Early education

What makes a preschool great: 4 things parents should look for

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Three-year-old Ra'Jon Whitaker plays at a sensory center in his preschool classroom at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.

It isn’t always easy to know what’s helping kids learn and what’s a waste of time in a classroom filled with three- and four-year-olds zigzagging around, playing with toys, assembling puzzles, grabbing books off shelves and smacking wet paint brushes on sheets of paper pinned to easels.

But in good preschools, all of those activities, however chaotic they may seem, are targeted at helping kids learn skills they’ll need to be ready to start reading and writing in kindergarten, and to discover the ability to manage their own behavior in a way that will allow them to work well with others.

It takes careful observation for parents shopping for preschools try to discern the good from the bad. So what should they look for?

Experts say little kids mostly learn through play. But as they play, good preschools pay attention to how they interact with others, reinforcing good choices and discouraging others. A simple test is to look at the faces of the kids and the adults: Do they seem happy? A more complicated test is to ask to see if the preschool has specific learning plans for kids at all levels. (The best ones do.)

Making the right choice can boost a young child’s readiness for the fast-approaching start of formal schooling.

“The students in today’s world have to be ready for kindergarten,” said Kenith Britt, dean of the Educators College at Marian University. “If they aren’t ready for kindergarten, the chance of them reading by third grade diminishes significantly just based on the nature of schools. … Early childhood learning gives them the opportunity to be prepared.”

Here are four ways parents can gauge whether a preschool has a quality program:


At Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church on the eastside of Indianapolis, three-year-old Ra’Jon Whitaker scooped handfuls of dried beans and pasta out of a specially designed, waist-tall bins one morning last week.

There’s not a pencil or paper in sight for this activity.

First with his hands, and then with brightly-colored cups and a small shovel, Ra’Jon scooped and poured the beans. He filled a green funnel full of beans, and his face lit up with an idea about what his creation might be.

He turned and offered the cone to a teacher nearby.

“Here, I made you ice cream,” Ra’Jon said, pretending to lick the top.

That’s how unstructured, but purposeful, play turns into learning. Ra’Jon, with a wide variety of materials and tools at hand, recognized the shape of the funnel as equivalent to an ice cream cone.

“If a parent sees lots of chairs and desks and paper and pencils, that’s a warning sign,” Britt said. “Students need to learn how to play, learn how to communicate. … They need to focus on active learning.”

Playing with dried beans, pasta and other physical toys — like blocks that stack and connect or magnets — help preschoolers better understand their own sense of touch and the physics of the world around them.

“With little ones you can see how their brain works while they play,” said Karen Ruprecht, director of innovation for Early Learning Indiana. “They’re little scientists who are testing out theories and asking, ‘I wonder what will happen if I do this?’”

Preschool students play with beans and dried pasta at a sensory center in a preschool classroom at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.
PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Preschool students play with beans and dried pasta at a sensory center in a preschool classroom at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.


It’s easy for preschools to waste a lot of time. Just ask anyone who has tried to line up a group of little ones for a “quick” trip to the bathroom or water fountain.

Good preschools limit unproductive time and capitalize on it for other types of learning. For example, children can learn to treat each other fairly and resolve disputes, like who has the next turn.

Walking in a line, sitting still and listening to instructions are all skills students need for kindergarten, and good preschools know how to teach them efficiently, said Kendra Thomas, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis.

“Students learn to delay gratification, cooperate with others and pay attention,” she said. “All factors that affect a child and their success.”

At Eastern Star, preschool classes stay together in the same room most of the day. Transitions, such as from nap time to group time or to meal time, don’t drag on as children walk from room to room.

Teachers who are good observers use what they learn about students while they play to make connections when they work in groups or one-on-one.

Norma Callahan, the lead instructor in Ra’Jon’s classroom who has been working in childcare since 1989, said group time is where students begin building a foundation for what to expect in elementary school classrooms.

When one of her students, Lauren, chose to play with a puzzle that depicted the numbers 1-10, Callahan watched carefully. Lauren easily identified the numbers in order, but when Callahan began to point at numbers at random, Lauren struggled to name them. Callahan mentally added identifying numbers out of order to strategies she would use later during group learning. It’s an easy way to build on what Lauren and her classmates choose to discover on their own.

“Expanding on their choice is a learning opportunity,” Callahan said. “Expanding on it is what drives group time.”

Teacher Norma Callahan reads a book to her preschool class during group time at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.
PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Teacher Norma Callahan reads a book to her preschool class during group time at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.


One-on-one connections between teachers and parents can play a huge role in learning.

The way Callahan carefully observed Lauren, for example, and responded to her needs builds trust and bolsters confidence.

So it’s a good sign if a preschool has a track record of treating its staff well and retaining most of its teachers from year to year. A good way for parents to tell a preschool is that sort of place is to simply pay close attention to whether the teachers look like they want to be there.

