EDUCATION A PRESCHOOL SAMPLER

It used to be an easier decision, but with all the different preschools in Dallas/Fort Worth, parents must now choose what they want their kids to learn. From Montessori to arts-based to church schools, we help you find the right place for your child.

IT WASN’T TOO LONG AGO, IT SEEMS, THAT PRESCHOOL WAS just preschool: It was the place where your kids learned to play with other kids. But that’s all changed. Want your child to learn Spanish? How about some special study of dance or computers’? Maybe you want to start your child on the path to private school success. The options can be mind-boggling.

Curriculums vary at Dallas’ preschools, and there is a lot or crossover in course offerings, atmosphere, and teaching philosophy. There are distinctions, however, and the following are highly recommended preschools in five distinct areas of focus: Montessori/experiential learning, cooperative, academic, church-affiliated, and arts. You can use this preschool sampler as a resource in finding the right school for your child, but keep in mind: The only way to know if a school will suit your family is for you to visit the school.

MONTESSORI EXPERIENTIAL SCHOOLS

THE PROPONENTS OF MARIA MONTESSORI’S curriculum lost a court battle years ago over the term “Montessori,” so the moniker tends to be thrown around by schools that want to be thought of as progressive. Schools in this tradition and those that promote experiential learning, though, share some of the same modalities: independent learning, development through concrete, task-specific materials, and an emphasis on the child’s world as opposed to an adult interpretation of it.

St Alcuin Montessori School

ST. ALCUING’S SAYS ITS MISSION IS “TO GUIDE AND NURTURE THE full development of the individual.” The school, founded in 1963, is an AMI Montessori, the branch that most closely follows Maria Montessori’s principles, including the notion that children develop best by working with specific, develop-mentally appropriate materials on an individual basis in an environment that supports this work and provides “order, beauty, and harmony.”

At St. Alcuin’s, age groups are mixed together in true Montessori fashion, so children can best team from each other. Classrooms are elegantly austere with their child-sized tables and chairs and kitchen equipment. Very little children’s artwork decorates the walls, unlike most preschools. Instead the children are “inspired” by such decorations as a large poster of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Children quietly and diligently “work” individually, at their own pace, with manipulates and counting beads, gently led by the teachers (called “guides”).

After-school enrichment programs are available for an extra fee for ages 3 and up, including ballet, creative movement, and sports. Before- and after-school care is available for five-day students ages 3 and up. Preschool tuition ranges from $4,320 to $8,290. 6144 Churchill Way. 972-239-1745.

Barbara Gordon Montessori School

THIS SCHOOL, ESTABLISHED IN 1971, WAS TAKEN OVER TWO YEARS ago by Barbara Gordon, who was for many years head of Dallas’ St. Alcuin Montessori School. Like St. Alcuin, Barbara Gordon Montessori is an AMI school of 180 students. 18 months through 6th grade, that follows the most rigorous Montessori curriculum. The school has a sprawling new campus out in Colleyville, the elegance and tranquillity of which is reminiscent of St. Alcuin’s.

As is usual for AMI Montessori schools, the focus is on the child’s development through the use of concrete, task-specific materials. Setting is very simple, again much like St. Alcuin’s, with very little if any student artwork around. Emphasis is placed on individual learning, with a lot of one-on-one attention from the teacher. Creative movement, Spanish, and music are also part of the Gordon curriculum. Half-day and whole-day classes are offered, three or rive days a week; tuition ranges from $2,715 to $5,060. 1513 Hall-Johnson Rd., Colleyville, 817-354-6670.

Lakemont Academy

THIS NONDENOMINATIONAL “CHRISTIAN MONTESSORI SCHOOL” was started 26 years ago by Edward and Barbara Fidel low for their own children. “Montessori in and of itself is spiritual, with its tremendous amount of respect for the child and care for environment,” Edward Fidellow says. “The formal part of our being a Christian school is to develop our students’ relationship with Jesus through devotions, Bible stories, and prayer.” The school has a 5-acre campus with garden and greenhouse. “In traditional schools, learning is the variable and time is the constant; Montessori is the opposite,”’ Fidellow says. The individualized Montessori curriculum, he adds, means students finish what they start, developing self-discipline. Tuition is $692 per month. 3993 W. Northwest Hwy., 214-351-6404.

Children’s Workshop

THIS PRESCHOOL GROUPS KIDS IN MULTI-AGE CLASSES (A CONCEPT often used in Montessori that’s also referred to as “family grouping”) in preschool through primary grades, including a post-kindergarten “not ready for first grade” class. The curriculum places emphasis on experiential learning, with individual attention to help the child reach his potential. The teachers’ goals are to foster independence and originality and to “avoid placing adult interpretations on the child’s world,” as well as to treat kids, and teach them to treat others, with respect and common courtesies, in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition.

