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Despite Flaws, Site Rating Preschools Fills a Critical Need

I remember how my wife and I, and our friends, found preschools when we had children that age: We asked each other if we knew any good ones.

That unscientific approach is still the way people do it, even as researchers tell us that more and better preschools are crucial to success in later grades and life.

Six states have mandated preschool for all children. Many others, including Virginia, are moving in that direction. Seventy percent of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 3-year-olds are in preschool, but the numbers are expected to grow rapidly. How will parents figure out which schools are best for their kids?

I tried an experiment. In the fall, I visited the Aldersgate Day School, which is attached to a Methodist church in an affluent neighborhood of southern Fairfax County. The brochure said the school "strives each day to provide a positive supplement to the home." On the playground, children were enjoying jungle gyms, playhouses, swings and toy cars shaded by a large pine.

It looked like a fine place. Yet the Savvy Source, a Web site that rates preschools and day-care centers throughout the country, was less impressed. Aldersgate got 3.4 out of 5 possible stars on "quality of teaching," based on a 12-question parent survey. Is that a blow to Aldersgate's reputation? We don't know. The Savvy Source has found only three parents to fill out its survey for that school, and even that was a struggle. One parent told the Web site: "I can't answer most of these questions b/c the school provides very little information to parents."

"Three data points are useful," said Stacey Boyd, 38, a mother of two young daughters who founded the Savvy Source. The three parent sources are at least two more than most people have when trying to pick a school. "But five, 10 or 50 are even more useful," she added.

Boyd is an experienced educational entrepreneur. At age 26, while finishing her master's degree in business administration, she started a successful charter school in Boston, then moved to California and developed a Web-based tool for diagnosing progress in classrooms. She and her friend Andrea Evans conceived of the Savvy Source when they discovered that there was no complete list of preschools for San Francisco, much less the whole country.

Boyd has more than 100 employees, mostly Web-adept moms. The site provides information on more than 100,000 preschools and day-care facilities nationally. But it is labor-intensive work made no easier by the fact that preschooling is a mostly private, mom-and-pop industry.

It is like compiling national ratings for everyone's favorite diner. It seems nearly impossible, which might be why Boyd has no national competition. Some Web sites, such as Preksmarties.com, attempt to list every preschool but provide only names, addresses and telephone numbers. The Savvy Source reports curricular approaches, enrollment requirements, teaching quality, discipline rules, health and safety standards and how each school handles that perilous first day of separating child from parent.

Research on the Perry Preschool of Ypsilanti, Mich., indicates that many of these factors can have long-term effects. The impoverished African American children who attended Perry in the 1960s had higher reading and math scores in later years than similar children who did not attend preschool. They were only half as likely to need special education and were less likely to exhibit delinquent behavior years later. Perry had significantly fewer students per teacher than less-successful schools.

Boyd puts that student-teacher ratio on the first page of every school report. Aldersgate had a 7-1 ratio, compared with 5-1 at Spring Knolls Cooperative Early Learning Center in Silver Spring, where six parents rated the quality of teaching an almost perfect 4.8.

Aldersgate Director Patricia Spitnale said the Savvy Source finding was "premature and perhaps somewhat arbitrary" for her school, which "enjoys an almost 50-year tradition of providing a healthy, happy, safe and educational environment." She said she will contact the Web site to help them get better information. Spring Knolls Director Fern Chamberlain, on the other hand, said she liked the Savvy Source approach.
Boyd said she welcomes more data. She is happy with the site's coverage of San Francisco, New York, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and other cities but said she needs a few months to get the Washington area right.

When Boyd moved to Jackson, Wyo., she had to open that market herself, asking survey questions at the city's preschools. For her 3-year-old, she picked the Journeys School, which got a particularly good mark on the separation question, much to her distress. The child waved her mother goodbye without a tear but wept when Boyd picked her up to go home.

-- Jay Mathews

By Washington Post Editors  | January 26, 2009; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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