There's more than one good preschool in town

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Bonnie Wilkins enrolled her daughter in a preschool two years ago she chose a five-morning-a-week Montessori school where, among other considerations, she felt the materials were conducive to learning the basic skills, and as a parent she had a say in the school's policies.

When Christine Wiger began looking into preschools for her three-year-old last fall, she found a community education-sponsored program in the elementary school a block away from her North St. Paul home where the ''academic setting,'' as she puts it, ''makes Jessica feel it's the real thing.''

When Opal Robinson, a south Minneapolis mother wanted four-year-old Jelani to ''learn and play with kids his own age,'' she relied on Head Start for a two-day-a-week program of structured activities and nutrition.

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In the Minneapolis-St. Paul seven-county area there are more than 500 full and half-day preschool programs for three- to five-year-old youngsters. According to a survey by the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare, approximately three-fourths of the programs (responding to the survey) operate as nonprofit institutions; 24 percent are proprietary - owned by individuals, partnerships, or corporations - and less than 2 percent are public; i.e., federally subsidized or under the aegis of a school district.

While distinctions by ownership provide useful data for statistics such as the above, they do not necessarily indicate the quality of a program.

''There is a tendency in our society to consider child care that is 'nonprofit' as more noble in purpose,'' says one state department of education official. ''Which, of course, is an unfair assumption.''

Notes a suburban St. Paul parent whose son attends one in a chain of 16 preschool/child development centers in the Twin Cities owned by a national corporation: ''The toys and learning materials (at his school) are top quality and plentiful. The building and playground are safe and designed specifically for young children. The staff is qualified, competent, and energetic.

''The fact that a company may be making a profit doesn't bother me as long as my child is profiting from the program.''

Thus the selection of a preschool is a highly subjective process. Beyond a safe, stimulating environment and a competent, caring staff, what is a priority to one parent - a teacher with 15 years experience or a Montessori-based curriculum - may not be paramount to another. For parents whose priorities include low cost, close to home and quality care, the options are often limited.

To increase those options, and to reach more youngsters and parents through its community education program, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District 622 has taken an interesting, albeit logical, step.

Last fall, with the aid of a $6,500 grant from the Minnesota Department of Education, District 622 expanded its Early Childhood/Family Education Program to include a nursery school component - called Preschool Educational Experience - in four elementary schools.

Currently 125 three- to five-year-olds are enrolled in the 21/2-hours-a-day program. The majority attend two or three mornings a week and while there is an Extended Day program available at the schools, 80 percent of the children come only for the Preschool Educational Experience, says coordinator Mike Campbell. Tuition is $2.50 a day or $12 a week.

At Cowern Elementary School, one of the four sites selected as centers, 22 youngsters are involved in typical preschool activities. At one table, four-year-olds are pasting seeds, beans, and rice on construction paper; a group of three-year-olds are cutting paper squares and sorting them according to color. Five other children are matching up swatches of fabric. The teacher and two assistants are totally involved in the activities.

Because the program is located in the school, youngsters have access to a variety of resources. The gym and library are available, art and music instructors are on the premises and, as teacher/manager Evonne Ellingson points out, leftover crayons, construction paper, and other useful materials find their way from the upper grades to her classroom.

Miss Ellingson notes that the cooperation and support from the school's administration has been ''excellent.''

Christine Wiger, who looked into a number of preschools before enrolling her daughter at Cowern, ''feels good'' about a school-sponsored program. Her daughter, she notes, ''has a strong appetite to learn'' and likes the idea of ''going to school with the rest of the neighborhood.''

Along with providing a happy learning experience for children, a major goal of Preschool Educational Experience is to encourage optimum parent involvement. To this end, training sessions for parents are held at the four schools.

The important message, the preschool teachers explain, is constant: A parent is the child's most significant teacher.

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