Says one parent, “The main emphasis is really to observe and listen to the parents, and they work with the children no matter what level they are.” Programs include Spanish, music, science, cooking, art, and computers. Half-day programs are offered two, three, or five days a week; full-day programs are offered five days a week; tuition ranges from $105 to $245 per month. 1409 E. 14th St., Piano, 972-424-1932.

The Learning Tree

ACCORDING TO DIRECTOR JUDY ALLEN, THE LEARNING TREE’S main goal is to explore culture by using arts, music, foods, folk tales, and customs of different cultures. “We’re trying to teach children that not everybody lives alike,” Allen says. The family-owned school, which has been in East Dallas for 29 years, utilizes “resource people” from the community in their cross-cultural approach: Allen says they were visited by a Japanese mother and grandmother who came in and shared their culture, and when they studied Russia, a mom who was fluent in the language came in and taught Russian words.

The curriculum takes a “whole language” approach in which kids learn vocabulary and pre-reading and writing skills through learning about everyday life.

According to one parent, the school is “totally geared for the children, not geared to make the parents comfortable.” Classes are offered for children ages 2 through 7; the 7-year-olds are in a pre-first grade, “primer” class. Half-day and extended-day classes are offered five days a week; tuition ranges from $135 to $280 per month. 7112 Gaston Ave., 214-320-9690.

COOPERATIVE SCHOOLS

Cooperative schools involve parents in the education of their children perhaps more than any other type of school. Parents are directly involved with the school whether as part-time office help or board members. Because of this, parents get a first-hand look at the environment their child is exposed to and get to have their own input in that environment. According to Northaven Cooperative Preschool Director Kathy Delsanter, “the benefit of having parents is enormous. Not only does it help a lot, but they bring a lot of talent and expertise. They get a lot of guidance and modeling from teachers as to how to handle different situations with their children, as well as the opportunity to see how their child interacts with other kids.”

Northaven Cooperative Preschool and Kindergarten

NORTHAVEN IS THE PLACE FOR PARENTS WHO FEEL THAT THE MOST appropriate work for young children is play, and that the work sheets and “formal” learning of reading and writing can wait until kindergarten. One North Dallas mother whose children are now at Hockaday and St. Mark’s remembers that when they were young, “their friends were learning to read at 4 years old, and my kids were coming home from Northaven with sand and finger paint under their fingernails.” Started in 1969 by a group of mothers, the preschool is operated by parents who participate on the board of directors and serve on school committees; they also work as teaching assistants and in the school office.

Although it is part of Northaven United Methodist Church, the school is nonsectarian and doesn’t teach religion as part of its curriculum. Kids look happy in light-filled rooms, whose walls are splashed with student artwork. Delsanter says the “eclectic curriculum borrows from everything but is centered on the idea that children learn through play and hands-on experiences.” Half-day classes are available one to five days a week; tuition ranges from$120to$165permonth. 11211 Preston Rd., 274-691-7666.

Dallas has two other co-op preschools: Dallas Cooperative Preschool was started in 1951 and is housed in the John Calvin Presbyterian Church. Morning classes are offered for the school’s 25 students. The 3,4, and 5-year-olds are divided into multi-age groups, and parents spend about one morning per month per family working at the school, says director Sandy Walker. 4151 Royal Ln. 214-352-8702.

The Creative Preschool Co-op has been parent-owned and -run for 25 years. The curriculum is hands-on and process-oriented, says board member Kim Palmer. For its parent-owners, the school provides educational courses, a library, and parenting courses. 1210 W. Beit Line Rd., Richardson. 972-234-4791.

ACADEMIC-BASED

HOW MUCH FOCUS TO GIVE ACADEMICS AT AN EARLY AGE IS STILL a matter of debate. In the minds of some parents, preschool should essentially be a place of play. Others feel that kids can’t start learning too early, and for these parents, there are a number of schools that give a high priority to traditional classroom learning.

The Lamplighter School

ESTABLISHED IN 1952. Lamplighter has long been regarded as the school of choice for the kids of Dallas’ movers and shakers. For sure, if you are interested in getting your kids into the right private schools down the line. Lamplighter’s a safe bet-if you can get in.

