When the doors to the College of the Canyons Child Development Center opened in 1981, the preschool had 47 families. Today, there is a waiting list of 107.
Among those first families were Pat and Bill Barrett, both 34, of Saugus.
The Barretts are putting their third child, Kristin, 3 1/2, through the COC program. Their sons--Billy, 8, and Brad, 6--preceded her.
Unlike about one-third of the school's parents who attend college while their children attend preschool, Pat Barrett "took care of other people's kids so I could afford to send them there."
"I think the program is incredible," she said.
Pat Barrett, a real estate agent in Newhall, is chairwoman of the preschool's Parents' Advisory Committee, which meets monthly and conducts fund-raisers and other projects.
Although she sees value in the program's recent accreditation by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs and thinks it may encourage parents to choose this school over others, Barrett said, "The way they run the school is going to draw people more than the accreditation."
Michele Jenkins, 36, and her husband, Gregory, of Newhall have had their 4-year-old daughter, Lorian, in the COC preschool for two years. Lorian attends class three mornings a week and spends the other days with her mother, who is a member of the college's Board of Trustees.
Jenkins said that, over the past year, she has seen progress in Lorian, who is several months younger than many classmates. "I saw a big difference in her ability to participate in group kinds of things and stay focused," she said.
Lynn Dickinson, 35, has two daughters in the program. Before moving to Valencia with her husband, Steven, she briefly drove about 17 miles from Northridge to bring the girls to COC.
Although Dickinson says accreditation doesn't affect her assessment of the school, she believes it's persuasive for other parents selecting a school.
"It shows they have met some set of standards," she said.
The COC Child Development Center operates under the philosophy of the late Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who believed that young children learn best through self-discovery and without a rigid timetable. He also believed that teachers should function as catalysts rather than pedantic figures.
The preschool cares for 153 children ages 6 months to 5 years. College students work as aides for credit, which increases the teacher aide-student ratio to one to four or five. Among the five teacher staff, two have master's degrees and one is in a master's program.
Joan Waller, who has a master's in education and teaches child development, has directed the preschool since it opened. "It was a dream come true," she said.
Waller established a philosophy, wrote job descriptions, hired staff members (most of whom still are there), and bought equipment and educational materials.
Although COC's is a typical lab program, it varies from others in its approach to the curriculum.
"Basically, it's self-discovery," Waller said.
Even "circle times"--when children sit on the floor around a teacher to hear or tell stories--have a purpose.
Said teacher Sandy Fox: "We are building one experience on top of another so they become ready to read and write on their own."