How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child
I had a small town vision of what preschool would look like for my kids. I went to a little preschool on a tiny island on a river in Pennsylvania called "Hickory Dickory Dock" and my grandfather would sometimes pick me up on our horse, Rusty.
I'm not joking.
So when we moved five miles from our first home in Los Angeles to our next, the magical preschool our daughter attended was an extra forty minutes (via freeway, not horseback).
I asked around about the "best" preschool close to our new home, signed her up, and envisioned all of my babies going there, having a decade long relationship at said school, with each of the "S-Bunch" enjoying their preschool days there, kumbaya, etc., etc.
Welp, life is what happens while you're busy planning it, and while no preschool is perfect, lets just say the new one was not for us. It took us two-and-a-half years of "hmmmm, that doesn't sound right/look right/feel right's" between my husband and I (and a smidge of discrimination) for us to finally get the heck out of dodge.
When we left, our daughter was already mid-way through an amazing kindergarten year at her new elementary school, and we found the right preschool for our oldest son. Preschool became something he loved rather than something he cried about. He has teachers who know and understand him; what makes him laugh til' he cries, which toys are his favorites and that he doesn't like to stick his hands in paint. And every time I've driven up to the school, the little boy who used to just run around by himself at his former school is engaged. Laughing and playing with his friends. Good ol' preschool happiness.
So here's your chance to learn from my mistakes, but more importantly to hear it firsthand from an amazing LA based preschool director, with 20 years experience, Claudine Douglas.
What to Ask on Your Preschool Tour
- What kind of planning goes into the children's day? How do you incorporate your learning philosophy?
Claudine Douglas: For us [developmental philosophy] means learning through play, hands-on projects, and art. If we are learning about butterflies the kids will see the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies, they will read books about butterflies, they will talk about symmetry and colors etc. The art of the bulletin boards will represent a portion of the learning that serves as a reminder of everything they are doing. We put great emphasis on social/emotional growth as well. Thus, every teacher must turn in lesson plans to both myself and our Curriculum Coordinator. This coordinator monitors the classroom environments and bulletin boards in collaborating with the teachers. I review all the lesson plans so that I can have thoughtful questions with parents and teachers when they arise. As a staff, we've developed a "scope and sequence" for every age. So while we honor where kids are at developmentally, we do have a sense of what concepts we are working toward for each age group. For example, we want two-year-olds to follow one step directions, start parallel play, sit for sustained carpet time for three to ten minutes, begin to learn shapes and colors, etc. Our e-blasts are so thorough with explaining both cognitive and social/emotional activities each week that we don't get many questions. I'm in the classrooms every day at minimum twice a day, so if there is something that comes up, I either am already informed or can observe myself. My staff knows I have high expectation but they have even higher ones for themselves.
2. Do you have a Board of Directors?
Claudine Douglas: With nonprofit organizations, such as a temple, there is always oversight by a Board of Trustees, which is ideally represented by all constituencies of the temple (including the schools). Some Boards are more involved than others but it's important that the Director attends Board meetings. Ideally, there is also a lay-leader/parent volunteer who also sits on the Board so that the preschool needs are always being considered and represented. Additionally, a Parent Committee made of parent volunteers is a vital component to a successful school. Involvement provides community, cohesiveness, collaboration and additional oversight with families.
3. How involved is your Parent Association?
Claudine Douglas: The partnership that happens with our Parent Committee and volunteers has a direct effect on the children. When kids see their families involved at the school/synagogue they experience a stronger connection to school themselves. Kids love seeing their family at school, whether for it be for one or two activities or every week sending out emails or delivering Challah on Fridays. Being involved, no matter how much, sends a message to everyone that we are in this together. Much like the phrase "it takes a village", we are all here for one another in the betterment of our children and community. Fundraising does have a place in the sustainability of nonprofit organizations. Many of our fundraising events are Temple wide and we often seek volunteers from all parts of the Temple to be involved, including our three schools (ECE, Elementary and Religious School).
