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Tips For Picking The Perfect Preschool

Local experts agree: quality early childhood education is key. These three easy steps will help you ensure your child's first school is up to snuff.

If you're the parent or guardian of a toddler and you're looking for a quality early childhood education program, you've probably found yourself asking: "Where do I start?"

There are a lot of things to keep in mind when searching for the perfect preschool for your precious youngster. The environment, instructors and curriculum all contribute to the overall experience and create an educational foundation for your child that will be built on for years to come.

So how do you tell a quality preschool program from one that's merely passing by – or one that's not much more than a day care facility? It's not as hard as you might think. Here are three easy steps to help you on your hunt for a premium program.

Step No. 1: Do your homework

When it comes to finding a preschool program that's a great fit for your family, the key is research. Lucky for you, a big part of that research has been done for you in Excellent Schools Detroit's Early Learners Scorecard.

According to Denise Smith, vice president for early learning at Excellent Schools Detroit, the new preschool scorecard is a complement to the group's K-12 scorecard it released earlier in 2013. In it, Detroit early childhood education programs were assessed based on environment, activities and curriculum and other factors and given a letter grade.

Shawness Woods-Zende, a quality improvement consultant at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, says parents and guardians also can check out the Great Start CONNECT website. Powered by The Early Childhood Investment Corporation, this site allows parents to search for early childhood group homes, family homes, centers and preschools – all registered and licensed. You can also get information on details, such as ages accepted, application fees, payment schedules, hours of operation, meals provided, how long centers have been operating and much more.

Step No. 2: Consider Curriculum

There's one major thing to look for that can mean the difference between quality preschool and a glorified daycare facility: a curriculum, which is basically a lesson plan.

"Ask, 'What is your curriculum?' If they don't know what a curriculum is, then they're probably just child care," says Toni Hartke, director of Wayne County Great Start Collaborative – which is fine, if that's all you're looking for.

While there is a wide range of curricula, certain ones are preferred by the Great Start Quality Rating and Improvement System, Woods-Zende says. The Great Start Quality Rating and Improvement System rates centers and programs with one to five stars for certain factors, such as the program's environment, staff qualifications and curriculum. The rating system is used on the Great Start CONNECT website.

"There are many different curriculums or many different tools that people use to build their own curriculums – or providers use to build their own curriculums," she says. "However, with the measurements that we use, we ask that people use research-based curriculum."

According to the Michigan Department of Education, "research-based and research-validated" means that it's based on child development research and has "demonstrated the effectiveness of the curriculum model in improving outcomes or results for children."

Look into each curriculum. Hartke says parents should then compare the different curricula to ensure it's a right fit for them. "You need to make sure whatever their philosophy and their curriculum is, it fits with your needs," she says. "Otherwise, you're setting yourself up already to not be happy with the experience."

According to the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, some of the most common research-validated curricula are: Bank Street, Creative Curriculum (Infant and toddler, preschool) Creative Curriculum for Family Child Care, HighScope Curriculum (Infant and toddler, preschool), Montessori, Parents as Teachers, Project Approach, Reggio Emilia, and Tools of the Mind.

Step No. 3: Visit your top picks

Now that you've got a few preschools in mind, it's time to pay the centers of choice a visit.

"I would always recommend if parents are doing a search, that they do a visit more than once. So a scheduled visit and then another one later," Smith says.

Hartke stresses the importance of visits as well. One of the big questions she thinks parents should is ask is whether teachers do assessments of the students and their development.

"That's going to help us determine whether the children have some needs that need to be addressed and we need a referral prior to them going into the K-12 system," she adds.

In addition, parents can do a few other things to make sure the early childhood center they're visiting is a quality center. Monica Duncan, Michigan's regional director of First Children's Finance, says to not only pay attention to the interactions and what the environment looks like, but also, "what do you feel" when you visit?

Since not all children learn the same, Smith says it's important to make sure a program "provides opportunity for individual learning."

Beware of "parent pleaser projects," such as a colored picture, Hartke adds, noting those can be "cookie cutter."

"You want your child to have individual experiences and a lot of time to use their imagination, work at their own pace and then have the teacher(s) be people that are actually developing a plan around that child and what they observe in that child," she says.

What if the school won't let you visit? That's a BIG red light! "If they won't let you visit, then there's something wrong," Hartke says.

Cross them off your list and move on to another promising preschool until you find a good match that makes you feel confident.

Teacher and caregiver qualifications

When it comes to what to look for in directors teachers and caregivers at an early childhood facility, keep in mind there are certain standards they need to meet in their education. Hartke says parents should make sure instructors have at least a Child Development Associate credential, or a CDA. Background in early childhood is good, too. And the Great Start Quality Rating and Improvement System awards points for CDAs and higher education, too, notes Smith.

"The idea behind it is the more educated the teacher is, the more knowledge they have in early childhood development, how children's brains work, how they grow," adds Woods-Zende. "That helps to make better lesson plans, make better active learning experiences – so then, again, the outcomes are better for them. And that's all research-based. We know that research tells us that when we have better-educated and qualified teachers, then children do better and the outcomes for them are better."

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