Early Childhood

New Twist in Charter Schools: Preschool Programs

By Linda Jacobson — March 20, 2002 10 min read
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In a century-old brick building here in the capital city’s northwest corner, 3- and 4-year-olds are taught in “studios” by an architect, an author, a choreographer, a filmmaker, and an array of professionals from other fields.

Elaborate exhibits—including watercolor interpretations of poetry and wind chimes constructed of materials such as old cookie cutters and tiny terra-cotta pots—are prominently displayed in this nontraditional program, appropriately named the Children’s Studio School.

Across the country, in a sprawling, single-story building in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, 4-year-olds in green- and-white uniforms begin their school day by handing in their homework—a list of M words, completed with a parent’s help. After singing songs about numbers and the days of the week, they sit at tables to work in their journals, while teacher Mary Focosi calls the pupils one by one to a small easel for more practice writing the capital letter M.

While these two preschool programs approach early-childhood education in vastly different ways, they share a connection: Both are part of charter schools.

Although they have quietly emerged in sites scattered around the country, charter schools with preschool classrooms have yet to attract the attention of many experts who follow the charter movement.

“It hasn’t cropped up on our radar screen,” said Todd Ziebarth, a program director at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based interstate compact.

Yet such preschool programs have emerged for much the same reason as charter schools themselves: They meet a need or provide an alternative that is not available within the existing public system.

Like charter schools—public schools that are free from many regulations as long as they meet certain academic and financial requirements—the programs for younger children differ greatly in philosophy, ranging from individualized, multiage programs to structured activities emphasizing the basic skills. When it comes to funding, administrators secure money for charter-based pre-K programs from a variety of federal, state, and private sources.

“I believe our school had to pave the way,” said Lynn H. Pinson, the prekindergarten director at the 210- student Baconton Community Charter School in southwest Georgia, the first charter school to house one of Georgia’s lottery-financed prekindergarten programs.

Some educators say preschool programs give charter schools an edge over many of their noncharter counterparts.

“It’s a selling point for the charter movement,” said Rochelle Y. Lathern, who coordinates the preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds at the 400-student Meridian Charter School here in Washington.

Starting From Scratch

Just as many administrators at noncharter schools have taken a greater interest in recent years in the educational experiences of children before they enter kindergarten, so too have organizers of charter schools.

In fact, charter educators view preschool programs not only as a chance to establish the early academic skills youngsters will need in school, but also as a vehicle for exposing children and parents to the distinctive philosophies and missions of their charter schools.

Now that many charter schools have been open for several years, it is less likely that they are serving students who transferred into the charter.

“We do have a number of charters that start with the early years, because then you can grow your own students,” said Patsy O’Neill, the executive director of the Charter School Resource Center of Texas, based in San Antonio. She estimates that roughly 25 of the state’s 200 charter schools offer preschool.

One of those is Lindsley Park Community School in east Dallas, a pre-K-2 Montessori school where courtesy lessons are a part of the routine and children give a speech when they graduate.

“It’s a rite of passage,” Terry N. Ford, the executive director of the school, said of the speech. “It’s an expected part of the culture.”

At Baconton Community Charter School, the prekindergarten program follows the same guidelines as other state-financed pre-K classrooms in Georgia. But Ms. Pinson said the 4-year-olds are also “trained in the mission of our charter,” which focuses on building community and knowing one’s neighbors.

The preschool program at Baconton also fills a void for local parents, some of whom would have had to drive 20 miles or more to enroll their children in a public prekindergarten program.

“She is learning so well. It’s so amazing,” Callie Johnson said about her daughter Taren, who attended the prekindergarten program at Baconton last year. “I wanted her to immediately get into that structure of school.”

Like charter schools, the charter preschool programs reflect a broad spectrum of educational philosophies and methods.

They include the 190-student Santa Rosa Charter School in Santa Rosa, Calif., which offers the International Baccalaureate program—an inquiry- based curriculum—for children as young as 3, and the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School, a professional-development site for the University of Chicago.

While their specific missions vary, many charter preschools emphasize early literacy and language development.

“Even though [the children] are pre-K, they’re doing what the kindergartners do,” said Laura Guzman, the mother of a child who attends the 1,377-student Fenton Avenue Charter School, Ms. Focosi’s school in the Lake View Terrace area of the San Fernando Valley. “I’m really happy.”

Coco Salazar, one of the program’s teachers, has no concerns about giving the children too much instruction too soon.

“For those who are ready, why not challenge them and let them go?” she asked.

While some charter schools added preschool programs after the schools were already operating, others were an extension of the preschools themselves.

For example, the Michigan Early Elementary Center, a pre-K-6 charter school in Lansing, Mich., evolved from a 27-year-old child-development center that also serves toddlers.