“Are teachers getting burnt out? Are they happy?” Thomas said. “The program should not have a high teacher turnover rate.”

On average, early educators leave their jobs within two or three years, according to Thomas. They often cite low pay and stress as reasons for leaving. So it’s worth asking about how competitive teacher pay is and what the preschool’s turnover rate is.

“Some of the most important things when raising a child is consistent discipline and warmth from a stable figure,” Thomas said.

Early Learning Indiana carefully monitors teacher morale, said Lisa Skinner, who directs the center at Eastern Star. The organization provides training, including a full-day session each August. It also makes a point to celebrate success.

“I work my staff hard, but we see the end results and we party,” Skinner said.

Norma Callahan, lead teacher, assists a preschooler painting at an easel in a preschool classroom at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.
PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Norma Callahan, lead teacher, assists a preschooler painting at an easel in a preschool classroom at Day Early Learning at Eastern Star Church.


Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration in 2008 launched Paths to Quality, a voluntary rating system for preschools and child care centers that offers a helpful guide for parents.

So far, 92 percent of licensed childcare centers and preschools statewide have participated, along with 70 percent of licensed homes providing child care.

The program’s website includes a 1 to 4 rating for all preschools that participate.

All told, 2,590 homes, centers and church ministries have been rated through Paths to Quality statewide. Of those, 61 percent rate as a 1 or 2, meaning they only meet basic safety and health requirements. In Indianapolis, the numbers are more bleak. Fewer than 40 percent of homes, centers and ministries rated a 3 or 4.

Still, the number of preschools and child care centers rated a 4, which requires national accreditation, is growing fast — to 363 this year, up from about 100 at the start.



Head of Denver Preschool Program resigning after more than five years

PHOTO: Eric Lutzens/Denver Post
Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program

Jennifer Landrum, who oversaw the Denver Preschool Program for the last five and a half years, announced Friday that she’s leaving for personal reasons.

During Landrum’s tenure, Denver voters increased the sales tax that supports the program, allowing it to cover summer tuition costs and serve more children, and extended it through 2026. Landrum also oversaw the redesign of the tuition credit scale, expanded scholarships and awards for teachers and directors to better support quality improvement efforts, and developed a new strategic plan.

Landrum said she was leaving not for a new job but to take care of herself and her family after experiencing “extreme loss.”

“I need time to pause, reflect and recharge,” she wrote in an email to supporters of the program.

The Denver Preschool Program provides tuition subsidies that scale according to family income and preschool quality for students in the year before they enter kindergarten. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools. The program also supports quality improvement efforts, including for younger students, part of a broader shift in focus in the early childhood sector. It is funded by a voter-approved 0.15 percent sales tax and has become a model for communities around the state.

“Jennifer has served with vision, boldness, and a constant and deep commitment to improving the lives of Denver’s young children and supporting Denver families,” preschool program board chair Chris Watney wrote in an email. “The board, staff, and community are going to miss her in this role. The board of directors firmly supports Jennifer’s decision and wishes her all the best.”

Deputy Director Ellen Braun will serve as the interim director while the board conducts a search process for a new leader this spring.

Meet Reggio Emilia

Power to the kids: A preschool approach imported from Italy comes to public schools in Denver

PHOTO: Courtesy of Boulder Journey School

Boulder Journey School feels different from most other child care centers almost as soon as you walk through the door. In the hallways, there’s a kid-sized mail-sorting station, a giant metal spaceship trimmed with white and green lights, and a child-designed memorial for the school’s chickens, who were killed by raccoons a few years ago.

Preschoolers there help decide what and how they learn, drawing on their interests, imagination, and environment. Which means trying out adult-style jobs, building 10-foot-tall contraptions, and even talking about death are all par for the course.

“Rather than covering the curriculum, we’re uncovering the curriculum with the children in the classroom,” said Alison Maher, Boulder Journey’s executive director.

It’s all part of the school’s Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to early education — one that prizes play-based and project-based learning, grounded in the local community. At least two public preschools in Denver will soon begin using the approach.

Early childhood leaders in Denver see the adoption of Reggio in district classrooms as a milestone that brings a celebrated approach typically found in private preschool programs to a diverse group of children in the public sphere.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A spaceship designed by preschoolers at the Boulder Journey School.

Next fall, with help from Maher and other partners, a new Reggio Emilia-inspired child care center and preschool will open in a facility called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. A new preschool program planned for Inspire Elementary School in the Stapleton neighborhood will also use the Reggio approach, which school leaders said ties in well with the expeditionary learning focus in other grades.

“Denver has been a bold city around early childhood,” said Rebecca Kantor, dean of the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado Denver, a partner in the work at Z Place. And adopting the Reggio approach is a “continuation of that bold theme.”

