The preschool dilemma: What quality? At what price?

Many parents have discovered that the kind of preschool they would like for their children isn't always the kind they can afford. We asked Deborah Baldwin, a Washington-based writer and mother, to explore the day care/preschool options available at different income levels in that city. It is one of those steel-gray February days, the kind that can turn small children into demons and the average indoor setting into a pressure cooker. And yet the first thing a visitor notices at the private Lowell School here in Washington is the orderly air that has descended over some 100 children between the ages of 3 and 7.

The door keeps opening and closing, letting in cold air and curious parents. Enrollment for next September is already under way.

With the reverence of a museum tour group, we tiptoe from room to room, peering at children cheerfully entertaining themselves with an embarrassment of riches: heavy, old-fashioned wooden blocks, tiny color-coded strings of numbered beads, smooth African counting stones, delicate wooden shapes that can be fitted together like puzzle pieces, Play-Doh, paints, books, water games, even a miniature trampoline and basketball hoop.

This is the sort of school where there is ample space for everyone, where children socialize in an ``open snack'' area where they can help themselves, where cleanup time has somehow been turned into an ``ego-building experience.''

Few things can make a parent feel more vulnerable than evaluating day care, and Gail Shandler, Lowell's longtime director, is equipped to put us at ease.

We are mainly professional women in our mid-30s, and we drink in Ms. Shandler's ambitious interpretations of Jean Piaget and ``enriched learning environments'' as if starved for assurance that professionals do a better job of teaching toddlers than parents can.

The gym helps develop ``gross motor skills,'' we are told, and the ``discovery room,'' crammed with seductive playthings, helps three-year-olds use their acute senses of touch and sight to develop ``hypotheses'' about how the world works.

Even the tiny kitchen area, with its pans and potholders, teaches ``reading readiness'' skills, because ``everything has to be lined up on the shelf pointing in the right direction.''

We linger in a math activities room where seven-year-olds can play with computers if they want, and we huddle in the language arts room for a briefing on an innovative writing program by a teacher who helps six-year-olds edit and produce their very own ``books.''

No squabbling? No crying? No teachers hollering ``no''? It's all very heady. And as I gaze about one room full of upscale three- and four-year-olds happily occupied with a wealth of developmentally oriented educational materials, I can't shake the terrible motherhood blues I call ``the should-haves.''

``I should have'' brought my daughter here when she was 3; ``I should have'' figured it out somehow. But I work four to five hours a day, and three-year-olds attend Lowell only from 9 to 12. And the school is only open nine months of the year. And tuition starts at $2,190.

Like most working parents, I find the debate over whether mothers should stay home almost irrelevant. I no longer struggle with the question of whether my child will attend day care or preschool -- but where.

At one extreme are places like Lowell, which historically have offered a small number of families the very best in preschool education that money can buy. At the other extreme are the Dickensian warehousing operations that have sprung up in recent years to meet the needs of a growing female work force.

Most programs, of course, fall somewhere in between, as my daughter's own experiences attest.

Two and a half years ago, confused by the array of choices -- and greatly intimidated by the waiting lists I frequently encountered -- I enrolled Alexis, then barely two years old, at a small, year-round day care center.

The hours were flexible, the fees reasonable and the director, while hardly hip to Piaget and other educational theorists, was at least considerate of the needs of working parents. And to her credit, she had all kinds -- black, white, and Hispanic, rich and poor.

Like many small-business owners, she struggled with government paperwork, permits, and taxes. She never seemed to have the capital she needed to invest in better equipment or staff, and sometimes the kids suffered: I remain haunted by the teacher who was so oblivious to the anxieties of young children that she once jokingly threatened to crack a kid's head open with a hammer.

After almost a year of this I jumped at an opportunity to move Alexis to another day care center where the fees were higher and the parents stuffier, but the staff and equipment an obvious improvement.

The new school was also, I should add, less sympathetic to working parents in some small but symbolic ways -- late fees, for example, started at $5 the first minute. (I incurred one $7 late fee -- and arrived promptly thereafter.)

