In New York City, it’s not uncommon to hear parents with infants-and even soon-to-be first-time parents-talk about applying to nursery schools. There are a lot of anxious questions in the air. When do I have to apply? How many schools? What if my child isn’t ready? What if we don’t get in anywhere? What if I can’t afford it or don’t want to spend that kind of money? Or what if I don’t really want to worry about this now-am I penalizing my child? For generations, most child development experts have been emphasizing how important the early years are to future success, so it’s not all that surprising that some parents are a little obsessed with giving their young children the best opportunities they can.
“In the first five years of life, you lay down the foundation for the child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development for the rest of their lives,” says W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
But you know what? Even if we assume that Barnett and his peers are essentially right about the importance of the early years, that doesn’t mean that a child has to be in a well-run private nursery school to have a nurturing, stimulating, fun and fulfilling early childhood.
So while there are more New York City parents than ever engaging in the private nursery school admissions process, there are others who are opting out, seeking alternatives for their child that seem less fraught and less expensive, but sound, safe and wonderful all the same. These alternatives include public pre-K programs; children’s activity centers with preschool-like classes (commonly known as “preschool alternative” programs); daycare centers with curriculums; and parent-centered arrangements, like a home-schooling approach, or a parent-based cooperative preschool.
Whichever direction you embark on, here are a few key rules of thumb to follow to ensure that your child’s early-educational environment is appropriate.
Before signing up for anything, make sure you visit the program or facility. Talk to parents who already have children enrolled in the program about its pros and cons. Talk to the teachers, who should have at least some background and experience in early education or with working with children.
Likewise, the children you see should be responding positively to their environment and the adults around them. For preschool age children, look for programs that feel child-centered and incorporate a lot of play and discovery into the learning process, as opposed to a rigid pre-planned curriculum and extensive use of worksheets.
Barnett, of Rutgers, says that ideally you want an environment that is “intellectually exciting for their child to be in and emotionally comfortable for the child… learning and feeling really go together.” He also says that individualization is very important. “If all the children’s artwork on the wall looks the same and like the teacher did it, or the teacher told all the children to do it the same way, that’s not a good sign. If the artwork on the wall looks like if you knew the children, you could figure out which ones they did, then chances are that’s a good place.”
Here are some of the particular pros and cons of each kind of nursery school alternative.
Activity and Enrichment Centers with “Preschool Alternative” Programs
Responding to the demand, many of the private children’s activity and enrichment centers around the city have established programs under the “Preschool Alternative” umbrella. Here’s a short list: Kidville, 74th Street Magic, Gymtime, Moonsoup, Culturehouse Kids, Citibabes, Apple Seeds and New York Kids Club. Like private preschools, these preschool alternative programs focus on allowing the child to learn through play, to socialize and form positive interaction skills, like sharing, cooperating and participating, and to learn to become independent from parents or caregivers.
“Preschool alternative” programs are helpful because they generally start at age 2-prime learning time for a child. They’re first come, first serve, so no stress of an interview, and no application deadlines, which is great for people who get a late start or who have recently relocated to the city.
There are also a variety of programs to fit different styles and needs. Some programs offer two or three days, while others offer five-day-a-week programs. Some offer child-only programs, while others have gradual separation. Environments in different programs vary, too. 74th Street Magic, for example, has its alternative program in the preschool classrooms of its other arm, the popular Epiphany Community Nursery School, while Culturehouse Kids meets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By speaking to the program directors, you can get a sense of their focus.
“The goals of our program are social development,” says Natalie Cronin-Reyes of Kidville. “I would not say we’re academic-those kinds of things sort of happen organically because we pay attention to what the children are curious about and we model our themes and curriculum around the interest of the children. But our primary goals are helping them get along (and) how to manage their first separation from their parent.”
Andrea Marsiano-Lepore of Culturehouse Kids adds that their program provides a “culturally enriched environment,” in which children can socialize and explore. In her classes, “children develop self confidence, social skills and a cultured appreciation of the world,” she says.
Although these programs don’t compare to the tuitions of private preschools, they can still cost upward of $12,000 per year and, depending on your schedule, you may need to find additional care for your child when your child is not in the program.
One more key point: C.Z. Zuckerman, of Citibabes, pointed out that the teachers in “preschool alternative” programs don’t have to be accredited (like they do in nursery school) and often aren’t. But if they’re affiliated with a reputable activity center-or with a nursery school-then typically the teachers have been vetted and are following a sound curriculum based on the institution’s other programs.
“I know this sounds like something parents should worry about, but they really shouldn’t be afraid if everything else seems right with the program,” Zuckerman says. “In fact, a lot of alternative programs are taught by actresses and artists-interesting people who can make things really interesting for children.”
Public Pre-K programs are offered at hundreds of New York City public schools, as well as at community-based organizations like childcare centers, religious institutions and nursery schools, though the latter are not directed by the Department of Education. A directory of all the public programs is listed on the Department of Education’s website, (http://schools.nyc.gov). These public pre-K programs offer either half- or whole-day schedules for five days a week.
