Choosing Preschools

Mimi Carter
Author, "The Insider's Guide to Quality Childcare in Greater Washington"
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 3:00 PM

Mimi Carter, who has run early education programs in inner city Washington, D.C. and is the author of "The Insider's Guide to Quality Childcare in Greater Washington," was online Thursday, April 27, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the best ways to find quality preschools and childcare for your children.

Carter is director of operations for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns LLC. Read more about Carter at

The transcript follows.


Anonymous: What do you think is of primary importance in choosing a preschool?

Mimi Carter: Wow, this is great. There are a lot of people here and I am so delighted everyone is so concerned about finding what fits their child best!

My best advice in picking the right preschool is finding the teachers who are warm, and loving and want to be at the school with your children. They should be on the floor, teaching not sitting at tables too much, as play is what we want children to do at this age. And when I say play I mean learn through play.

All activities should be child initiated. Meaning that the children should be able to pick a station, whether blocks, art or dramatic play and go from there. Children should never be forced, but gently encouraged to do projects and sit in circle time, depending on the age.

Good question! Thanks for asking! Mimi


Arlington, Va.: We have an 8-month old daughter. How soon should we start looking for pre-schools to ensure she has the best chance to get into a quality center?

Mimi Carter: I would start looking now. Really. Because there is a dearth of high quality preschools and child care centers and you will want to make sure you feel as comfortable as possible with your choice. It may be expensive, but think about this. Your child's brain will grow more now, between birth and five then anytime afterwards. You want him to have the BEST.


Alexandria, Va.: Dear Ms. Carter.

Do you have a plan to update your "Insider's guide to quality child care in Greater Washington?"

If so, I would like to get in line to place an order.

If you do not, what other sources information about day care centers do you recommend?

Thanks in advance,


Mimi Carter: no plans yet as I have to work and pay bills and writing books doesn't do that. The best source for quality preschools and child care is



Laurel, Md..: What benefits does the Montessori approach to education hold over a regular education?

Mimi Carter: the term Montessori is not actually trade marked so Montessori programs differ from program to program. Some programs are excellent and some are not so excellent. I think what is nice about Montessori is that it does encourage independent play, and learning and encourages learning among children of different age groups.

I went to Montessori and didn't like it! BUT I have friends who are VERY happy with their children's progress.


Arlington, Va.: My son is 11 months old now. How soon should we start applying to preschools? Are there typically waiting lists for the best ones in this area?

Mimi Carter: Now that he is 11 months I would start looking. Waiting lists usually are only for one year, and then start again in September.


Fairfax, Va.: I have two pre-school aged children. My husband searched high and low for a quality pre-school, with warm teachers and environment. We wanted our children to be comfortable and interested in school. We visited several pre-schools in the Nova area, but found the best one at a home pre-school center. The setup is in the basement of the teacher's home. The children sit at tables and learn just as they would at any formal pre-school. Specialty teachers are brought in each week for music, dance and science lessons. My children are both at advanced levels of development. I credit the pre-school. I think when many parents look for pre-schools; they dismiss home-run schools as "day care centers" and not schools. I feel very lucky that we stumbled upon our preschool. Aside from the excellent education that I my children are getting, I believe that they are more comfortable in a home rather than a conventional classroom.

Mimi Carter: I agree!! Congrats on finding a good one. There is an accreditation program for family child care homes and the NAEYC is still a great resource for finding out about these quality programs.


Rockville, Md.: My son (3) is currently in pre-school while I work full-time. I love it and I love the fact the teachers are so nurturing and really focus on his development. he's also very social. Problem is I'm expecting our second and am in a bind. I want to stay home for a while after the second is born (older one will be 3 1/2), but then can't afford to send the son to preschool. I'm afraid that if he stays at home, he'll miss the social interactions (he's so used to going to school) Though I know ultimately my husband and I will have to make a decision, I'd like to get your thoughts on this.

Mimi Carter: Hi - yes, it is even more important when your second child is born that he go to preschool. Inquire about a payment plan, or scholarships- most child care centers have them, you just have to inquire. Thanks for writing and good luck!