3. How do you retain your teachers?
Claudine Douglas: Teacher turnover is a challenge for any school primarily because of the fact that it is a job of passion not pay. For me, I've found that it's important to feed the passion and find every teacher's "special power". By giving staff additional roles within the school that highlights their unique skill sets, you build more individual "ownership" of the whole school. When teachers are isolated to teaching in just their own classrooms, there isn't as much investment in the school as a whole. Every one of our teachers has an additional role whether they are an outdoor specialist, Shabbat leader, early care provider, supplies coordinator -- everyone's presence and expertise has tremendous value. Elevating the standards by providing professional readings, goals, and training sends a message to our early childhood teachers that they matter so much to our world.
4. Do you have cell phone use policies for your staff while they are teaching?
Claudine Douglas: This is something that is harder to monitor but we ask that teachers remember they are always representing our school and Temple. We have also had many staff meetings where I revisit appropriate uses for social media, when and where a cell phone can be used, and reiterate our expectations for professionalism. We do use cell phones for pictures, quick communication with parents if there was something someone was worried about at drop off, and for emergencies on the yard.
5. Do you have a handbook?
Claudine Douglas: [This is] vital so that everyone is on the same page with policies. It is also required by law per licensing requirements.
6. What do you do when a child is unhappy or crying at drop-off?
Claudine Douglas: I can't imagine any school where this doesn't happen. It even happened with my own children and I was here with them. We work very hard to truly "know" each child. We honor their feelings (and the parents' feelings) by helping them through the moments and then give them the tools to move through the feelings and transition to something they enjoy. We always send pictures too if we know it was rough on the parent.
7. How do you ensure that each child is accounted for?
Claudine Douglas: We have protocols and practices that are also included in [teacher's] job descriptions...I have high expectations and they do too. However, we do revisit the expectations often in our staff meetings. We assign teachers to areas of the yard to put out new items each day. So for a week at a time, Room 2 could be in charge of the grass area, etc. This keeps things fresh and exciting for everyone.
8. How will parents communicate with teachers if there's a concern?
Claudine Douglas: This is tricky because most of the time teachers are providing childcare so they can't really talk when they are in the ratio on the playground or engaging with kids at drop off in the classroom. I tell teachers that "drive-by conversations" often leave all concerned unsatisfied. I find that email, phone calls (I will often relieve a teacher to talk with a parent), and scheduled conference time before school is the best way to tackle bigger concerns. Many smaller ones can also be handled the same way.
Polite As Fudge: How can a parent choose a school like yours on the first try?
Claudine Douglas: Ask how the placement process works. Listen for words like individualized and differentiation for every child. Classrooms should be comprised of a variety of learners whenever possible. Age may matter but find out how that school approaches grouping by age or by multi-aged classrooms and why. Does the whole school staff get to know each of the kids? What involvement does the Director have in the day to day running of the classrooms and in counseling families with concerns regarding their child's development?
Polite As Fudge: What's your advice for parents who are overwhelmed by the process?
Claudine Douglas: Tour 2 -3 schools; more can be overwhelming. Re-tour your favorite if you aren't sure. Seek opinions from others who have kids similar to yours and whose beliefs/parenting philosophies are similar. Don't get caught up in the "you have to get on that waitlist" school because it's not always the right fit for every child.
Polite As Fudge: Pre-schoolers will be pre-schoolers. But I think there's something to occupying their time with new activities and stimulation. What's your take on the importance of engaging preschoolers?
Claudine Douglas: Their brains are always growing and absorbing. Playing, getting messy, resting on a mat while meditating, cooking their snack for the day, it's all a learning moment. Engaged is the best adjective to describe our staff and kiddos.
Polite As Fudge: How can a parent make sure that the school is doing what they say they’re doing?
Claudine Douglas: If the tour doesn't yield clear examples ask questions. Do you have a scope and a sequence/goals for every age group? How do you know that the children in your program are successful as they enter elementary school? Not just "getting into" schools but does the preschool director know about the local public and private elementary schools. Ask "what is your philosophy and why and how is it executed?"
Polite As Fudge: What is your day-to-day like as an Early Childhood Education director?
Claudine Douglas: Never the same and never dull!!! There are always teachers out, children not feeling well, families in crisis, board members that need something and children to observe. It's crazy and enriching all at the same time.
Have a little more time? Feel free to stay a while!
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