UMATILLA COUNTY — September means the start of school for many, and it also marks the moment parents of toddlers realize they might want a little more time to themselves every week, according to Pendleton Presbyterian Preschool director Lori Albright.
“A lot of people don’t think about signing up 3-year-olds until school starts,” she said.
There are still open spots in the Early Learners program where Albright works, but she said her pre-kindergarten class, for kids ages 4 to 5, is full with a waiting list to boot.
Albright said her preschool, along with others in the area, is switching up its approach in recent years.
“For a while we felt we needed to be more academic, teaching preschoolers to read,” Albright said. “We’re going back to really focusing more on how to be a good friend.”
AnneMarie Kunkle, owner of Lil Angels Child Care and Pre School in Pendleton, said she has the help of a curriculum assistant to mix things up each year.
And although her programs teach sight words, the alphabet and some math, she said she’s moved the focus of her preschool toward fun.
“Four or five years ago, I did not enjoy teaching class. I felt like I was pounding things into these itty bitty babies,” Kunkle said. “Every child grows at a different pace. I think way too much emphasis was put on success in kindergarten.”
Brandi Verley, who owns Gems and Gents Kids Center in Hermiston, agrees.
“We believe in active play, make believe, singing and music, structure and fun. Activities that challenge their fine- and gross-motor development will play a huge roll in their lifetime of learning more than any worksheet will,” Verley said.
She said she feels that kindergarten entry assessments put too much pressure on preschool teachers and their students.
Verley also noted that this is the first year that Gems and Gents will head into the year below enrollment numbers.
Mary Shaver, who runs Busy Bee Preschool and Child Care in Hermiston, has open spots for the year as well.
“It’s kind of a normal year. I’ve got several openings, I’ve got to fill them pretty soon,” Shaver said.
She said that in recent years, Busy Bee has focused on character development and a new phonics program, which has seen great success.
“The kids pick it up so fast, my kids are reading three-letter words by the end of the year. I wish I would have had it 20 years ago,” she said.
Shaver said preschool is an important time in the development of a child.
“Preschool is really good for kids,” she said. “They come into preschool and they don’t know a lot of things. They don’t know how to wash their hands after the bathroom, or how to wait their turn and play with other kids.”
This summer, the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub released the results of their second annual Early Education Questionnaire, which was distributed in kindergarten registration packets across districts in the area.
In Umatilla County, 71% of those surveys were returned. Nearly 80% of respondents said their child was attending a preschool program.
The top three reasons cited by parents whose children did not attend a preschool program included “other,” cost and transportation.
Verley said she’s noticed cost and transportation are barriers for parents considering placing their children in a program.
“(Some parents) are above the income limit for free programs yet cannot afford private programs,” Verley said. “Even though we all try to keep costs as low as possible.”
Amy Hoffert, coordinator at the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub, said that it can be a challenge for parents who work to take their child to a preschool program that only lasts part of the day, as many do.
She said the Hub has worked to offer preschool scholarships to parents in Morrow, Umatilla and Union counties.
The Hub also recently wrapped up their third annual Kindergarten Jumpstart program, which serves as an orientation for kids entering kindergarten this summer.
The program, which targets families who might not have the resources to send their kids to preschool, has expanded from 10 classes last year to 19 this year.
Kindergarten Jumpstart reached more than 270 future kindergarteners this year. Hoffert said the program is focused on social and emotional learning.
“Kindergarten and preschool teachers are saying when a child is ready to regulate their emotions, they’re ready to learn,” she said.