“We kept having parents come to us whose children were struggling,” said Kathy J. Cole, the principal of the 220-student school. Creating the charter school was a way to keep serving the children as they outgrew preschool, she said.

Sources of Money

Because regular funding for charter schools typically begins with kindergarten, their preschool programs are financed in a variety of ways.

The charter schools in Texas, for example, receive state prekindergarten funding. But to be eligible for the preschool program, children must be from low-income households or have limited English skills.

The half-day preschool program at North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School in Chicago is also receiving state prekindergarten dollars, even though the preschool is not limited to children from low-income families. When the school opens a full-day preschool program, however, those eligibility rules will apply, said Marvin Hoffman, the founder of the school.

“It brings up an interesting paradox,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Eligibility requirements exist for preschools, and charter schools are not allowed to have eligibility requirements.”

Some preschools at charter schools receive child-care subsides for children of low-income families, and others are paid for through parent fees. The Santa Rosa Charter School, for example, is a parent cooperative. Parents pay nominal fees to enroll their children in the preschool and work at the school to cut costs.

And, in at least one case, a charter school is getting federal Head Start funding for preschoolers.

Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, Calif., operates a Head Start program and receives funding from the Los Angeles district’s School Readiness Language Development Program as well as the California Children and Families Commission. The 1,400- pupil school will be able to use those three primary sources of funding to offer a full-day program for families that need it.

In the District of Columbia, funding for preschoolers and older students flows through the same formula. That arrangement, which existed long before the capital’s charter school law was passed, helps explain why there is a greater concentration of charter schools serving preschoolers here in Washington than in the states.

“There is a tradition of providing early-childhood education within the public school building,” said Maurice Sykes, a consultant who formerly served as the director of early-childhood programs for the District of Columbia system. “That tradition was carried over into the charter school movement.”

Eight of the 70,760-student school district’s 36 charter schools now offer preschool, and Tamara Lumpkin, the acting executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board—one of Washington’s two chartering authorities.

Standing shoulder to shoulder one day recently, preschoolers at Fenton Avenue Charter School in Los Angeles declare what they want to do with their time outside. “I want to play on the apparatus,” each one says.

“I’m wanting them to express themselves in a complete sentence,” Ms. Focosi says before she lets them dart off.

She explains later that the “apparatus,” a shiny purple-and-chrome maze of slides, tunnels, and platforms, is an example of what a charter school can do with local control over funding.

If the school had been required to go through the 737,000- student Los Angeles district to request the new playground equipment, “it would not have been done,” said Irene S. Sumida, the school’s principal.

The same freedom and flexibility can extend to curriculum matters, said Ola Bailey, a preschool teacher at Meridian Charter School in Washington. “There’s so much red tape in a regular public school,” she said. “You have to plan things a year in advance.”

But educators in charter preschools point to more advantages than just breathing room from bureaucracy. Administrators have found, for instance, that having a preschool program on site can also help older students.

At the Michigan Early Elementary Center, the staff was able to work out a “dual enrollment” arrangement in which a younger kindergartner who was lagging behind her peers is technically a charter school student but also spends time in the preschool class for help in developing her socialization skills.

Feeling Connected

Teachers in charter preschool programs say they appreciate feeling connected to the rest of the teachers in the school.

“We go out of our way to attend staff meetings, and we all sit on councils that govern the school,” said Roslynn Frick, a preschool teacher at Fenton Avenue Charter School. “We are there to voice our concerns and advocate for early-childhood concerns.”

And finally, parents say some of the benefits they appreciate the most are that siblings can attend the same school, and that often there’s no anxiety for children when it’s time to make the transition into kindergarten.

“They already know the staff,” said Brenda Rollins, who has three children at Santa Rosa Charter School. “There’s none of that searching.”

In contrast, even children who attend preschool programs based in a regular public school often have to go to a different school when they start kindergarten.

Still, some parents of charter preschoolers have found that their youngsters aren’t necessarily guaranteed slots in the schools’ upper grades, because the charter schools have to open their doors for kindergarten enrollment. And some schools require parents to re-enroll their children every year.

As a result, the Michigan Early Elementary Center, for example, expanded its program when children who had been in the center since infancy were being denied spaces in kindergarten.

While charter preschools remain unusual, some educators involved in them are getting requests to speak to statewide groups about their experiences. To some of them, that suggests that preschool programs are helping charter schools fill a role that is one of their major reasons for being: to develop approaches that regular public schools may emulate.

“Sometimes, charter schools are serving that purpose for which they were originally created,” said Ms. Ford of Lindsley Park Community School in Dallas. “They are serving as a model.”

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Twist in Charter Schools: Preschool Programs


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