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Parenting : Starting Off Right : Experts recommend finding a preschool that develops social skills rather than emphasizing academics.

August 20, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Before her daughter celebrated her first birthday, Georgia Jones-Davis, a newspaper editor, started fretting about find ing a preschool for the child to attend two years later. She sought advice from friends, compiled a list of facilities near her Sherman Oaks home and thus began her search for the perfect preschool. It was a disconcerting, discouraging quest.

The first school on her list was too strict about potty training. She didn't like the concrete playground at the next. She decided against another when she spotted a teen-age boy helping little girls change into bathing suits. A school run by a British soldier was too regimented. One with a hippie atmosphere was weird. One bordering an alley was dark and dingy. One that rounded toddlers up for bingo games was peculiar. A French school was snooty. "The only thing missing there," Jones-Davis said, "was a guillotine."

She crossed the last school off her list when she learned that parents had filed complaints about incidents of corporal punishment.

"I was really panicked," she said. "I didn't want to put my daughter in any of those places."

Jones-Davis finally found a school she and her daughter are happy with. But it was a daunting task--and one that millions of parents face every year.

For many parents, preschool is not an option but a necessity. Parents look to today's preschools not only to provide day care, but also to help children develop self-esteem, master social skills, learn positive values and, in some cases, get a jump on their academic education.

Gayla Kraetsch-Hartsough, a Sherman Oaks management consultant, has sent her 4-year-old to preschool for a year. "I wasn't looking for child care," she said. "I was looking for a nice, secure setting where Jeff could be with other children and learn how to get in line, how to share and what to do during recess."

Almost 75% of kindergarten-age children have attended preschool, according to Barbara Willer, spokeswoman for the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based organization that accredits schools and child-care centers.

"Preschool is an important part of the learning process," she said. "Good preschools provide children with the opportunity to engage in all types of experiences with children their own age. Those group opportunities help prepare them for kindergarten and first grade."

With so much significance attached to preschool, it's no wonder that parents worry about the selection process.

"When I was pregnant with my first," Encino sculptor Joanne Kramer said, "people told me it was already too late to get in a good school!"

Audrey Freedman-Habush, director of Valley Beth Shalom Nursery School in Encino, regularly hears from mothers who call her hours after giving birth. To minimize such panic, Freedman-Habush will not accept applications until a child is 18 months old.

While it may not be necessary to worry about preschool during pregnancy, Kramer believes that it is a good idea to begin the search when the baby is six to nine months old.

"Start talking to people to get recommendations," she said. "Decide what your personal goals are, and seek out schools that meet those goals. Visit the schools to see if the children are happy and if they are provided with what you want your child to have."

Before deciding on a school, parents should be sure that they understand and approve of the school's focus and ideology. Some preschools emphasize academics; others teach religious tenets or aim to foster a child's self-esteem.

Considering such diversity, Maggie Ipp, director of Temple Judea preschool in Tarzana, warns: "If a parent's expectations are different than what the school provides, the child will be lost in between."

If both parents work full time, extended care--offered by many schools from early morning until evening--may be essential. Some parents may prefer a school that includes kindergarten and primary grades to help ensure an easy transition into elementary school.

Cost varies widely from school to school. Tuition is virtually free at Los Angeles Unified School District preschools, which serve children of teen-age parents or low-income working families. Fees at the YMCA preschool in Mission Hills are also on the low end at $40 per week for a full day. The priciest schools may cost $700 a month or more. According to Willer, $4,000 a year is the nationwide average.

Because many schools maintain long waiting lists, parents are advised to contact their favorite schools more than a year in advance to learn about application policies and criteria for admission. Temple Judea already has children signed up for 1995; the Los Angeles school district has a waiting list of 15,000 for its 27 child centers and preschools throughout the district. Parents vying to enroll in Encino Presbyterian Children's Center often camp out in front of the school just to get their name on the list.

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