1. "We're licensed, but that doesn't mean we're any good."
Most three- and four-year-olds go to preschool these days a big switch from 1960, when just 10 percent of them did, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. More working mothers and a wide acceptance of the benefits of early education have fostered the growth of preschools. But there's a downside: Many aren't very good. "The quality of preschools is highly variable, and overall quality is on the low side," says Steve Barnett, director of NIEER.
One reason: Most state licensing requirements pertain to safety and health rather than quality. That means a school might take extra care to make sure the toilet bowl plunger isn't within a toddler's reach, but it might not require its teachers to have much education. Some states, in fact, don't require any academic degree to be a preschool teacher.
One indicator of quality is whether the school has received accreditation from an outside organization. The largest accrediting body is the National Association for the Education of Young Children. To find information on that group's requirements as well as a locator for accredited preschools, visit its Web site, at www.naeyc.org.
2. "Bus drivers make more than our teachers."
The most pressing problem for preschools is hiring and keeping good teachers. And it's little wonder why. The average annual salary for a preschool teacher is $22,200, less than what a bus driver or a concierge makes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Low pay means high turnover: Average teacher turnover at preschools ranges between 30 and 50 percent annually, says NAEYC. Those who do stay may not be well trained.
How can a parent tell if a teacher is a modern-day Mister Rogers? In addition to looking for college degrees in early-childhood development and years of experience, parents should observe teachers at work. Sandra Duncan, vice president of HighReach Learning, a Charlotte, N.C., developer of preschool curricula, says good teachers have sore knees because they continually stoop to the child's level to speak to them. Good teachers also know their students well. Brandy Bergman, a mother of two in Westchester, N.Y., said she knew her daughter's teacher was top-notch because she could recount specifics of her daughter's playground conversations. Another factor: having plenty of teachers. NAEYC recommends a ratio of one teacher for every 10 three-year-olds.
3. "Learning the ABCs won't prepare your tot for kindergarten."
Preschool used to be solely about sandboxes and finger-painting. But more standardized testing in elementary schools, as well as concerned parents who think learning the alphabet by age four will pave their tot's way to the Ivy League, has pushed academics into preschools. Some schools hand out worksheets in class and have toddlers memorizing letters and numbers.
At the end of the school day, preschoolers may not need as much academics as some parents may think. What's more, education experts say overemphasizing academics can actually hamper a child's emotional and social development.
The skills kindergarten teachers look for the most are those that allow for academic learning, such as following directions or sitting attentively during story time, says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development specialist and founder of Parenting Pathways in Pacific Palisades, Calif. She says parents should look for schools that integrate the ABCs into playtime and encourage activities that engage the senses and emotions, which is how children learn best. A project that includes making lemonade, for example, could also involve lessons about measuring and counting.
4. "We don't have time for tantrums."
Preschools differ dramatically when it comes to discipline methods, ranging from New Agey "time outs" to old-fashioned reprimands of "Stop running!" One preschool gives out stickers to tots, branding them with red ones if they've had too many outbursts.
But ultimately, a child's cognitive and social development is best encouraged through collaboration, discussion and discovering the hows and whys of their actions, according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals. In other words, it may take more time, but discipline is another opportunity to teach.
That's one reason why Betsy Brown Braun says even benign time-outs miss the boat for preschoolers who aren't old enough to contemplate the rights and wrongs of their behavior. A better approach is to stop the inappropriate behavior and help the child understand why it was wrong by talking with them about their actions.
Parents should ask preschool directors and teachers if they have a written policy regarding discipline and inquire about what training the school provides its teachers to help implement it. Untrained teachers may simply fall back on the discipline techniques they experienced as children.
5. "Separation from your toddler takes more time than you think."
For many toddlers and parents, one of the most significant experiences of preschool is being apart from each other. Yet for some schools, how> children and parents separate isn't enough of a priority.
"We were told to politely drop our kid off and then haul ass," says Eric Noble, an Orange County, Calif., parent, about his son's preschool's separation policy. "My wife hated it."
The process can be even tougher on the kids. If it isn't handled thoughtfully, children may act out, regressing in their toilet training or clinging to parents back at home. Jill Strauss, managing editor of Scholastic Parent & Child magazine, says some preschools will have a teacher visit the child at home before school starts.
During in-home visits, teachers at Resurrection Preschool in Chicago invite the child to paint his name on an apron that the teacher wears the first day of school. Teachers play with the child and then leave behind a photo of themselves so he or she can become familiar with them. Debbie Mytych, Resurrection's director, says once school begins, preschools should allow parents to stay with their child for a period of time and gradually leave the child alone at school. Depending on the family, the process can take days or weeks.
6. "Get ready to work overtime."
