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Out-of-line preschoolers increasingly face expulsion

Ohanian Comment: The high school model for preschoolers: Make impossible rules and then kick out kids who don't obey them. We've been doing this to bigger kids for decades.

But another problem is that economic necessity forces families to put young children into institutional care. If a child isn't ready for preschool, wouldn't it be nice if he could stay home?

By Marco R. della Cava
SAN FRANCISCO When Stephanie Crowe put her son, Davis, now 4, into an acclaimed Montessori preschool last fall, she hoped it would prove a bright spot in her suddenly fraying life.

The single mother of two was pulling dawn-to-3-p.m. workdays at an investment management firm to spend more time with her children, who were coping with a recent move as well as their parents' tense separation.

"I had high hopes for Davis," says Crowe, 39, whose daughter, Madeleine, 6, immediately took to the public school in Ross, a suburban enclave.

Then the calls rolled in. Davis wasn't sharing. Davis seemed angry. Davis pushed a child. Meetings were arranged and warnings were issued.

This was strange: Davis had not been disruptive at his previous Montessori school. Nevertheless, Crowe hired a child-development expert to evaluate her son, who told her that though Davis needed help expressing his frustration in words, he otherwise was a typically rowdy little boy.

But the misbehavior continued. Finally, in February, Crowe faced the school's director and three teachers, hopeful for an innovative solution. Instead, Crowe was handed her son's things. Out.

Expelled at age 3 seems a brutal way to start an academic career. But researchers say it's an increasingly common occurrence. Each year, about 5,000 children are asked to leave state-financed preschools, which include some private institutions, a rate three times higher than public school students in kindergarten through grade 12, according to a report by the Yale University Child Study Center.

Nearly seven preschoolers in every 1,000 are expelled, and some for-profit schools eject children at nearly twice the rate of public preschools, says Walter Gilliam, the report's author. The results were even more alarming in the study's pilot project, which broadly encompassed licensed child care centers in Massachusetts and found that 27 in every 1,000 children were expelled.

"This is an issue that cuts across (demographic) settings," Gilliam says. "We're talking about the educational equivalent of capital punishment being handed down to the very young."

The nation's toddlers haven't become gum-snapping thugs. And preschool teachers say they aren't evicting instead of instructing. In fact, their jobs may be tougher than ever as the number of students enrolled in special-education programs has risen 30% over the past 10 years, the National Education Association says.

But some experts are concerned that preschools are stretched too thin, which can result in children with relatively minor developmental problems being dismissed as unmanageable.

"Often there are not enough adult bodies in a classroom, which boosts the stress level for everyone," says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at the non-profit group Zero to Three. "So all of a sudden if a couple of kids are needy, they risk being expelled."

The toll can be great on parents and kids alike, Lerner says. "When you're essentially told you have a demon child, you feel like you've failed yourself and your kid."

High expectations, no tolerance

Clearly, parents and educators are grappling with often unprecedented hurdles in their mutual quest to socialize the nation's newest crop of toddlers. Interviews as well as hundreds of comments e-mailed to ParentCenter.com, which conducted a website survey for USA TODAY, reveal that:

The prevalence of dual-income families means children spend long days in often pricey preschools. In Crowe's case, she paid nearly $10,000 a year for a half-day program almost the same as room, board and tuition at a state college. Such fees can lead parents to expect a level of attention that most schools can't provide.

Schools adopt zero-tolerance policies to reassure parents who don't want their children exposed to disruptive behavior, but that leaves little leeway to work with kids who need extra attention.

Parents and teachers agree it's crucial to distinguish between typical toddler behavior (the occasional bite or push) and extraordinary displays of anger, a distinction made with greatest precision at schools with mental-health experts waiting to help. "The reciprocal blame between parents and child care providers helps no one, least of all the children," says Kadija Johnston, a pioneering force in getting preschools to not give up on students who act out. "Being expelled at 4 just leaves you with a rejected sense of self."

As director of the University of California-San Francisco's Infant-Parent Program, Johnston has spent two decades sending mental-health experts to about 40 Bay Area schools with the goal of keeping problem kids in class. She says the Yale study "just confirmed what we know, and we hope the masses are now duly concerned."

Some parents indeed are seeking out preschools that can offer their children that second chance to get things right. Kangaroo's Korner in Watertown, Conn., is just such a place. Founded by pediatric occupational therapist Catherine Risigo-Wickline, the school initially focused on toddlers with Down syndrome but was soon swarmed by a new type of parent.

"These people had kids who had been thrown out of four and even five centers. It was amazing. I thought, 'Could the kids really be that bad?' " Risigo-Wickline says. "What I found was that their misbehavior often resulted from being asked to do things that weren't developmentally appropriate."