Washington, D.C.: We have a daughter who will be 2 in August and could go to a preschool we think is quite good--but we are also in a good nanny-share situation. Should we start with preschool or keep her in the current (stable) situation?

Mimi Carter: Preschool is great for a two year old because they have to learn to get along with others. The nanny situation is perfect for the afternoons, for one on one time, but I would enroll for preschool - even two days a week, because that will help her immensely in the long run.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Mimi - Are you familiar with BrightHorizons childcare centers? Do you have any opinion on their approach to caring, nurturing, and educating the little ones?

Thank you.

Mimi Carter: Bright Horizons has actually one of the best corporate programs I have seen, especially as they have a rigorous training program for teachers. I do prefer non-profit to corp but if you have to go corporate BH is a good choice.


Arlington, Va.: What's the difference between a pre-school and a daycare center? Are they necessarily mutually exclusive terms?

Mimi Carter: Child care is usually full day. Preschool implies half day, and often the number of days varies with the child's age.


In the District: Thanks for taking time to do this chat. We have a 6-week-old son and are planning to start daycare in August. Is there a qualitative difference between "daycare" and "preschool"? We are on the waiting lists of several daycare centers - all attached to federal government agencies (we're both feds).

Mimi Carter: I am a big fan of the DOT, Senate, Smithsonian programs. They have EXCELLENT directors. What you are looking for in an infant program is a HIGH quality infant provider who has a great track record and ideally a strong interest in professional development. Infant care should have a ratio of 1 to 3 or most 1 to 4. Make frequent site visits to the centers during all times of day, especially at nap time to determine their policy and make sure you like what you see.

thanks for writing, infant care is SO important!!


Alexandria, Va.: Three quick questions: What's the earliest age you recommend a child be before beginning pre-school? Does it depend more on their physical development, or mental? Is a structured, curriculum-based day care center better than an at-home day care without strict structure?

Mimi Carter: The earliest for preschool I think is 2.5

Structure at a child care center is better than no structure at a home care center

Children crave and need structured days to feel secure, and to learn, anything whether it is holding a cup or learning letters, they have to feel secure and loved in their environment.


Washington, D.C.: Our family has one child in a co-op preschool in NOVA. Each family has to put in a certain number of service hours. The easiest way to earn hours is to stand around during the open-house programs that the school runs. Here I thought during our open house that "look at all these parents talking up the school on a Saturday". I felt horrible during these events because the majority of parents were looking for spots for 2 year-olds and I knew that there would be maybe one or two spots available b/c the rest were reserved for siblings of current students. We were told not to say anything about that. What a racket for application fees.

Mimi Carter: Hmmmm. Another good reason to find leaders in early childhood education to find the funding to open up quality preschools and child care centers!


Towson, Md.: Has your research looked into the friend/family/neighbor care option for families?

Mimi Carter: Not so much. But I have a share care with a neighbor whom I could not do with out. It is for a couple of hours three days a week for him, and one full half day for me and it works out beautifully. I don't know what I would have done without them this year!


Washington, D.C.: Are you affiliated with NAEYC or do you know about NAEYC guidelines? I'm wondering about teacher turnover at pre-schools and what percentage is acceptable to NAEYC or even acceptable within the industry. When is turnover just too high that it indicates a problem at the preschool? My child's center has had 24 teachers leave in 16 months and I'm concerned. Is this an indication that the center is bad? It has been accredited by NAEYC for at least two years.

Mimi Carter: that's a LOT. Yeah. In that case their is definitely a leadership problem. I knew one great center in DC, with a great director but the pastor in the church would not give her enough money to pay her teachers a living wage. The turnover was really high but there was nothing she could do.

I would probably move my child because that high a turnover does not offer your child a secure environment that makes him feel confident.

Thanks! Mimi


Alexandria, Va.: I found out about NAEYC a few months ago when I was looking for some objective information and/or review about daycare centers. However when I looked up, I was surprised to find that only a small number of the daycare centers were included in their listing for this area. Does that mean that the excluded centers are below the NAEYC standard? Another question: are parents (or centers), in general, even aware of NAEYC?