Many cash- and staff-strapped preschools not only welcome parental involvement, they require it. In many schools parents are prodded to lend a hand, which can mean everything from making snacks for 30 kids at a time to trimming the bushes outside the school's gates. Some go even further, charging a nominal fee, say, $100, for parents who want to opt out.
But some parental involvement at a preschool is far preferable to the alternative none at all. If a preschool doesn't have an open-door policy for parents to drop in and visit their kids, many experts say you should take a close look at why. "It's a huge red flag," says Claudette Pittman, an adjunct professor in early childhood education at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, Calif. She recalls a preschool in San Gabriel, Calif., that had a full staff during the morning when parents dropped kids off, but then let most of the staff go, plummeting the ratio of teachers to toddlers.
At the very least, preschools should have a system enabling parents to communicate with them, whether it's calling the director or tacking suggestions on a message board. And if schools don't require any parental effort, they should welcome it when it's offered.
7. "We serve more junk food than McDonald's."
Decades ago what kids ate in preschool didn't register high on the list of parental concerns. But with childhood obesity rising, more and more parents are easing up on the cookies and Cheetos. Still, many preschools remain junk food feasts despite federal and state nutrition guidelines that require balanced meals. Melissa Weiner, a Blacksburg, Va., resident, says cookies, pretzels, Popsicles and sugar-coated cereals were standard snack-time fare at her son's preschool.
Some preschools impose strict nutrition guidelines. Little Village Nursery School in Los Angeles, for example, has a no-sugar policy for its snacks. Others will honor special dietary requests. Strauss, at Scholastic Parent & Child, for example, requested that her son be served water rather than juice.
Education experts say if preschools don't accommodate parents' dietary requests, then they should at least address allergy concerns. That means forbidding peanut butter and keeping toddlers from sharing their home-made treats.
8. "We're harder to get into than Harvard."
Getting your child into a preschool of your choice can be as difficult as getting him or her into an elite college and these days, that's true whether you're in a big city or not. In urban centers such as Los Angeles and New York, anxious parents put their newborns on preschool waiting lists. But even in smaller cities and suburbs, the competition for preschool enrollment is tough. Eric Noble, of Orange County, Calif., says he and his wife were given three days to decide whether to take a coveted slot at a local preschool.
So just how do preschools decide who gets in and who doesn't? Much of the time, it's the luck of the draw. But preschools also give preference. Families with a sibling who's attended the preschool usually have priority, as do families who pony up money for toddler programs, which begin before preschool starts. If a preschool is run by a church or a synagogue, members may get a leg up.
There are other considerations too. Since preschools strive to balance their classrooms, a child's gender and even temperament can affect admission. Many preschools want diversity, so race and religion also play a role.
Of course, whom you know counts too. Julie Weed, a mother in Seattle, says she got her kids into a preschool after friends within her mommy network recommended her.
9. "Our pricey tuition is just the start."
Preschool tuition now costs as much as college tuition in many places across America. An all-day preschool in Durham, N.C., can run $7,000, while in Montclair, N.J., it can cost as much as $16,500. But the bigger sticker shock is that tuition is just the start of the money drain.
Because the number of children a preschool can accept is limited by the number it can physically accommodate, revenue growth is limited, but the costs of running the school aren't. Despite low teacher salaries, 55 cents of every dollar a preschool takes in goes toward labor, taxes and insurance costs such as workers' compensation, according to Duncan at HighReach Learning. Often, aggressive fundraising fills in the gap, with as much as 20 percent of a preschool's budget coming from annual galas or auctions. Preschools also aggressively solicit parents for direct donations. Brandy Bergman in Westchester, for example, has bought holiday gifts at her daughter's preschool's annual crafts fair and purchased a book for its library. When the synagogue that runs the school asked her for a donation, she ponied up close to $2,000.
For families on a budget, there are few options. Some preschools offer scholarships; there are also cooperative preschools run by other parents. Nancy Branka, an Oakland, Calif., mother of two, slashed her costs by nearly 30 percent by joining a co-op. But she found herself putting in as much as 12 hours a month to handle the school's finances.
10. "We don't always follow our own education philosophy."
Most preschools profess to have a guiding philosophy. Some follow specific theories espoused by education pioneers like Maria Montessori. Others buy materials and curriculum plans from education companies.
But while they may have a plan on paper, many preschools may not follow it in practice. Accreditation offers some guarantee that schools will stick to their program, but even that isn't airtight. NAEYC, for example, accredits schools just every five years.
Parents can step in by checking in on the classroom and paying attention to how it looks and feels. "A preschool classroom should hum," Duncan says. It should also be designed for children. Artwork should be hung low, where children can readily view it. And if the watercolor clowns all look the same, it may mean the teacher has done more of the art than Tommy's inner Picasso.
NIEER's Barnett says parents should also check what the daily lesson plans are and whether they include activities their child enjoys. Ultimately, the biggest indicator of whether a preschool will work is if both the child and the parent feel good when they go there.