Pre-K Schools Operate With Little Oversight

by Aodhan Hayter

SALT LAKE CITY – For most of our country’s history, parents were content to keep their children at home playing in the yard or having them entertain themselves around the house until kindergarten or first grade. Nursery or pre-schools were considered a luxury of the middle and upper classes.

Today, however, it is estimated that 51 percent of the 3-year-old population in the nation and 74 percent of the 4-year-old population is enrolled in some type of pre-kindergarten program.  (See Fig.1)

Pre-K enrollment

Here in Utah the increase in enrollment could be contributed to the large number of women with preschool age children that work outside the home, which, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, is 59 percent. Another factor is study after study indicating the importance of learning-development prior to age five.

Pre-K, as it’s often referred to, is a squishy term used for a wide range of programs offered to children the year or two before they enter kindergarten. In a strictly legal sense, pre-K may resemble anything from baby-sitting, group childcare or a traditional kindergarten, depending on the state.

In most states, anyone caring for five or more children for pay must be licensed and follow strict health and safety rules, ranging anywhere from keeping immunization records to limiting the number of children per supervisor and square foot.

Some of these same regulations are applied here in Utah, but many organizations are exempted in the Utah Child Care Licensing Program.

Apple Tree School House is one of those institutions that do not have to obtain a license from the state. This is because Apple Tree’s students attend in two- and-one-half hour blocks. As long as no one student stays at a childcare facility for four hours or more there is no need to have a license.

“We get questions about what kind of licenses the school and our teachers have all the time. Parents are usually fairly surprised to learn that we don’t have some kind of license and aren’t required to have one,” said Mrs. Dansie who’s been running Apple Tree School House since 2001.

The lack of licensing doesn’t seem to turn off parents.

“Every Spring and Fall we have all of our classes full, getting a spot can actually get kinda competitive” said Mrs. Dansie.

After reading through the Apple Tree School House mission statement and curriculum it’s clear that the staff is aware of their student’s needs. Their curriculum clearly lays out the materials and skills that will be developed with the students, with the main goal being preparing them for entrance into kindergarten.

“Apple Tree did a great job getting my son ready for kindergarten this year,” said Allison Birch, a mother of a former and current student of Apple Tree School House.

But Apple Tree is not a unique occurrence in our state. The vast majority of preschool facilities are privately owned and operated with little to no oversight. In fact, only 3 percent of Utah 3-year-olds and 8 percent of Utah 4-year-olds are enrolled in a federally funded pre-K program, which are subject to strict oversight, according to The National Institute for Early Education Research.

“I don’t think there would be a huge benefit to our school if we were always worrying about staying up to date with a licensing procedure every year,” said Jamie Birsdsoel, a teacher at Apple Tree School House.

Parents and teachers seem to agree that in the end all that matters are results. With Apple Tree’s track record of adequately preparing students for kindergarten it’s hard to say their methods are in need of review. Another parent, Brad Fowler, summed it up nicely while explaining why he chose to enroll his daughter in preschool.

“When it came time for kindergarten, I wanted Katy to have real school experience.”