BY: UMA GUPTA and MARIKO YATSUHASHI
TAKOMA PARK — It is becoming increasingly evident that differing rates of success among students can be traced back to their early education, magnifying the pressure on parents when it comes to deciding where to send their children for preschool
The Montgomery County area boasts a wide variety of preschooling styles and options, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, which can make the process of choosing a preschool overwhelming.
“It’s a very lengthy process… It was definitely a 5 or 6 month process from where you start to look at schools to when you’re making a decision” said Kristen Treado, prior co-vice president of The Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School and mother of three.
In addition to the typical, academically focused preschools, there are alternative schools that may prove to be a better fit despite being structured differently.
The Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School (TPCNS), located in a bright purple building on Flower Avenue, follows the cooperative model, meaning parents play a large role in organizing and running the school.
Parents are required to frequently volunteer as class helpers and serve on one of the administrative committees that complete tasks supporting the school.
“It’s a fairly large commitment in that they have to be able to work in the classroom at least weekly or every other week and it’s at least three to four hours beyond that depending on your committee,” said Lesley Romanoff, the director and head teacher of TPCNS.
This high involvement comes with the perks of parenting lessons and extra experience with children.
“We’re not just teaching you about our school, we’re teaching you about early childhood education,” said Romanoff.
Having parent volunteers can also benefit the children.
“It’s a real gentle introduction to school for little kids because they’re used to being with their parents and other parents. Having other parents in the classroom makes for a sense of security,” said Treado.
One of the main missions of TPCNS is to build a supportive community around its members.
“I do see that the children form connections, and that’s one of our primary goals… we want the children and the adults to form communities,” said Romanoff. “When you need something — somebody needs to go into the hospital, or somebody is having a baby, or your going through some hardship — we want the community to be there to help.”
“More than anything, what my kids learned at [TPCNS] is how to be on the planet with other people,” said Treado.
An added benefit of cooperative schools is that they tend to have a lower price. As more tasks are completed by volunteers, less hired help is needed and tuition decreases significantly.
However, there are some drawbacks to cooperative schools, the most significant being the difficult application process.
“It’s a competitive admissions, which means that we’re looking at the family’s skill set and willingness to volunteer in order to sustain our school. Because we’re a cooperative model that has to be sustained by its members… we have to make sure that these families are willing to invest in the community and invest in the school long term,” said Romanoff.
TCPNS is not the only option for parents seeking alternative education for their children.
Nestled behind Sligo Creek Parkway and surrounded by woods, Acorn Hill Nursery School offers another unique approach to early education.
“We purposely don’t do academics. We do play and use the senses to build up foundations for later academics” said Leimomi Apoliona Brown, a long-time teacher at Acorn Hill and mother of two girls, both of whom graduated from Waldorf schools.
Since 1977, Acorn Hill, like other Waldorf schools, has adopted the educational ideology of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, using a play based approach to education with a focus on making connections to the natural world.
“As a Waldorf school and member of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association, we believe that play is the serious work of childhood, and that learning by doing provides the foundation for critical thinking, problem solving and a lifelong enthusiasm for knowledge,” said the Acorn Hill website.
Climb the log staircase to the front of the school, and you’ll see children digging in the sand pit, playing on a large wooden boat or eating their lunches in front of the school.
“Teachers don’t control the play so the children can do their own thing… [but] we provide an environment that has a lot of natural things that they can use. We have rocks and sheep skins and heavy things to carry around and lift. All these things stimulate the brain on the neuronal and cellular level and build synapses,” said Brown.
The amount of time children spend outdoors building connections with nature sets the school apart from its more academically oriented counterparts where students spend the majority of their time indoors.
In a county full of preschools designed to boost children’s reading and math skills, parents tend to shy away from Acorn Hill’s nature and play based approach.
“There’s a lot of pressure… on children to be pushed into early academics… and parents feel the pressure that if [their children] go to first grade and are not already reading, they are going to be labeled and singled out,” said Brown.
However, to some parents, the push for early academics in most preschools actually makes Acorn Hill more attractive.
“I subscribed to the opinion that we shouldn’t push kids to learn too fast and Acorn Hill offered that…[My daughter] wasn’t pushed to learn things that were not appropriate for her age such as math and reading. It’s just more natural” said Mitchell.
Unfortunately, not all parents who subscribe to the same opinion as Mitchell can send their kids to Acorn Hill.
In contrast with free, academics based public schools, Acorn Hill’s approach to education comes with a hefty price tag of around $11,000 per year.
When it comes to deciding between academic based preschools and alternative options such as TPCNS and Acorn Hill, parents have a lot to consider.
Is a close community worth the wait? Is building a connection with nature worth the price? When the option of a free academic based program is on the table, parents may feel the scales tip in favor of a more conventional approach.