It would be misleading to suggest that the quality of day care is always, and necessarily, a function of money and other parental sacrifices. A warm, loving teacher may be all that matters to a sensitive three-year-old, and such an individual can turn up anywhere; I learned belatedly that Alexis had formed a close relationship with a particularly sweet woman at her first day care center.

And yet there is little denying that, in Washington at least, which boasts one of the highest rates of working women in the nation, preschool has come to mirror the inequities of the educational system around it.

Witness, for example, a day care center I recently visited in northwest Washington called the Humpty-Dumpty Nursery School and Infant Center.

Founded more than 30 years ago, Humpty-Dumpty cares for more than 80 children between six weeks and six years of age.

It is hardly one of those dreary places you read about in sensationalized accounts of ``bad'' day care, where kids wander about aimlessly or sit in the corner sucking their thumbs all day. And yet, in sharp contrast to the Lowell School, the kids are 99 percent black and the parents predominantly single mothers.

``Some parents are in dire circumstances,'' says founder/director Katherine Sockwell, ``and I ask them, `How much can you pay?' '' Her asking rate for children three years old and up is a rock-bottom $60 a week -- that's for a 50-hour week, and it includes homemade hot lunches and afternoon snacks.

The children are separated by age into about five groups, each assigned a room in a sparkling clean three-story row house. (Infants are housed in another building nearby.) The space is confining, and equipment and toys are limited, so it probably wouldn't make sense to let the children choose their activities independently, even if the teachers wanted them to. Instead, they rely on a master schedule of activities that includes outdoor play and occasional field trips; the emphasis indoors appears to be on the heavily supervised use of glue and construction paper cutouts, carefully prepared by the teachers and neatly applied to paper by the children according to equally rigid guidelines (``The bush goes on the ground, not on the tree,'' etc.).

There's no doubt that learning is taking place, but the lessons are mostly in patience and self-effacement. When a giggling fit threatens to unravel a wavy circle of three-year-olds, the singing is brought to a halt and the smiling culprits admonished. Another group of three-year-olds sits solemnly waiting till paper and glue are distributed.

Downstairs, a dozen restless four-year-olds, bursting to impress, field questions from their pint-sized chairs: ``What president was born this month?'' ``GEORGE WASHINGTON!'' . . . ``What number president was he?'' ``HE WAS ASSASSINATED!'' . . . ``No, he died of old age. What number was he again?'' ``THE 17TH!'' . . . ``No, that was Abraham Lincoln. Washington was the first. What did he chop down?'' ``A CHERRY TREE! HE SAID, `I DID IT!' '' . . . ``What does that mean to you children?'' ``THE TRUTH!''

Voices bounce off the walls in the sparsely furnished room, as the teacher calls for attention: ``You come to school to learn, not to show off! . . . Let's show the nice lady we have manners. Sit DOWN! . . . I only love you when you are as nice as you can be.''

Unconditional love and Piaget's cherished notions of conceptual development? Hardly. And yet it would be unfair to condemn Humpty-Dumpty for its limitations without recognizing its service to a community with a pointed need for inexpensive, full-day child care. Here, at least, is a safe and home-like setting where the children are cared for and kept busy. For many, it will be an easy transition to the public or parochial schools nearby.

Far more troubling is that resources are distributed so unevenly. The children at Lowell have a good leg up already, and the school is putting them even further ahead, even if it does hype the educational value of activities like clean-ups.

Is it possible to do better by those children -- and the ones at Humpty-Dumpty are relatively fortunate -- who most need reinforcement in the formative early years?

Conceding that she can offer only a handful of private scholarships, Lowell School Director Gail Shandler says, ``I would like to see lots of good child care at every price range, but I'm not sure how that's accomplished.''

Neither are the experts.

States like Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, and Massachusetts have taken some steps toward providing early schooling for ``at-risk'' children. More states may follow. But for most families throughout America not much has changed. A few disadvantaged preschoolers get a crack at Head Start or newer programs, while those at the other end of the spectrum pay a premium for programs like Lowell's. Meanwhile, millions of families in the middle are left to fend for themselves.

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