Outside Rainforest Environmental School of the Arts, two potted palm trees interrupt a stretch of city sidewalk. Windows painted with colorful greetings break up the monotony of a brick wall.
Once families are buzzed in, the noises of South State Street fade into music-today it's jazz and blues-and the cooing of doves that reside in the entry.
In one classroom, 2-year-olds share a freshly prepared organic snack while seated around tiny dining tables. In another classroom, an art teacher prepares ceramic supplies for the next day's studio time. The 3's and 4's are just waking up from naps; some are engaged in quiet activities under the parasol-covered lights while a few are still crashed on floor mats. The 5-year-olds are getting ready to stage a dramatic interpretation of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Throughout the lofted space, the walls serve as a giant pre-K art gallery.
Families from all over the city and suburbs enroll their children at Rainforest, according to co-owner Jason Nowak. Even at the infant level, kids are introduced to the arts through movement and performance. Specialty subjects like piano and yoga are included with tuition, which can reach $16,000 a year for full-time preschool.
"We expose kids to a lot more things that they wouldn't otherwise experience," Nowak says.
With so many options-private, public, parochial, Montessori, Reggio, Waldorf-it can be as daunting to select a preschool as it is to select a college. And there's pressure to find a good one: A large body of research indicates a child who attends a high-quality (not necessarily high-cost) preschool reaps long-term academic, social and economic benefits.
Fortunately, parents in Chicago don't generally stress about this choice when their preschoolers-to-be are still in the womb. That's more of a New York City thing, says Ruth Prescott, professional development director for the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children.
"Most preschools require that kids are 3 by Sept. 1," she says. "The previous January is often when schools begin their enrollment process. I'd suggest (to start looking) December of the year before your kids enter school."
Nowak adds that if parents have their hearts set on a specific place, they might want to apply up to a year in advance.
Setting a budget
Very low-income families who qualify for the federally funded Head Start program can send their children to preschool for free. For centers that receive funding from the state, the government determines what parents pay for their child to attend preschool.
However, middle-income families who don't qualify for assistance programs may find preschool too expensive.
According to the Illinois Early Learning Council's 2006 report on Preschool for All, studies indicate that among families with incomes between $30,000 and $75,000, just 50 percent of children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in preschool, compared to 74 percent of those whose families have incomes of $75,000 or more.
But the cost spectrum is also wide. "For private preschools, it's whatever the parents feel comfortable paying," Prescott says. "A lot of park districts have fine programs, and they are very reasonably priced."
In the western suburbs, for instance, the Naperville Park District offers two preschool experiences: Sunny Days Preschool and its newer, nature-oriented version, Toadstools and Pollywogs Preschool. Tuition there is less than $2,000 a year and Naperville taxpayers get a discount.
High-quality preschools share a number of characteristics:
An age-appropriate, play-based curriculum. "A lot of parents are looking at academic-based preschools without understanding a lot of things need to come before a child's learning how to read," Prescott says. "You develop that through games, kids playing." At Toadstools and Pollywogs, children learn the alphabet based on nature-by turning the letter A into an alligator, says Naperville Park District preschool coordinator Leeann Skinner. But they don't sit with crayons and paper for long. They also conduct science experiments at the sand-and-water table, grow vegetables at the garden table, play with blocks and dress-up clothes, sing songs and read books. They also get time outside every day, through all seasons.
A qualified staff. Preschool teachers should at least have an associate's degree, if not a bachelor's, in early childhood education, says Prescott. Turnover should be low, less than 30 percent per year, as should the teacher-to-student ratio (1:10 for 3- and 4-year-olds). Supervisors should be qualified, too. Parents should interview directors about their backgrounds to get a sense of their ability to work with the staff and young children, Prescott says.
Communication with parents. Ask what kind of communication is expected from the school, such as conferences, classroom visits and reviews of the day's activities, Prescott recommends. "The reason touring a school is so important is because the parents will get a sense of how comfortable the children are."
Productive noise. The tour can be a time to note red flags, too, Prescott says. "If a parent walks in and all they hear are teacher's voices, telling kids what to do, if they don't hear children's voices and it's unnaturally quiet, that's something to be worried about," she says.
A good feeling. Skinner, at the Naperville Park District, put this into tangible terms: "Someone's there to greet them with a smile and spend time with them even though we've got 18 (kids). … The teachers are on their levels. If I'm squatting down and squirting soap versus standing over them, I really get a chance to ask how they are."
Trish Georgas of West Town had that good feeling when she toured Rainforest for the first time.
"Parents have a sense, like this feels right," says Georgas, whose sons, Charlie, 4, and Chris, 2, attend Rainforest.
Ann Nichols of River West has sent her children, 5-year-old Morgan and 4-year-old Maddy, to Rainforest since they were each 7 weeks old. "They definitely love to come here," she says. "They do not want to leave."
Garfield Ridge dad Hans Perfect says he was impressed by the art projects, the organic food and the large rooms, which let the kids run around even in winter.
"This one was the best by far," says Perfect, whose children, Hagan, 4, and Alexandra, 23 months, both attend Rainforest. "We looked at a lot."
No matter how many preschools they consider, parents should know why they're looking.
As a former preschool director, Prescott has talked some parents into delaying preschool. They headed middle- to higher-income households and were applying only because all of their friends and their kids were.
"If the parent is stressed, the kid's not going to want to go," she says. "Don't send them when they're 3. Wait until they're 4."
Then again, if parents need that preschool time for themselves and their own mental health, they should not be afraid to say so, she says.
Believe it or not, Prescott says some kids can skip preschool altogether, but that doesn't excuse parents from having books at home or taking kids to the zoo.
"In some cases, preschool may not be necessary as long as parents expose kids to lots of learning opportunities, read, talk to their kids, don't (let kids) watch TV all day, participate in free play and have playtime with other kids," she says. "Their kids will be OK."
Katie Foutz is a mom of two and freelance writer living in Bolingbrook.