Preschool enrollment takes a dip

By Melissa Hirschl

In an economy that seems to be continually in flux, more than just corporations are in a quandary. Schools share concerns about their bottom lines as well.

Preschools in particular are in a vulnerable position. In addition to having a limited number of years during which children can attend their programs, they face increasing competition from providers in both the public and private sectors.

The Kyrene School District’s early learning centers for pre-kindergarten children, marketed as Kids Club, and privately owned facilities like Our Gang face similar challenges.

While both offer features that set them apart, they likewise have differing concerns and dynamics. The common denominator, however, is the same: to provide parents with quality schools that stay ahead of the pack.

According to Kyrene Kids Club program supervisor Josh Glider, enrollment at the district’s four preschools (located at Manitas, Niños, Lomas and Milenio schools) has been mostly stable across the board, with just a slight decline. To what can this be attributed?

“I think that once families move into the area and their kids grow up, they no longer need our services,” he says.

“They are either looking for new kinds of care or new families are moving in that don’t have younger children. Also, many areas…have been built up as much as they (will be).”

Schools thrive on keeping their competitive edge, and the Kyrene district is no exception, Glider suggests.

“I think we’re more competitive internally than most schools,” he says. “We do self-assessments all the time and discuss what we could be doing better. I’m not as concerned so much (about) what someone down the street is doing, but rather I’m focused on what we’re doing to make us the best we can be.

“We are very interested in what our parents think; we even invite them to give us feedback on our curriculum and also on our annual handbook evaluation.”

One of the district’s main pro-active marketing strategies is “answering to a higher authority”, so to speak.

Next May, the district will have the honor of being accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a private, non-profit organization that sets national standards for high quality programs.

“The curriculum covers subjects such as safety, human interactions, caregiver/child interactions and multi-culturalism,” says Glider.

“It’s a very comprehensive program, from the building structure down to the day-to-day details. Part of the process involves getting feedback from outside observers such as teachers or administrators in addition to parent and students. “It’s all part of building partnerships,” he says.

The information gleaned from these surveys gets transformed into action plans by those invested in the program. This way, attention can be focused on the program’s strengths as well as weaknesses.

“Going through this process alone has made us aware of many of the concerns and needs of the families,” says Glider.

Another way the district is hoping to develop a higher profile is by having “closure camps” at Lomas and Mirada next fall. The preschools will be open during days that the district is closed such as holidays or teacher planning days. These are full -ay options that parents will have to register for separately.

Our Gang Preschool

Located inside Mission del Sol Church, this “mom and pop” operation has been around since 1989, when Betty Martinson and Jacki Oelze first opened their doors.

Five years ago, enrollment peaked at 70; today only 26 children are enrolled. The lost revenue has caused teachers to take pay cuts and threatens the very existence of the school, the owners say.

Both women are committed to turning the situation around, they say, but are caught in a catch-22. Advertising takes money, and that is not something the school has in abundance right now.

It hasn’t always been that way.

The school originally had a strong following from an Ahwatukee preschool where both women were working as teachers.

“Gradually as more preschools opened out that way, we started losing those families, but we did gain some from Tempe and Chandler,” says Martinson.

“Another challenge for us is that more and more of the local public schools are providing their own preschools, which makes the situation even more competitive,” Martinson said.

 “One mother even told us of a school in Chandler that is offering a kindergarten readiness class for free. It’s hard to beat that.”

Martinson is proud of the fact that most families don’t drop out; they either move or change because a sibling is in another school.

“We also know the kids and parents are happy here since we get a lot of families that have all their children here; it’s just the challenge of getting the word out,” she says.

“Even the fact that we are located within…Mission del Sol Church doesn’t seem to bolster our numbers.”

Our Gang leases space from the church but has no direct affiliation.

A main reason Martinson cites for the loss of revenue is the abundance of day care centers that advertise as preschools. Our Gang is a genuine preschool, she says, with programs ranging from two to two and a half hours.

“A lot of the moms now want extended hours, so they can work or have more time,” says Martinson.

“We cater to stay-at-home moms who are able to drive and pick up their children, although we are considering offering more hours. For the past five years we’ve had a private kindergarten, but this is the last year, due to lack of interest,” she says.

“Our low rates may be due to the ‘maturing’ of the local area--many of the small children are now grown and there’s not a lot (of children) replacing them.”

Another reason Martinson cites for low enrollment is the proliferation of private, home-based pre-schools, which she says are cropping up in many neighborhoods.

One strategy the school is pursuing to combat low enrollment is limited advertising in the local area.

In addition it has invested in a new website , www.ourgangpreschool.com. Another tactic they are using is putting up small signs around the neighborhood promoting the school. Parents are an integral part of the process of boosting families as well. Last year the parent group put on a silent auction that raised $1,000.

Our Gang prides itself in providing what she terms kindergarten readiness, according to Martinson, who hopes that word of mouth will be their best advertisement.

Our Gang staff members have even taken the initiative of going to local kindergarten teachers to determine what critical skills preschoolers need to know.

“We pride ourselves on having a small teacher-student ratio,” says Martinson. “We really want each child to get the individualized attention they need.”