Mimi Carter: You're right, there is a low number because the NAEYC has high standards and the application and process is very difficult. BUT that being said, I think the schools that are the best make the effort. The standards though are getting harder and harder, and more expensive for schools to adhere to so we may see a decline in NAEYC affiliation even among quality schools in the near future.


Del Ray, Va.: Your advice to the Mom in Rockville with the 3 year old is right on the money! My daughter was 3 1/2 when my son was born and she went back to preschool after he was born. I got the chance to have one-on-one time with the baby and she got the chance to brag about her new brother to all of her friends. And to get away from the screaming for a little bit too.

Mimi Carter: thanks! It's nice to have a real life verification!!


Alexandria, Va.: Can you comment on a center that opened in Cameron Station in Alexandria just a little over a year ago called Bright Start?

Mimi Carter: I cannot. My research into centers does not go that far back. Sorry!


Reading, Mass.: Do you see any plusses/minuses of enrolling my child in an integrated pre-school with special needs children?

Mimi Carter: Absolutely not! There is a fantastic preschool in DC which serves special needs kids first and the children are happy, warm integrated and gracious and sweet to each other. If there is a good director with a strong curriculum in place you should have no worries.


Arlington, Va.: Getting quality childcare, for the most part, is really for the rich, the people who can afford at least $1000 a month for a slot in a NAEYC accredited childcare center. What do you recommend working families do? How can they find quality preschools for their kids that they can afford?

Mimi Carter: Wow - this is such an important topic. And one that I love addressing because, really if we are going to level the playing field for ALL children we need to get preschool and child care to ALL children regardless of what they can afford. There is an initiative in California called where they have it on the ballot to tax the upper upper income to pay for quality preschool for all children, regardless of their income. If we could do that here on the east coast we would be blown away on how much this would affect the test scores we are all so worried about among our neediest children.


Fairfax, Va.: We have a child in pre-school who will turn 5 in late August. How can we best determine if he should go to kindergarten next year or do another year of pre-school?

Mimi Carter: You know I have seen this more and more. Five year olds waiting and then going to school one year later. I think it is important to talk to your teacher and ask:

Can they sit still for 1/2 hour for circle time

Can they do a project for 1/2 hour without acting out?

Can they work well with other children in quiet groups?

Your teacher can answer these questions and it will make the decision easier.


Arlington, Va.: One thing I want to caution about NAEYC. Our first center was accredited by NAEYC. I was a naive, first-time mother. I enrolled my infant son there. Only after I we were there did I discover that ratios were routinely and rampantly ignored, and care was sometimes indifferent. We did a lot of drop-in, unannounced visits to check on our son, and enlisted friends who had kids in the center to spy, too. At last, a couple of months later, we got a slot at a BH center and RAN. Fast forward four years later: a friend of mine stuck it out at the evil center, and the NAEYC accreditation visit was up. She was on some parent committee and found out that the center STAGED the visit: they passed, but within a couple of hours of the visit, they were back to their old, ratio-breaking tricks.

Moral: don't just accept NAEYC as the final word. Visit, do your research, ask around, and stay on those wait lists so if you have to leave because either things go bad or you didn't know it was bad, you have an alternative.

Mimi Carter: ABSOLUTELY, gosh I have never heard of that but I do not think that is a norm. Yes, check you're right. But most places are pretty upfront. Thanks though for the warning!


Bethesda, Md.: Our daughter is a little slower in her language development than her peers, but the doctor says she's in normal range overall. Doc recommends a language-rich pre-school/daycare environment to help move this along. What should we look for? And are you familiar with All-Saints All Day (ASAD) in DC/MD?? Thanks!

Mimi Carter: Yeah, I am and I liked that program very much. Montgomery County and MD in general have tough state guidelines which is why the quality in MD is so high. They also have great professional development in MD. You should have a good deal of choice.


Silver Spring, Md.: I can't afford daycare AND preschool. I don't want an in-house nanny, and even if I had one I couldn't afford them and preschool.