The school rates children’s performances by means of evaluation and parent-teacher conference, rather than grades, and encourages academic excellence. About 460 attend preschool through 4th grade classes. The school’s extensive facilities include a fine arts complex, a children’s health/fitness facility, a greenhouse, and a barn. Half-day classes are offered in morning or afternoon, five days a week; tuition is $4,475. 11611 Inwood Rd., 214-369-9201.

Lamplighter isn’t the only preschool geared toward ambitious parents and children. White Rock North School has an accelerated academic program. 9727 White Rock Trail, 214-348-7410.

Meadowbrook School’s headmistress Sharon Goldberg says “our goal is to first teach children to love learning and love coming to school, and from there we work on academics.” 5414 W. Northwest Hwy., 214-369-4981.

There are also the Hockaday School, 11600 Welch Rd., Dallas, 214-363-6311;Hillcrest Academy, 5923 Royal Ln.,214-363-3322; Episcopal School of Dallas, 4344 Colgate Are., 214-358-4368; and the Greenhill School. 4141 Spring Valley Rd., 972-661-1211.

CHURCH-AFFILIATED

CHURCH-AFFILIATED PRESCHOOLS IN DALLAS RANGE FROM THOSE that are simply located in the church to those that offer religious education as a sizable part of their programs. Some churches host preschools because it’s a good use of available space; others consider early education as a valuable outreach to the community.

Regardless of a church’s reasons for having a preschool, one thing’s for certain: Church schools are popular in Dallas. They are among the most difficult to get your child into, and often applicants need to have had one or more children already enrolled in the school-or be a church member-to secure a spot.

Preston HoHow Presbyterian Preschool

PRESTON HOLLOW’S ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IS FOR LEARNING-DIS- abled kids, but the preschool, founded in 1953. does not have that distinction, though they do have a summer school program for kids who need special help getting ready for elementary school.

One mother who has had two children attend Preston Hollow calls it a “cheerful, welcoming, and very kid-friendly atmos phere,” where her son and the other kids in his class learned to work independently on computer programs, while his teacher car ried on one-on-one sessions with other kids in the same room. Half-day classes are offered three, four, or five days a week; after- school programs include lunch bunch, extended day, and music, art, drama, and dance. Tuition ranges from $150 to $230 permonth. 9800 Preston Rd., Dallas, 214-368-3886.

University Park UnitedMethodist Weekday School

CAROLYN MILLER, DIRECTOR OF UNIVERSITY Park Methodist Weekday School, says that religious instruction at the school takes the form of “Christian nurturing.” Children are taught the basic principles of Christianity, the school offers monthly chapel services, and individual teachers are free to incorporate whatever elements of Biblical study they choose. But there is no strict adherence to a particular area of study or denom national concern.

The school defines five basic areas of interest-physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social-and uses these basic principles to guide its instruction. Of particular interest to the teachers at University Park Methodist is a child’s socialization. Formal academics don’t begin until kindergarten. Tuition ranges from $170 to S295 per month 4024 Caruth Blvd., 214-361-4626.

Highland Park Presbyterian Day School

THIS SCHOOL, FOUNDED IN 1952, BASES ITS curriculum on the idea that skills should be taught devefopmentally, with the goal to establish “sound educational practices and spiritual values.” The philosophy: Each child “is a creation of God and must be nurtured in Biblically based Christian love, acceptance, and positive reinforcement,” Daily chapel services are part of the curriculum, and Biblical themes are brought into the classroom. Arts, music, and foreign languages are also offered.

Children 3 years through 4th grade attend this school; preschool classes are offered half-days, two to five days a week; tuition ranges from $ 1,630 to $2,980.3821 University Blvd. 214-559-5353

St Vincent’s Episcopal School

THIS SCHOOL OFFERS CLASSES FOR KIDS 2 years old to 6th grade; the preschool-level “early learners” program focuses on basic educational skills, such as following directions. Quite a few parents from the upscale Northeast Tarrant County suburbs take their kids to this school. One mother says her 2-year-old, going to preschool after being at home with a nanny, adjusted well because her teachers were “wonderful. [They] really worked to give her space.”

Student artwork decorates the walls in the halls and rooms. And though the teachers may be warm and fuzzy toward their young charges, the overall atmosphere leans toward studious Episcopalian, with uniforms for elementary students. Unlike some church preschools that give students religion through an overall approach based on brotherly love, Episcopal schools such as St. Vincent’s include Bible learning as part of the curriculum. Computers, music, and Spanish are also offered. Preschool classes are held half-days, two. three, or five days per week; extended care is available; tuition ranges from $1,154 to $2,300; sibling discount available. 1300 Forest Ridge, Bedford, 817-354-7979.

