Rebecca Varno of Waterford believed it was important for her son to attend preschool, even though money was tight when her husband was laid off from his job with the New York state Senate last year.
“I honestly think the expense isn’t so insurmountable that you can’t find those funds for a year,” she said. “We asked for help from family members. It was something we were committed to do for Jackson.”
Varno’s mother is a veteran preschool teacher in the Syracuse city school system so she knows the value of preschool.
“It definitely teaches social skills, getting ready for sharing, cooperation, listening, all the skills that in kindergarten they kind of need to already go in with,” Varno said.
Enrollment at some local private preschools has been dropping over the past few years, apparently following the downturn in the economy. At the same time, enrollment in state-funded programs such as Head Start or universal pre-K has been growing.
At Park Avenue Nursery School in Schenectady, there are eight students in the 4-year-olds’ class and 12 in the 3-year-olds’ class, according to Jo-An Palmer, teacher and director. A few years ago there were 18 in the 4-year-olds and about 13 in the 3-year-olds.
“We would be over-enrolling just to accommodate people that were there, but that’s not so true anymore,” Palmer said. Park Avenue’s tuition ranges from $98 to $111 a month.
When the economy slowed down, enrollment began to taper off, she said. More parents could be looking for a full-day program for their kids, she said, rather that typical preschool program, which offers academic instruction and some play time.
“People are having to go back to work, and they need it more as day care provider rather than preschool,” she said.
Another reason for the decline, Palmer said, is students are attending the free universal pre-kindergarten program offered through the Schenectady City School District.
Keith Houghton, director of the Schenectady Community Action Program’s Head Start, said they have 321 slots for children and families with incomes under the federal poverty guidelines.
“We always have waiting lists, and that’s increasing over the last six to eight years,” he said.
More names are added to the list throughout the school year so he anticipated it would swell to 400.
Based on census data of the number of free meals being served in kindergarten in the school district, Houghton said about 1,000 children in the community would be eligible for Head Start, so only one-third of the children who would qualify are being served.
During the 2010-11 school year, there were 104,769 children in state-funded preschool programs in 440 districts across the state, according to state Education Department spokesman Jane Briggs. The state’s universal pre-K program requires that 10 percent of funding allocated to school districts be set aside for collaborative efforts with eligible agencies such as Head Start programs, child care centers, private nursery schools and preschool special education providers.
Enrollment at the Tiny Tots Early Learning Center in Clifton Park decreased to 60 this year from about 68 last year, according to Deb Ebert, owner and director. Ebert believes the economy was a big factor.
“Preschool is definitely one of those options that parents will drop if there’s an affordability issue. They figure they can teach their kids at home,” she said.
In addition, she had several families move out of the area.
However, Ebert is expecting fall enrollment to increase. Full enrollment is 78 students, and more than 75 percent of the spots have been filled, she said.
“I think a lot of it is just word of mouth that people are starting to hear about the preschool,” she said.
Ebert said the uptick also might be a sign that the economy is beginning to turn around.
She is also expanding from 21⁄2 to three hours per day. Her curriculum is based around themes — in a unit on planets, for example, students drew pictures of the planets, talked about stars and created a mini-planet. Along with the usual teaching of letters and numbers, Ebert teaches science, math, music and art. Students also get a chance to go outside and play.
Ebert said there is a lot of competition among preschools in the Clifton Park area, and some fill their fall classes by the previous December. Tuition at Tiny Tots ranges from $125 to $250 a month, depending on the number of days enrolled.
Brown School, a private school in Schenectady for children in nursery school through eighth grade, has seen an increase in preschool enrollment, according to Head of School Patti Vitale.
“We are very thrilled. This is the first time in a couple of years that we have two full, dedicated nursery classes, and we’re thinking of opening another one next year,” she said.
A total of 52 students are enrolled in preschool classes; adding another class would bring that up to 72.
About eight years ago, they had three classes for each preschool grade. That declined over the past six years as the weakening economy had parents questioning whether to spend the money on nursery school and prekindergarten, Vitale said. Also, other programs have popped up in the area.
Vitale said the recent increase in enrollment could be because the economy is beginning to rebound and because the school has stepped up its outreach.
“We’ve also done more open houses, more marketing, more showing off our program,” she said.
Brown offers a program from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and also includes before- and after-school programs. The tuition is $1,100 a year for the full, five-day-a-week program. The children get some academics and art, music, library services and physical activity. The school’s teachers are experienced, with average tenure of more than 20 years, Vitale said.
Mayfair Nursery School in Glenville has also seen its enrollment increase this year to 33 for the first time in recent memory, according to teacher and director Jennifer Groth. However, it is down from about 15 years ago, when they had about 60 families. She attributed the decline to families having fewer children and both parents working.
“People are having to return to work,” she said. “I think that’s making it a little more challenging to do preschool when it’s not combined with your day care provider.”
Mayfair runs five days a week for 21⁄2 hours per day. The school offers a socialization program for 3-year-olds to teach them how to adjust to a school environment. The 4-year-old program is more academically focused on math and reading and preparation for kindergarten.
It is also open to children who are coming from other programs that only offer a half-day session. They offer enrichment such as Spanish instruction.
The fee is $100 for the 3-year-old class, $125 for the 4-year-old class and $220 a month for the five-day program, and the cost is expected to rise next year. It will be $125 a month for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday program and another $100 for the additional two days.
The rate had held steady for the past four years, but with utilities and other expenses rising, Groth said she was forced it increase the tuition.
The Niskayuna Co-op Nursery School has also held their rates steady. The two-day-a-week class for 3-year-olds, which is $95 a month, has only nine children and room for about five more. However, the three-day program for 4-year-olds has 17 kids and costs $110 a month.
Ann Sumner, publicity chairwoman, said the school’s costs are somewhat lower than a traditional preschool because they use a co-op model, where parents on a rotating basis work in the classroom alongside a certified teacher. Sumner said it creates more of a community environment, where parents arrange mutual play dates and even watch each other’s children.
However, parents who can’t find child care may decide a half-day program isn’t for them, according to Sumner.
Schonowe Preschool in Scotia has a waiting list to enroll and is looking to open another classroom. Right now, they have 35 students, according to Holly Powell, day care director.
“Most of the phone calls that I’ve gotten lately are people who have moved to this area,” she said.
Schonowe offers a day care program in addition to the regular classes, which parents find useful because otherwise they would have to send their children somewhere else.
Powell does not think the poor economy has had a tremendous affect on enrollment. A few parents may have lost jobs because of the economy and had to pull their children out of their program, but there always seems to be another family willing to take that spot, she said.
“Parents are very concerned about whether they’re getting some type of educational experience during the day,” she said.