Am I really dooming my child to an inferior life if they just go to daycare? It seems to have structured activities and certainly they stress getting along with other children.

Mimi Carter: If its high quality child care you are all set.


Arlington, Va.: RE: NAEYC getting stricter

I had heard that NAEYC was requiring head teachers to have more than a CDA, but I can't recall the rest of the details, other than that it would make hiring very difficult for our currently accredited center at current wage and tuition rates. Is this counterproductive? There are so many bad daycares out there, that it would seem that NAEYC ought to set up two standards: one called "silver" for current standards (and was perfectly adequate for my kindergartener) and one called "gold" for the ultra-high standards and parents who are able to pay $3000 a month per child.

Mimi Carter: Center Directors are encouraged to have a college degree or an equivalent in professional development, although the former is preferred. In general the NAEYC is seeking to raise the standards of child care this way. You wouldn't hire a lawyer without a law degree, or a hair stylist who had no training, or an accountant who had just taken accounting classes. We should expect no less from the people who take care of children. It's that important.


Washington, D.C.: My twins will be turning two in December, and I'd like to start them in a preschool program at least part-time in January, but I'm finding that preschools fill their classes in September and therefore there are no "mid-year" slots available? Do you know of any preschool programs that accept children mid-way through the "academic" year? Thanks.

Mimi Carter: No, not many. But you can always ask. Find one you like and call. There is a lot of turnover in this area and an empty space means one less tuition check for them!


Boston, Mass.: Can you weigh in on the initiative process that we see western states, particularly California, using to address education issues? Is that a better way? Are there benefits that traditional legislative or local action won't be able to achieve?

Mimi Carter: I mentioned earlier that there is a California ballot vote next month that taps upper income earners to help fund a preschool initiative that would allow all CA preschoolers a chance to go to preschool or child care. While we tried to encourage VA to adopt such an idea, Kaine has not put any money or asked any one else to pay for it. It will not happen with out concentrated effort/grass roots advocacy effort to say "Hey we want to help the kids who have less to do better in school. We know if we provide them with quality early education this can happen. We are ready to help pay for it."

This has to be the first step. Organizations and foundations are the ones to lead the way, and then the state can work with those organizations to implement.


Washington, D.C.: My child goes to a Federal daycare center and is in a "Preschool" classroom (2.5-3.5 year olds). I have some concerns about the center as they've been struggling with NAEYC accreditation for a while, but haven't gotten it. There is also a major turnover problem, as well.

However, my child is happy and learning. She has great teachers in the past (most of whom are now gone) and at home I spend a considerable amount of time on learning play. I don't want to take her from a situation that is comfortable to her.

My question is how much curriculum feedback should I be getting at this stage? On lessons, what games were played, if she naps, etc. How do I ensure that she stays on track?

Also, do you have an opinion on Knowledge Learning centers?

Mimi Carter: Daily reports are great. Most centers have them. Also ask your teacher for email about your child. That way you can begin a dialogue. That's the first step.


Washington: How much training does it take to get a CDA? How expensive is it? Is it reasonable to expect that teachers who work full time, for fairly low wages have the time to take the classes and can afford them? Is it reasonable or even desirable to require that teachers have a CDA?

Mimi Carter: Many CDA classes are offered at night. And the DC government will pay for them. It should be a city requirement in my opinion.


Mt. Rainier, Md.: This is very informative - how can we purchase your book?

Mimi Carter: I think Probably in the used book section! Also the libraries bought a bunch when it first came out. thanks for asking.


Washington, D.C.: You said: "yes, it is even more important when your second child is born that he go to preschool."

Why? I'm just curious.

Mimi Carter: Because you have less time now. He will need attention from others and he will need to understand relationships outside from you and him. He will grow more with these relationships outside the home. Some little kids are great with second babies, some have harder times. Preschools, their friends and the center director are usually great helps in easing the transition.


Washington, D.C.: We have applied to have our 3 year old begin in the Watkins Montessori Program beginning this fall. Are you familiar with this DCPS and this particular program?

