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[whitespace] Parents lament shortage of preschools in the area and waiting lists grow longer

Los Gatos--The changing dynamics in Silicon Valley are contributing to one of the many educational epidemics: the lack of preschools.

In recent years, an increased population of young, well-to-do families, combined with the skyrocketing costs of real estate are among the factors that make it harder and harder for parents to enroll their children in local preschools.

Two Los Gatos preschools face the possibility of shutting down in the next six months. Another one closed shop in 1999, and no replacements are in sight.

The majority of preschools in Los Gatos consistently have no openings, and some families are on waiting lists for as long as three years.

Shannon Nursery School, a 38-year-old institution, may close its doors this summer. Its three full-time staff membersótwo directors and one teacheróare leaving the school. While the teacher is retiring, the directors are relocating. Approximately 60 children will be affected by the closure.

Co-director Anne Crane said she is moving to San Luis Obispo because of "the high cost of living and the congestion of people" in the valley.

The staff at Harwood Hills Country School, which currently serves 130 families, will close when its lease expires on June 30. The landlord is planning to sell and develop the building as residential property.

"Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find a site," said Director April Ramirez.

Green Hills Preschool, though not closing, is going to switch its program from half- and full-day to half-day only, in fall 2002.

Director Lauren Kuhn points to cost-efficiency, extremely long days, and the need to satisfy the employees as reasons to make the change. "A lot of them are going to be very, very happy that we don't have the long hours," Kuhn said. "Staff are really, really hard to come by."

The shortage of staff members is another problem that preschools face.

Childcare consultant Monika Perez, of Heart for Children Consultation, says that for preschool staff, there is a "high turnover rate due to the low compensation for their work." Teachers often earn more money by turning to public schools, or by switching professions.

"Unfortunately, the profession itself is not attractive to lots of people anymore," Perez said. "There are lots of unmotivated teachers who ask themselves, ëWhy work so hard for so little?í "

In Silicon Valley especially, teachers can't afford to survive on the income that private schools pay. According to Perez, in the past, many preschool teachers were women, who didn't need to make much money because their husbands made enough to support the family.

"A long time ago, it was a profession of love," said Perez.

Kuhn agrees and says that not many people in the business make over $15 an hour.

Ellen Daniels, director of Charmer School, said, "You gotta love it to be here." Daniels thinks that, to keep staff members, preschools must raise tuition and increase teachers' salaries.

Charmer recently cut back the number of students it accepts, from 74 children last year to 45 this year. Daniels says that the cutback was done in order to keep the teacher-student ratio low and to increase the quality of instruction.

There has also been a shift in the demographics of the valley. Los Gatos, known for the quality of its education, draws families from other parts of the Bay Area.

Leslie Hench, the parent of a child at Little Oak Preschool, moved to Los Gatos expressly for the schooling. "We lived in an area where the school districts weren't rated very well," Hench said.

However, once the Henches arrived, they became frustrated with the preschool situation. Their children were attending Casa Maria Montessori when it closed in 1999. The Henches had trouble finding another preschool and encountered long waiting lists until they found Little Oak.

As with the Henches, more parents with young children are putting their kids in preschool, in part to prepare them for the rigors of kindergarten.

Ada Hand, from the California Department of Education, says that what kindergartens are required to teach varies by district and by teacher. "The standards are rigorousóthere's no doubt about that," said Hand.

Daniels says that children who went through preschool have the social skills and ability to learn that other, more knowledgeable children do not. According to Daniels, teachers at kindergartens have told her that Charmer graduates fare better in classes than kindergarteners who have only "head knowledge."

Perez agrees. "A well-rounded child is probably positioned better to adapt in a structured environment," she said.

Perez holds kindergarten readiness workshops for parents through various preschools, and says some couples are overly eager to enroll their children in kindergarten.

"Parents are successful and they want their kids to be successful," Perez said. "They see their children Harvard-bound, Stanford-bound. They don't look at the process."

According to Perez, preschools are also becoming more popular because many of the Bay Area families in the consist of two working parents who simply do not have the time to take care of their young children.

"We're in a child-friendly society," said Perez, "but people are happy to have nannies or send kids to preschools, and just play with the kids on the weekends."

Mariposa Montessori, expected to open in Los Gatos in March, has already stopped taking names for its waiting list, said Mariposa President Joanne Varni.

Los Gatos Town Council gave the final approval for Mariposa at its Jan. 16 meeting. The classes will be held at Faith Lutheran Church because, according to Varni, churches are known as good places to hold a preschool.

"Churches want to give back to the community," said Varni, "and they're not in it for the money." According to Varni, churches often choose to charge low rents because preschools are "for the good of the community." Varni also says that churches generally have the time and space open to accommodate classes held on weekdays.

Executive directors of Harwood Hills met with town officials recently to discuss the housing situation. Los Gatos Mayor Joe Pirzynski says that the town offered the school suggestions on how to look for a new site and "cautioned them about issues they would have to deal with."

"We are very supportive of the need of preschools," said Pirzynski. "This is a very precious resources."

Still, Pirzynski says that there is only so much the town council can do because preschools are private businesses and not public institutions. "We're kind of in a dilemma," Pirzynski said.

However, Stacey Shultz, whose children attend Valley Christian Elementary School, thinks that the town council should be more active in the preschool dilemma.

"I would really encourage parents and town council to look at this in a big way," Schultz said. "It's not like there's ever going to be a shortage of kids. There's just a lack of quality preschools."

Varni added, "Council's take is that it's our problem and not the town council's problem."
Gloria I. Wang

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Web extra to the February 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro.

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