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Preschool Decision: Guide to Picking the Right One for Your Child

Should you pick a cooperative, childcare-based, church-affiliated, Montessori or school district affiliated program? Get a bit of insight.

Shopping for a preschool is not exactly like buying a burger. Curriculum is one factor – and, perhaps even more so, the staff and philosophy. What parent wouldn't want a welcoming environment where classroom instructors treat their young students with respect and nurture their unique differences?

Well, with all of the options available in southeast Michigan, you still may be able to have it "your way." Whether you're looking for a preschool that encourages more parent involvement, one that offers before- and after-school care or one centered on religious instruction, there's a preschool out there for your child.

Cooperative preschools

Cooperative preschools, or co-ops, are preschools that have traditionally required a high level of parent involvement. Parents help in the classroom, serve on the board and are assigned specific tasks or jobs that support the day-to-day running of the classroom. For example, a parent may be asked to take home towels to wash or make Play-Doh at home for the children to use in the classroom.

However, with today's busy schedules, many co-ops have adapted by relaxing some of their requirements. At the nonprofit Mayfair Co-op Preschool in Farmington Hills, for example, parents are assigned a year-long task that can be as involved as board membership – or more behind-the-scenes, at-home work.

Parents choose from an application that lists all the jobs and what they entail, explains assistant teacher Fran Brown.

"We always make sure to try to give them their top options," Brown says. "We try our best make everybody happy." The involvement is the selling point, says Brown – herself a mom of two, including a son who participated in the 4s program.

"I really fell in love," Brown says. "It's such a self-esteem booster for children to have their parents involved. I think the kids really feel the pride."

Weekly summer play dates keep that going. "You're staying involved for the entire year," Brown says. Even her son, who's now in full-time kindergarten, still goes to the play times to catch up with is pals. "It's really a lifelong friendship that you're making."

Because of the high level of parental involvement, the adult/child ratio at Mayfair is about 1-to-4 or 2-to-7, so parents know their child is getting a lot of attention. Its curriculum is focused on learning through play – and centered on social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Tuition at Mayfair is on par with similar programs in the area. To keep tuition low, fundraising is required. There's also a $150 fundraising goal per family per year. There are a variety of options, from pizza kits to bowling nights to a silent auction – or parents can opt to write a flat-rate check.

Visit the Greater Detroit Cooperative Nursery Council directory to find an option near you.

Childcare center preschools

Due to long work schedules and commutes, many parents require a full-day program with wrap-around childcare. Childcare centers are often the perfect choice for such families.

The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development – which has local schools in Canton, Lake Orion and Macomb – has programs serving kids from infant to school age (about 6 weeks old to about 5 old; may vary by location).

Here, the programs aim to create "confident, joyful and fully prepared students," Goddard's website notes. Preschoolers' development is fostered in learning centers for math, science, dramatic play, music, creative art and computers; kids experience fitness, art history and manners, too.

Tuition rates tend to be competitive in the preschool/early childhood development center market.

Church-affiliated preschools

Like childcare centers, church-affiliated preschools vary from program to program as to curriculum and level of parent involvement, as well as the level of religious education introduced into the classroom.

First Steps Preschool is an outreach ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Brighton.

 

Director and lead teacher Lisa Guise says children at the preschool don't attend chapel or formal religious education classes, though lessons on biblical themes such as love, patience, kindness and self-control are woven into the curriculum. And kids do pray before snack, and kids occasionally meet with the pastor or associate pastor to learn about God and Christian holidays. A vacation bible camp is available in summer, too.

Guise says teachers model the Christian way of life, emphasizing values such as showing respect and kindness to one another.

And all faiths are welcome. "It's not intended to force a religion on people that they may not believe in," Guise says.

She described the curriculum as a play- and developmentally-based program. Children are encouraged to develop at their own rate. For example, the alphabet is introduced, but formal reading instruction is not forced on children who aren't ready. Teachers expound on it with kids that are capable of doing more, Guise says.

Like many church-affiliated preschools, First Steps does not offer before- and after-care. Morning and afternoon classes, which last a few hours, are available from mid-September to May. The program is two days a week for 3-year-olds and three for 4-year-olds. A junior preschool program for "young 3s" is also available two days a week – or, if enrollment numbers aren't quite met for that, a "parent and tot" program.

Parental help in the classroom is encouraged but not required, except in the junior preschool class. Guise says tuition is comparable to similar programs in Livingston County. A discount is offered for families with multiple children attending the preschool.

Montessori preschools

Parents looking into a Montessori preschool may do so with a bigger picture in mind: Many offer classes from birth through high school.

While programs may differ slightly from school to school, each essentially is centered on the same core philosophy Maria Montessori established – including learning the belief that all children have the innate ability to learn, but they do so at different rates.

At Go Like the Wind Montessori in Ann Arbor, kids use equipment in classrooms at their own developmental level (the school, set on 40 acres, spans infant through ninth grade). For example, the infant room is equipped with tiny furniture, items on the floor and mirrors. The toddler room has bigger shelves, tables and a gross motor skills area.

Kids use materials in a specialized way and repeat the work again and again until they master the concept they are working on. Classrooms are multi-age and run five days a week.

While parents don't volunteer in the classroom at Montessori schools, they can get involved in a variety of ways. At Go Like the Wind, that includes five "family service hours" (per every 12 months) – or a $50 payment to its "Parent Teacher Support Association."

Before- and after-school care varies from school to school, and scholarships may be available to those in need.

To find a Montessori school near you, visit the North American Montessori Teachers' Association's School Directory.

School district preschools

The children who attend public school-conducted preschools may get a leg up, says Lisa Gryglak, supervisor of Bloomin' Preschools, operated by Bloomfield Hills Schools. She says a big advantage is the collaboration of the preschool and kindergarten teachers – and wealth of knowledge that comes with it. It helps the teachers align the curricula to help prep kids for kindergarten.

Offerings are connected to three elementary schools. Its Conant, Fox Hills and Lone Pine locations offer preschool programming for tykes ages 2.5 to 5 years old (the latter two also have infant and toddler programs starting at 6 weeks).

Programs are child-centered and use a "creative curriculum program" centered on supportive, engaging environments, the Bloomin' site notes. To boot, Conant and Lone Pine are authorized IB Primary Years Programme schools – while Fox Hills is a "Visible Thinking" school, geared at fostering creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration.

Activities are hands-on and theme-based, Gryglak adds, and focus on academic and cultural growth – plus social and emotional. "If that piece isn't in place, it's really hard to do anything else," she says.

While programs are district-managed, they're tuition-based. Gryglak says the district can't spend state funding on anything but K-12 programming. It also offers small class sizes and childcare: wraparound at Fox Hills, and before-care only (prior to 9:15 a.m. and after 3:15 p.m.) at Conant and Lone Pine.

Gryglak says all locations encourage involvement. Parents may sign up to help in class. The Fox Hills location has a PTO (parents at the other two locations are encouraged to join the main elementary schools' PTOs).

Call your local elementary school or board of education office to find out if your school district offers a preschool program.

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