MS. REBECCA SHEIR
In a city with more brain power than just about any other place in the country, getting a good education is key to getting ahead. And as Tara Boyle tells us, for many families that push to get ahead starts early. I'm talking really early, like, when you're kid is still using words like ba-ba and sleeping in a crib.
MS. TARA BOYLE
When you start talking about waiting lists or safety schools, most people assume you're applying to college. But in the Washington region, those words are increasingly part of the mix when you talk about preschool. That's right, preschool.
MS. TRACY TATE
To be honest, it's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
That's Capitol Hill resident and attorney Tracy Tate who dedicated many, many hours to finding a preschool for her daughter, Archer. She went to open houses, interviewed principles, watched preschool classes in action and that sort of legwork isn't unusual these days as parents wade through the options. Jessica Boeger (sp?) visited a bunch of schools in the region before choosing the River School, a private school in D.C.'s Palisades neighborhood for her daughter, Maggie.
MS. JESSICA BOEGER
It was definitely stressful. You wanted your child to be in the best possible place and you worry that they wouldn't get there, you know. There's only so many slots and there's more kids.
That fact holds true for all kinds of preschool and pre-K programs in D.C., private, public and charter. There's intense competition for a limited number of slots, especially at the most highly regarded D.C. public schools. Miriam Calderon is director of early childhood education for DCPS.
For a 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.
Calderon says the wait list is even longer for 4-year-olds. Forty percent of them get wait-listed. So it might seem like there's a real shortage of preschool options in the nation's capital, but that's not necessarily the case. Calderon says some spaces remain in DCPS programs, but not every school has a great reputation. So some programs are in huge demand and others are not. School officials would like to fix that imbalance and that's where schools like Garfield Elementary in Southeast, D.C. come in.
Educational assistant Sharon Curington is working with Pre-K students as they draw pictures of themselves at play and write a line of text about what they're doing. Next, they'll act out the scene.
MS. SHARON CURINGTON
This student right here is going to the safari. So she's going on -- make a -- build blocks in the safari animal house.
It's part of a new curriculum 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 educators here at Garfield, including preschool and pre-k teacher Christine Rey.
MS. 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 functions and working memory and it really challenges the kids to work hard.
Teachers and administrators are hoping, "Tools of the Mind," can be part of Garfield's turnaround. This school has struggled with low standardized test scores and poverty is a real issue. More than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunches. Angela Tilghman, Garfield's Principle, believes a solid preschool and pre-k program is key to the school's transformation.
MS. ANGELA TILGHMAN
My belief is that if you can build a strong, strong foundation, get all those bricks in place with all that good mortar, that it will turn over as the children go forward, to really make a difference academically.
Advocates of pre-k say research backs are up. Marcy Young, the director of the advocacy organization, Pre-k Now, says when you look at kids who've gone through a good preschool...
MS. MARCI YOUNG
You have children who are much less likely to be enrolled in special education, much less likely to drop out of high school, more likely to have good jobs and provide stable lives for themselves later on as adults.
In D.C., the discussion isn't just about individual students or even individual schools. Sometimes it's about the fate of an entire neighborhood. Melissa Rohan is a Mom and a community activist who lives in Southwest, D.C., part of the city that's in the midst of major redevelopment. And in her neighborhood, there are basically two options, one D.C. public school and one charter school. She says both have waiting lists.
MS. MELISSA ROHAN
We only have Apple Tree and we have Amidon-Bowen. And between the two, we 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.
She fears that if middle class families can't find preschools for their kids, this neighborhood isn't going to flourish.
If we don't have an elementary school and a middle school to support that, we're going to lose our families. We have been losing our families.
Back across the Anacostia River at Garfield Elementary, the school day is wrapping up. Parents, including southeast resident Bryan Lopez, are arriving to pick up their children. Lopez says the pre-k here has had a big impact on his son.
MR. BRYAN LOPEZ
My son is able to carry on longer conversations, his focus has definitely got better, he's able to sit in one spot and pay attention.
Moving forward, other DCPS schools will soon be using a curriculum similar to Garfield's. The goal, according to Miriam Calderon, is to improve the quality of all DCPS preschool and pre-k programs and to make those programs more available to students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
MS. MIRIAM 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.
In DCPS, the lottery for next year is done. And parents had until Monday to tell school officials if they were going to enroll their children for the upcoming academic year. For some families, the lottery was just that, an educational jackpot of sorts. For others, not just in D.C., but across our region, the search for the perfect preschool continues. I'm Tara Boyle.
To see photographs of the kids in Garfield Elementary's, "Tools of the Mind," program, check out our website, metroconnection.org.
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