Highland Park United Methodist Child Development Program

The curriculum here promotes social and emotional growth and is based on what’s developmentally appropriate for kids. For example, you won’t find computers in the 2- and 3-year-olds’ classrooms because, says Director Lyn Voegeli, “they’re a distraction” and don’t help kids this age develop social interaction skills.

But 4-year-olds and pre-kindergarten students work on computers. The school’s parent brochure stresses the Christian environment provided, as well as the experiential, play-centered approach to learning. “The teacher is like an orchestra conductor,” says Voegeli, and the teacher’s goal is to help cultivate and advance the child’s “emergent literacy” and to help the children become “emotionally involved in the learning process,” a condition she considers essential in order for learning to take place.

About 170 children attend the program; Half-day classes are offered three to five days a week; extended care is available. Tuition ranges from S 1,775 to S2.600. 3300 Mockingbird Ln., 214-521-2600.

Other religious denominations also run schools. Again, the way in which the religious experience is incorporated into the curriculum varies. Some schools might simply teach that “Jesus wants you to be kind to the other kids,” while others may offer specific denominational instruction.

Temple Shalom Preschool offers a “getting ready for preschool” curriculum, with emphasis on learning about and celebrating the Jewish holidays. French, Hebrew, music, computers, and P.E. are also taught to kids from 12 months to 4 years old. 6930 Alpha Rd., 972-661-5025.

Congregation Beth Torah Preschool has a play-based curriculum, says director Esther Cohen, with an emphasis on developing children’s love for learning and lots of hands-on activities, such as cooking. “We like to fingerpaint with chocolate pudding,” she says. The conservative Jewish school celebrates Jewish holidays, teaches religious values as well as “a little Old Testament,” and has a Shabbat service on Fridays conducted by the rabbi. 720 W. Lookout Dr., Richardson, 972-234-1542.

Catholic schools will have a Diocese-approved curriculum. For information on Catholic preschools in your neighborhood, contact your area Diocese office. Here are a few: St Pius X. 3030 Gus ThomassonRd,, Dallas,972-279-6155;St. Philip the Apostle School, 8131 Military Pkwy., 214-388-5464; Holy Trinity Catholic School. 3826 Gilbert Ave., 214-526-5113.

ARTS

THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND MANY ARTS-BASED preschools is that active participation in and study of the fine arts help build a student’s ability to learn. While many schools treat the arts as tangential to “real” learning, at arts-based schools they are integral to a child’s development.

Kinderplatz of Fine Arts

THE CURRICULUM EMPHASIZES MUSIC, ART, movement, and dramatics to enrich school readiness skills. Director Wanda Zawad-zke says research has shown that the fine arts are not just an additional body of knowledge; they offer a way for students to learn. Children at Kinderplatz learn to read by exercising their bodies and minds in movement and music classes, she says. Children leam music on Orff instruments from a music teacher who’s a working musician: they learn art from Fort Worth watercolorist Linny DeBeaupre. Classes are offered half-days or all day, two. three, or five days a week; tuition ranges from $230 to $620 per month. 5401 Woodwax Dr., Fort Worth, 817-263-2362.

The name may not sound like it, but University of Gymnastics really is a preschool whose emphasis is on gymnastics and movement-to-music-children have one 45-minute lesson in each of these every day. The rest of the 3-hour time is spent on academics, computers, and arts and crafts. Tuition ranges from $75 to $240 per month. 1400 Summit Ave., Ste. D. Plano, 972-423-5709.

10 SIGNS OF A GREAT PRESCHOOL

1. Children spend most of their time playing and working with materials or other children. They do not wander aimlessly, and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.

2. Children have access to various activities throughout the day. Look for assorted building blocks and other construction materials, props for pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials, and table toys such as matching games, pegboards, and puzzles. Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time.

3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend all their time with the whole group.

4. The classroom is decorated with children’s original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and stories dictated by children to teachers.

5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences. The natural world of plants and animals and meaningful activities like cooking, taking attendance, or serving snacks provide the basis for learning activities.

6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Work sheets are used little if at all.

7. Children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instructional time.

8. Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time.

9. Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as those who need additional help. Teachers recognize that children’s different backgrounds and experiences mean that they do not learn the same things at the same time in the same way.

10. Children and their parents look for-ward to school. Parents feel secure about sending their child to the program. Children are happy to attend; they do not cry regularly or complain of feeling sick.

Also ask if the program is accredited by NAEYC. NAEYC-accredited programs complete a rigorous self-study and external review to prove that they meet standards of excellence in early childhood education.

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