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The Basics

$7,000 a year for blocks and Play-Doh?

Prices for preschool can be eye-popping. But parent co-ops, family child care and homeschooling offer alternatives that still prepare children for kindergarten success.

By SmartMoney

As a parent of a young child, you may worry that soaring college tuition costs will keep you from living out the retirement of your dreams.

But have you looked at preschool prices? As many parents of 3-year-olds know all too well, the monthly tuition fees of a good preschool can rival your mortgage payments.

On average, parents pay $7,000 a year for preschool education (which can last two or more years), according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). In some areas and at some preschools, prices climb above $10,000 per year.

The steep fees leave some parents reeling. "This is blocks and Play-Doh, essentially. What are we doing?" asks Elizabeth Henderson, a mother of three from Tustin, Calif., referring to the $500 a month tab for sending her youngest to a nearby preschool for three half-days a week.

The high price often forces parents to choose between a high-quality early education and saving for college tuition for their kids, says Don Owens, the director of public affairs at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Even though preschool is not mandatory in the U.S., it has become in many parents' minds a prerequisite not only for a successful kindergarten experience but also for getting into the right college 15 years down the road.

Many early development studies show that the first five years are the most important years in a child's brain development. Experts say preschool teaches children how to get along in a social structure -- how to listen, take turns, respect others and learn a routine. Parents in some parts of the country have made this into an intense, even cutthroat, competition for elite preschools.

Henderson says she was a bit late in the game when it came time to shop for a preschool for her son. When she inquired at one school, the receptionist told Henderson her son's name would be about 400th on the waiting list.

"I gasped," she recalls. "She told me some parents put kids on the list while they're in utero."

Of course, preschool comes in many shapes and sizes: private centers (which constitute the largest number of preschool programs), government-funded school programs, religious-based schools, informal play groups and so on. Sort of state-funded preschool program is available in 38 states, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, although most are targeted at economically disadvantaged or at-risk children. Wealthier children can attend for a fee.

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Ultimately, children can get the skills necessary to ensure kindergarten success without the $7,000 annual bill. Here are some alternatives:

Parent co-ops

Parent co-op preschools are usually nonprofit organizations where parents take turns working in the classroom with the kids and teacher. Work can range from the administration, operation and maintenance of the facility to teaching. It's less expensive than traditional private programs, because the parents are contributing work in lieu of tuition dollars. But it's not for the parent just interested in saving a few bucks. It's for parents who want to participate and have a say in their child's education.

Christy Gordon Baty, a mother of two girls in El Cerrito, Calif., left her lucrative job at a credit card company in San Francisco before she enrolled her older daughter at Peter Pan Cooperative Nursery School. The school cost just $120 a month, compared with $800 a month for a nearby preschool. She says the co-op demands a lot of time and energy from parents.

"As a parent you're there to clean, prepare food, teach classes and support the director," she says.

The daily schedule of the co-op is usually not as rigid and academic as other preschool programs. That's one reason Jill Weinlein, a mother of two girls in La Canada, Calif., liked being involved in her older daughter's co-op experience. Her co-op, she says, had a 4-to-1 child-to-adult ratio, so there would always be one adult doing arts and crafts, one reading in the library area and one outside playing. The children had activities to choose from at any time.

Continued: Family child care

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