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Preschool Waiting Lists: A Sign Of Hope Or Lack Of Options?

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Students at Garfield Elementary gather around preschool/pre-kindergarten teacher Christine Rey.
Tara Boyle
Students at Garfield Elementary gather around preschool/pre-kindergarten teacher Christine Rey.

Garfield Elementary is not the same school it was a year ago. In June 2010, D.C. officials announced the school, on Alabama Avenue in Anacostia, would be "reconstituted." That means teachers had to re-apply for their old jobs.

"We have all new staff or staff who elected to return to the school last school year," says Angela Tilghman, the principal at Garfield.

Bringing in new teachers was just one step in trying to turn things around at this school, which has struggled with low standardized test scores. The other step: Getting kids young, when they're 3 or 4 years old.

New curriculum, high demand

In the preschool and pre-K wing at Garfield, a group of students work with educational assistant Sharon Currington. They're writing short sentences and will then go act out the scene they've just described.

This is all part of a new curriculum in D.C. Public Schools called "Tools of the Mind." Garfield is one of two DCPS schools offering the curriculum this year. And it's getting a thumbs-up from the teachers here at Garfield, including pre-school and pre-K teacher Christine Rey.

"Tools of the Mind is a really interesting program. This is our first year using it. It has a lot of self-regulation. It works with cognitive function and working memory, and it really challenges the kids to work hard," Ray says.

Garfield isn't one of the most sought-after public schools in D.C., but it still has a waiting list for its preschool and pre-K program. Miriam Calderon, the director of early childhood education for DCPS, says it's not the only school with high demand.

"For preschool, for 3-year-old programs, 75 percent of our families got offered a seat at a school of their choice, about 25 percent of families were wait-listed at all of their schools," she says.

Calderon says the waiting list is even higher –- at 40 percent -– for 4-year-olds.

Consequences for communities

For some parents, this shortage isn't just about the fate of their own children, but the fate of an entire community. Melissa Rohan is a mom and community activist who lives in Southwest D.C. And in her neighborhood, there are basically two options: one D.C. public school and one charter school. She says both have waiting lists.

"We only have Appletree and Amidon-Bowen, and between the two we only have 36 slots for 3-year-olds. That's it. And we have about 100 3-year-olds in Southwest. So we do not have enough to meet the demand," Rohan says.

She fears that if middle-class families can't find preschools for their kids, they'll leave for other parts of D.C. or the suburbs.

"If we don't have an elementary school and a middle school to support that, we are going to lose our families. We have been losing our families," Rohan says.

The benefits of a 'great pre-K program'

Back across the Anacostia River, at Garfield Elementary, the waiting list is seen as a positive sign of the school's turnaround. Parents, including Southeast resident Brian Lopez, say they're pleased with the pre-K program's impact on their children.

"My son is able to hold on longer conversations, his focus is better, he's able to sit in one spot and pay attention," Lopez says.

Moving forward, school officials are hoping to take this model and develop similar programs at other DCPS schools, according to Early Education Director Calderon.

"All children can benefit from a great pre-K program, and for children from low-income families, they can benefit the most. And for children who we know are educationally at risk, if we can give them a great pre-K, we can give them a lot," she says.

Parents had until last week to tell DCPS officials if they were going to enroll their children for the upcoming academic year. Some lucky families won the educational jackpot and got their children into one of their top choices. But for others –- not just in D.C. but across our region -– the search for the perfect preschool continues.

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