ci­ated by Ram­sey’s Shan­non McLaugh­lin. “My old­est child went to preschool in the city, and that was the typ­i­cal New York ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. “This time around I wanted some­thing sim­pler. Not so much a school set­ting. No work­sheets, no dit­tos.”

The school should be able to ar­tic­u­late and share your child’s learn­ing goals and cur­ricu­lum with you. Cliff­side Park par­ent Nina Flo­gaites sends her 4-year-old daugh­ter to Palisades Pre-school and Kinder­garten in Fort Lee. “This school has the per­fect bal­ance for my fam­ily,” Flo­gaites says. “There is a grad­ual in­tro­duc­tion to aca­demics and literacy, but they also em­pha­size sci­ence which is very im­por­tant to us.”

What is the daily rou­tine?

The struc­ture and flow of the day is a clue to the phi­los­o­phy of the school. “Struc­ture is im­por­tant,” points out Castel­lano. “Kids need to know what comes next. Within that there should be a bal­ance between large and small group ac­tiv­i­ties.”

You should be com­fort­able with how your child will be spend­ing his day, but for­get about us­ing your own ex­pe­ri­ence to bench­mark what goes on in to­day’s preschool. “Kids are more so­phis­ti­cated th­ese days,” Castel­lano says. “I’m do­ing things in the 3-year-old classes that I used to do with kinder­gart­ners!”

Look for breadth of ac­tiv­i­ties.

Child­hood is a time of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and of­fer­ings that pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity to try a myr­iad of ac­tiv­i­ties. Some schools pro­vide spe­cials such as mu­sic, art or lan­guage as part of the cur­ricu­lum, or things like cook­ing, Tai Kwon Do and the like as af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties.

Susie Lee Jin of Fort Lee is par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by the range of ac­tiv­i­ties that her son’s preschool pro­vides. “The field trips the kids have and the visi­tors that are in­vited to do spe­cial pro­grams with the kids are won­der­ful,” she says.

How are the school and staff cre­den­tialed?

To call them­selves a preschool, in­sti­tu­tions in the state of New Jer­sey must be li­censed. The re­quire­ments for li­cen­sure are many and re­late to phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment as well as staff cre­den­tials.

Note that un­der New Jer­sey state re­quire­ments, not all preschool teach­ers need to have a col­lege de­gree in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion. In fact they don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to have a col­lege de­gree at all as long as they are work­ing within the staff ra­tio guide­lines of the state and un­der the su­per­vi­sion of an ap­pro­pri­ately li­censed teacher. Be­yond that, it is left to the in­di­vid­ual preschool how they will staff their class­rooms.

For Flo­gaites, this was an im­por­tant fac­tor. “I knew the teach­ers at the school had teach­ing de­grees and that they were required to go to pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment work­shops,” she says. “When I ob­served them I im­me­di­ately got the im­pres­sion that they were pro­fes­sional, knowl­edge­able in their field and ex­pe­ri­enced.”

What is the at­mos­phere like?

No mat­ter your pref­er­ence for cur­ricu­lum or aca­demic em­pha­sis, we’re still talk­ing preschool and most par­ents are look­ing for a warm and car­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

Castel­lano says staff in­ter­ac­tion gives you a good in­di­ca­tion of this. “No­tice how teach­ers are re­spond­ing and re­act­ing to the chil­dren,” she says. “Are they bend­ing down to greet and talk to the kids? Are they mak­ing eye con­tact?”

McLaugh­lin says, “Rely on your in­stinct. No­tice how com­fort­able you feel when you go to the school.”

Is the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment ap­pro­pri­ate?

First and fore­most, check for se­cu­rity. It should be a given, but Lee Jin points out that when she was vis­it­ing preschools one school had no se­cu­rity and she was able to “walk right in” with­out chal­lenge. Con­versely, chil­dren should not be able to wan­der about or gain ac­cess to the out­doors with­out adult ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

On a re­lated note, be wary of schools that limit par­ent ac­cess. Palisades Pre-School & Kinder­garten Head Teacher Anne Marie Bish­opp says her school has an open door pol­icy when it comes to par­ents. “They are wel­come any­time,” she says, “and we even have one-way glass in our class­rooms, so par­ents can ob­serve their kids.”

Next, check out the class­rooms. Look to see that things are ac­ces­si­ble to kids and at their eye level. Out­door play is also an im­por­tant preschool com­po­nent, so be sure to look at that space. How is the space ac­cessed? Does it have age-ap­pro­pri­ate equip­ment? It should be safe and se­cure. Flo­gaites took spe­cial pains to eval­u­ate play ar­eas when she was look­ing at schools. “I didn’t want the play area to be near a high­way, be­cause of fumes, or a busy road for safety,” she says.

What feed­back will the school pro­vide?

Re­port cards at age 3 does sound a lit­tle harsh, but let’s face it, par­ents want to know what is go­ing on and how their child is do­ing. So ask schools you are con­sid­er­ing how and what they will com­mu­ni­cate to you.

Castel­lano says her school tracks a child’s skills and in­di­vid­ual progress. They send home progress notes and re­ports and hold in­di­vid­ual con­fer­ences for par­ents. Flo­gaites loves the weekly emails and monthly cal­en­dar from her child’s teacher that keeps her up to date on what is go­ing on in the class­room, so she can sup­port that learn­ing at home.

What op­tions ex­ist for chil­dren with spe­cial needs?

Many school dis­tricts pro­vide preschool pro­grams for stu­dents with spe­cial needs, so check in with your district as a first step. Ad­di­tion­ally, some in­de­pen­dent schools are in­clu­sion ori­ented and have staff ac­cred­ited in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion. It’s best to be up­front about your child’s needs, ad­vises Bish­opp, so that you and the school can as­sess if the school is a good fit for your child.

What do par­ents say about the preschool their child at­tends?

You can and should do your own re­search when con­sid­er­ing a school. Make sure to visit the schools on your short list and plan to spend some time ob­serv­ing and not just tour­ing. But the real acid test is how par­ents talk about their child’s preschool.

Flo­gaites says her child’s school treats par­ents and kids “like rock stars!” Lee Jin loves the di­ver­sity of her child’s school. And McLaugh­lin says there is no bet­ter in­di­ca­tor than that her child is happy and ea­ger to go to school each day.

GET­TING READY FOR THE BIG TIME A pos­i­tive preschool ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vides solid aca­demic prepa­ra­tion for kinder­garten.

EX­PE­RI­ENCE COUNTS Choose a preschool where teach­ers are required to have teach­ing de­grees.

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