There are many excellent public Pre-K programs, and not only are they excellent, they are free. Because of their growing popularity, the department has been amending the admissions process to try to make it as fair as possible, giving priority to families in the zone of a particular program, and relying on a lottery to make the final choices. The admissions system is therefore evolving, and families should refer to the department’s website for the most current information. Also check out insideschools.org, which is a reliable and insightful source for school news.
Last year, applications for admission into public school preschools had to be mailed by mid-April, and applicants were required to list five programs they would like their child to attend, in order of preference. Decisions were made by mid-May. As for pre-K programs held in community-based organizations, applications are accepted directly by the organizations, and the admissions process is open until October.
The downside of opting for public programs is that they only take children who are 4 years old (as of Dec. 31) and you’re not guaranteed a spot: it’s based on availability. Priority is given to siblings, then to zoned students, then to students in the district whose zoned school doesn’t offer pre-K, or district students with no zoned schools, and so on. You can find your zoned school by calling 311 or visiting the department’s website.
Darcy Jacobs, an editor at Family Circle Magazine and mother of two, decided to put her 4-year-old daughter in public school for pre-K, even though her 9-year-old son had attended a private pre-K program. In going public, Jacobs and her husband liked the idea that they could be sending their child to a quality program while saving a lot of money on the cost of private tuition. Her daughter attends the pre-K program at the Ella Baker School on the Upper East Side, which Jacobs originally heard about through word-of-mouth. So far, so good, she reports.
“The principal is amazing, it’s accessible, the teacher gives you her email…I find it a very warm environment,” Jacobs says. “And my daughter adores it. She can’t wait to go to school. Then, at home, she can’t wait to show things to us that she’s done.”
Daycare Centers With Pre-K Programs
There are also high-quality daycare centers that are essentially preschools with longer schedules for parents who need full-time childcare. These centers offer full-day, year-round childcare and take children as early as 6 weeks old. They admit children on a rolling basis. Children who attend these programs can benefit from continuity-the same people and children in the same place until they go off to grade school.
The House of Little People, for example, accepts children aged 3 months to 5 years old, and starts teaching the children as infants. “We start introducing the children in a curriculum, if you will, as soon as we get them in,” says Barbara Robinson, the program’s founder. She explains, “The infants are taught by sensory, so we can certainly introduce them to sound, to color, to smell and to all those good things (that) just enhance their learning ability for the next level of learning.”
Learning then continues in the toddler room and 5-year-old group. Children leave well-prepared for school, according to Robinson, and many go on to excellent private schools and gifted-and-talented programs in the public schools.
Another daycare center, Bright Horizons, actually works with local schools to prepare children for elementary school.
“Each Bright Horizons center develops expectations and practices in concert with the local schools that the children will be attending,” says Megan Kendall, regional manager of Bright Horizons in New York. “At the same time, the curriculum in every pre-K home base builds off the child’s knowledge base and skills, learning style and interests. There is a clear emphasis on the development of strong language, math and science skills. Important ‘school skills’ of listening carefully, following through on a sequence of tasks and working cooperatively are reinforced.”
Because these daycare programs offer full-time care, they can be more expensive than other preschool alternatives. Although they have rolling admissions, they often have a waiting list, particularly since most children start at infancy and stay until they are ready to go to school.
Parent Cooperative Preschools or Homeschooling
Parent-based nursery school co-ops, like homeschooling, isn’t as common in New York City as it is in other parts of the country. But for parents who are interested in taking a more direct role in their children’s early education, these are options-if it’s possible to find like-minded parents to join forces with, or to find mutual support, in the case of homeschooling.
A parent cooperative preschool can be organized is a variety of ways. Some are essentially playgroups in which parents take turns teaching the children, while others become nonprofit, professionally run preschools in which parents participate in all aspects of the school.
Regardless of the level of formality, these co-ops become closely knit communities. There are also rewards that come with being deeply involved in your child’s education. Because parents are active in all aspects of running the preschool, they don’t have to hire outside help, so the costs are less than that of other programs.
The preschool 43rd Street Kids is a parent cooperative located in federally subsidized housing for artists and was founded by parents more than 20 years ago. Now, a staff of professionals with master’s degrees runs the school with extensive parental involvement. According to Virginia Parks, the school administrator, parents act as assistants in class, they fundraise, sit on a variety of committees, work to keep the school maintained and attend meetings to help make decisions.
“The family involvement is crucial to us,” Parks says. “Because we have parents helping out in the classroom, we feel that the children become comfortable with parents of other children, and it makes a nice community.”
Still, you have to have the time and energy to participate in these preschools. You may also need to be prepared to deal with other parents who don’t share your views or have sufficient early childhood education backgrounds.
Of course, parents can also opt to teach their child at home. It’s a money-saver, and parents can control what their child learns. There are now many online resources for parents and homeschooling support groups are popping up all around, like at meetup.com or leah.com. These resources become very important if parents decide to continue homeschooling after pre-K, in terms of knowing the laws about homeschooling.
Parents who homeschool must also make an extra effort to build the child’s social skills by finding playgroups or taking them to activity classes. They’ll also need to consider how to build some kind of separation experience into their child’s life.
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