Kyle DeNigris, 5, had exhibited some aggressive tendencies before arriving at Kangaroo's Korner a few years back. Mom Raquel says that at his previous center, Kyle was placed with younger children because he wasn't yet potty-trained.

As a result, "he was bored, and so he acted out," she says. "When another family complained, it was presented as 'it's either you or them,' but it was clear it was us. Even though we were paying lots of money, I didn't feel like we were a team working for my son. We left."

At Kangaroo's Korner, a staff child-development expert noticed Kyle wasn't focused while eating and recommended he be further evaluated. Kyle was diagnosed with sensory integration dysfunction, "which meant he had trouble filtering out distractions," DeNigris says.

Back at his new preschool, teachers helped Kyle with his focus; he is now in kindergarten "and is doing much better," DeNigris says.

Double whammy for one mom

But opting out of a preschool isn't always an easy choice, especially in large cities where preschools often have waiting lists.

That's why Carolyn Miller of Hyattsville, Md., sweated out the seemingly unending phone calls "to the point where I was petrified to answer when I was at work, thinking it was them."

"Them" were the directors of the two Montessori preschools she tried for twins Linda and Stephen, now 5. She says the first school asked both kids to leave and urged her to have her son evaluated.

After both children were expelled twice, Miller sent the pair to a small school run by Italian nuns. The school's mellow atmosphere lots of whispering and lights kept low worked wonders. "All of a sudden we're told, 'You have such beautiful children,' " Miller says.

The two are doing fine in local public schools after being evaluated through Child Find, a federally funded early-intervention program. Linda fell within the normal range, while Stephen had some minor problems with gross motor skills, for which he is receiving help.

Miller says the preschools were too quick to dismiss her children.

"We felt no one wanted to help us or our kids, even though the complaints were things like throwing mulch and running ahead of the group," says Miller, who works full time, as does her husband. "Were those things really beyond what the school could handle?"

Some preschools do see behavior that pushes staff limits and jeopardizes the classroom's ability to carry on as a group.

In San Diego, Betsy Jones asked three children to leave her day care/preschool center last year the first expulsions in 11 years.

"It isn't done easily and without a lot of talk, but, to give you an example, one child slapped a teacher so hard that it made her cry," says Jones, executive director of the Escondido Community Child Development Center. "I know that the parents' need for child care is so great that without us they'd really be in trouble. But we're also seeing kids now from fractured families with no ability to bond.

"I don't like to expel, but sometimes you don't have an alternative."

'Parents must be the advocates'

When Michelle Artibee of East Lansing, Mich., felt pressured to pull Katelyn, now 5, out of preschool, she was frustrated that the center "only seemed to be able to deal with the traditional child." She didn't blame the school; she knew that her daughter's violent behavior was holding back the class.

At the second preschool, Katelyn's anger flashed again. But this time Artibee was referred to KEEP (Keeping Early Education Positive), part of the Michigan Childhood Expulsion Prevention Program.

The program sent a specialist to observe Katelyn at school. Soon she was diagnosed with an auditory dyslexia that makes it difficult for her to follow directions in sequence. Now on a regimen of drugs, Katelyn successfully is navigating first grade.

"I understand that everyone has their issues, including schools," Artibee says. "But my lesson was that parents must be the advocates for their kids, because you can't expect the care providers to be."

But some school administrators say parents shouldn't be left to shoulder all the responsibility when it comes to helping preschoolers find their scholastic legs.

Kentucky and Hawaii both ban expulsion from state-financed preschools. In the former, laws are being put in place (new teachers must have a B.A. in child care) and mental-health experts are being dispatched (15 tend to 200 children who are at a "crisis point") to keep 37,000 preschoolers on track.

"Sure, kids at this age will sometimes bite, kick and refuse to share, but too often we immediately label them developmentally challenged," says Kim Townley, early-childhood expert at the Kentucky Department of Education. "You need to have realistic expectations and work within that framework."

That's certainly the hope of Bay Area mom Crowe, whose son Davis now attends preschool at "a sweet little place that looks like it's run by someone's grandmother."

But she's still upset that her son was asked to leave before the academic year ended ("He wondered why his sister still got to go" to school) and that she didn't get to implement the plan she was asked to draw up ("The child therapist was set to observe Davis in class, but the school wasn't interested").

The longtime director of San Anselmo Montessori who expelled Davis has retired. New director Michele King says the school can't comment on the case but adds: "It's the first time we've expelled someone in the nine years I've been here, and it clearly is something we would do only in the best interest of the child. Obviously, our school was not the best place for him."

Crowe is unmoved, expressing emotions that are sure to flare up across the country this academic year as parents and schools struggle to do right by their charges.

"Isn't preschool the very first place where we're taught about conflict resolution?" she says. "I just feel it's a shame those very skills couldn't have been used by adults to maybe help this kid."

— Marco R. della Cava
USA Today




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