Denver isn’t the first community to incorporate Reggio principles into public classrooms. Early education programs in Boston, Indianapolis, and Tucson, among other cities, have implemented them, but the approach is hardly widespread.

At Z Place, the student body will include some children in the federally funded Head Start preschool program. School leaders say that there are special challenges when adapting Reggio for taxpayer-funded classrooms because of additional state and federal regulations governing everything from technology use to how children are assessed. Still, they believe it’s doable since Reggio is a philosophy of teaching and learning, rather than a prescriptive program.

In addition to Z Place and Inspire, Denver district officials may also bring Reggio to two programs in South Denver in 2020: The Stephen Knight Center for Early Education, which includes preschool and kindergarten, and Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrant and refugee students that will soon be getting new preschool space.

Lisa Roy, executive director of the Denver Public Schools’ early education department, said incorporating Reggio principles into preschools in different neighborhoods advances the district’s plan to offer high-quality school choice options throughout the city.

Currently, most district-affiliated preschools use what’s called the Creative Curriculum, a research-based curriculum popular nationwide. About 15 use a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which emphasizes social-emotional skills. Another handful uses the Montessori method, in which students in multiage classrooms learn at their own pace with the help of special educational materials. In addition to using the Reggio philosophy, the Z Place program will incorporate Montessori principles and emphasize the inclusion of students with disabilities alongside typically developing children.

Unlike Montessori, which is named for its founder, Italian educator Maria Montessori, Reggio Emilia is named for a place — that is, the northern Italian city where the educational philosophy first emerged after World War II. That’s because learning about and through the local community figures prominently into the approach, even for the smallest children.

For example, in Molly Lyne’s toddler classroom at Boulder Journey School, “bus” is the name of the game these days. That’s because city buses and school buses often pass by the playground just outside her room — regularly piquing the interest of her 1-year-old charges who watch the vehicles through holes in the fence and often blurt out the word “bus.”

To capitalize on their interest, Lyne and her two assistant teachers sometimes project a video on the wall showing what it’s like to be on a moving bus, from showing the traffic passing by to a simulation of the loud, creaky lurch passengers hear when the bus stops. Like all the technology used at the school, the video isn’t meant for the kids to sit and watch quietly. It’s intended as a backdrop and inspiration for their play.

Older students at Boulder Journey get even more opportunity to interact with the community. When a new pizza restaurant opened near the school several years ago, preschoolers got to visit — taking photos and interviewing restaurant patrons. They also offered up a critique: The restaurant didn’t quite work for little kids — the stools didn’t spin, for example, and the toilets in the bathroom were too high. Back at school, the children fashioned their own ideal restaurant furnishings out of clay, a collection featured at the pizzeria for a time and now displayed in the school hallway.

“It’s not only getting kids ready to read at third grade proficiently, but it’s for them to become citizens, owners of their community … and understand how their neighborhoods are different from other neighborhoods in the city,” said Roy, who last year visited Reggio Emilia schools in Italy with a delegation from Boulder Journey School and the University of Colorado Denver.

Maher said there’s a common misconception that Reggio-inspired schools are unstructured.

“People think because children have a voice in their education, in the way the day’s organized, in the projects that are developed, that the teachers are invisible and hands-off, and that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a highly structured dance between children and adults to make sure all voices are represented.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
The “materials room” Boulder Journey School.

At Reggio schools, you won’t likely see any commercially produced alphabet charts, daily schedules, or cartoony posters. Many Boulder Journey classrooms have attractive blond wood furniture, colorful light tables and aquariums full of fish. The “materials room,” where kids can craft and create, is a feast for the eyes — with wood, colorful fabric, tubes, lids and other supplies arranged neatly on white shelves that line bright orange walls.

Maher said people who tour her school tend to think she has a big budget because the school is beautifully appointed. But many of the school’s decorations and supplies are inexpensive, everyday items that can be found around town, she said.

Maher acknowledges that being in Boulder, an affluent community northwest of Denver, means a wealthier pool of families. About 20 percent of her students receive some kind of help paying tuition, which is about $1,300 a month for a preschooler who attends four hours a day, five days a week.

The percentage of students who need financial assistance will be higher at the Denver programs’ adopting the approach next year. A little over one-third of Inspire’s student body come from low-income families, and the new Z Place program will likely serve a high proportion of such students.

At Inspire, there are already two teachers with training in Reggio, both graduates of a special masters degree program run by the University of Colorado Denver and Boulder Journey School.

One of them is Sarah McCarty, a kindergarten teacher who had never heard of Reggio before she entered the program. She believes the approach, in addition to helping kids build creativity, work collaboratively and develop problem-solving skills, instills a love of learning.

“I’ve never seen a kid who, when they got to do what they wanted, wasn’t happy about it,” she said.