Mimi Carter: When I was there, Ms. Baltimore was the CD and Mr. Clifford was the preschool teacher. I liked it very much and they really loved getting books to the kids. I think you have made a good choice.


Alexandria, Va.: What is your opinion about Montessori school versus traditional school for pre-school?

Mimi Carter: I answered this earlier in the chat. thanks!


Washington, D.C.: I noticed on your Web site that you went to AU. My little one actually attends the child development center there and I love it. My husband and I had kids young and they've attended different university care centers as we've gone through academics. Though quality differs, I find that many of these institutions offer great programs and are less expensive than other comparable schools, but many people don't know about them. Usually priority is given to students and staff, but they do allow the general public to register as well.

Mimi Carter: American has always been a good school. Thanks for providing this info!


Lorton, Va.: My son has recently been diagnosed with Aspergers and I am wondering if know of any private preschools are adequately prepared for the challenges of educating someone with special needs or should I simply take the benefit of county-run programs?

Mimi Carter: There are two programs you could call. One is Meeting House in Alexandria and St. Columba's in DC. Both of these programs are great. I would also call George Mason University Early Education program and talk to people there. They should have some good leads.


Alexandria, Va.: I love the daycare/school where my 8 month daughter is enrolled. However, I have noticed with the warmer weather that the surrounding area has some unsavory characters and I am concerned. Any advice on how to address this topic and general security with the center? I am particularly concerned about playground time.

Mimi Carter: Sorry you waited so long. I am not sure how to answer this except to say that the teachers should be outside with the kids supervising so the children should be fine. Talk with the staff and state your concerns. Offer to volunteer one day and model what you expect in terms of supervision. This will highlight your concern and help address the problem at the same time.


Ashburn, Va.: You have mentioned the preschool initiative in California. The research I've seen suggests that preschool actually damages the social skills of middle class children, and the academic gains they make early on are gone by third grade. Why should the state subsidize preschool for middle class children?

Mimi Carter: Whoa, where are on earth did you see that??? When you consider that the brain grows when it is stimulated by conversation, activities and warm nurturing care, how could preschool "damage" anything? Unless of course we are talking about sub standard custodial care which is what we used to see 10 and 20 years ago, which you are right could hurt children.

Quality preschool education is what will level the playing field for all children regardless of income group and culture in the United States. It is the responsibility of concerned citizens, all of us, to invest in the education of these children so that our country will continue to grow and prosper.


More info about NAEYC: Thanks for the comments --and to your participants for theirs-- about NAEYC.

If people have complaints or concerns about NAEYC-accredited programs, we definitely want to hear about from you. You can tell us at

Also, we have a new site especially for parents and families,

Alan Simpson, NAEYC

Mimi Carter: Thanks Alan!


Schmekleburg, Pa.: Hello and thank you for offering your expertise.

Could you please tell me how to handle parents who are only interested in taking care of their own children's needs at the expense of other children?

At our daycare, there is a clique of parents who only volunteer and take active roles in caring for their children. They put pressure on the daycare management to ensure that their children's class and activities are the center of attention.

This selfishness detracts from improving the overall daycare. What would you recommend I do?

Thank you


Mimi Carter: Difficult parents are everywhere. It is impossible to avoid them. Just hope they graduate quickly!


Del Ray, Va.: Thanks for putting together this resource. I have found the hunt for preschools to be very difficult, with most information coming word of mouth from other Moms. What is your opinion on co-op vs. privately run preschools, and what the pros and cons are for a parent-run preschool?

Mimi Carter: I love co-ops. It's great for you. You learn a lot about child development And your child loves when you are in the classroom, and then they really love it when its their turn to be the coop kid. I recommend a co-op if you can do it with your schedule.


Mimi Carter: I have to sign off now as my kids are home and they are getting mad that I am ignoring them. If you want to email me your questions I am happy to answer them. I am at

Thanks so much for coming online today. I am thrilled to hear from so many concerned parents about their children's early education. You are each and everyone advocates for high quality and I encourage you to look long and hard for what's right for you and your child. It's worth the time and the effort.


Mimi Carter


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