Concord Preschool takes pride in core values
CONCORD, CA (Mar. 12, 2023) — Time-tested offerings like free play, snacks and crafts have been mainstays for preschool programs. Whether they have the staying power to handle challenges is what makes the difference.
From its initial days in the facilities at Baldwin Park, the city of Concord’s preschool program has been resilient – going for more than 30 years.
Families in and around Concord have been enrolling their 4-year-olds in the city’s early learning program since the early 1990s as an important first step on their little ones’ educational journeys.
“Our play-based program allows each child to explore their own interests and build confidence,” said program coordinator Angela Freitag, a Concord native who grew up participating in the various programs available through the city’s Park and Recreation Department that oversees the preschool.
With experience coordinating preschool and community events, summer day camps and sports, she took the program’s torch this past January. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism administration.
‘Explore, learn and grow’
The preschool offers two-, three- and five-day programs at Baldwin Park, 2790 Parkside Circle, the original site, and Centre Concord, 5298 Clayton Road.
A typical day includes free play, circle time, music and dance, arts and crafts, snack time, and an opportunity for children to explore nature and enjoy physical activity.
“Our teachers provide a safe and welcoming environment that invites the perfect opportunity to explore, learn and grow,” said Freitag.
The program focuses on developing social skills, promoting gross motor skills and encouraging creativity.
Staff longevity a hallmark
Believed to be one of the oldest preschool programs in the Concord community, it continues to deliver a high-quality experience, says Steve Voorhies, director of Recreation Services. That has meant moderate incremental price increases to help cover increased costs.
“This is a highly desirable, value-oriented option for parents looking to provide a quality pre-kindergarten experience. For many of our customers, it’s a natural first step before younger children enter more formal public or private school programs,” he noted.
Contributing to that value is Melissa Gardner, a teacher at the Baldwin Park site for 25 years. She called the opportunity to join the staff “a dream job.”
“It was a like a family I was walking into,” recalled Gardner, who through the decades has seen multiple children from the same families move through the program’s classes for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds.
Prior to coming on board in 1998, she was an active member of the parent co-op group who volunteered as aides in the classrooms to the teaching staff. The co-op was subsequently discontinued.
“I was a parent who signed up all the time, and the teacher liked how I worked with the kids,” said Gardner, whose son, soon to be 29, was enrolled in the program.
She has seen various changes, including a greater focus on technology in the past 6+ years in response to what educators in the kindergarten classrooms of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District are looking for when the students come to them.
“They just don’t understand the mouse,” Gardner heard them say during her visits. So, she implemented playing educational games on computers to teach that motor skill.
Navigating the pandemic
The preschool program was enjoying a robust period with attendance reaching 240, according to Barbie Gary, a program manager in Recreation Services who backed up the preschool coordinator the past four years.
“The program was going strong pre-pandemic,” she recalled. Then overnight, everything shut down. The operations stayed shuttered for several months.
When the program could finally start reopening with modifications during the 2020-’21 school year, the new world everyone was faced with presented Freitag and her team of five teachers and eight aides with a new set of challenges. That included health restrictions limiting the number of the children who could be served during class sections, mask requirements and social distancing. The little charges were hardly prepared to take on the latter, unlike their adult caregivers.
Yet attendance was still down greatly as families opted not to return. Gary acknowledged the reality that parents just weren’t comfortable having their children around other kids in a group setting.
A sense of normalcy started to appear with the arrival of the 2021-’22 school year. But, said Gary, challenges remained for the families they served because the school district continued remote status for older kids.
“It was a win we could open,” she added.
Bringing the generations together?
The 2022-’23 school year saw the enrollment steadily climb to 150 – not nearly what it was but heading in the right direction.
Gary noted that the task of attracting new families is becoming more complicated as the state has expanded options for transition kindergarten by pushing back the age deadline for when kids can be enrolled. As a result, Concord’s preschool program is now competing with other providers for the age group that has long been its bread and butter.
Ideas are floating around that might expand the preschool’s audience while staying true to its core mission. “Inter-generational programming is something we have been looking at,” said Gary.
With the new reality of the parents of their students also being adult caregivers to their aging parents, she explained that situation cannot be ignored as a possible new niche. That’s why they’re examining programs where the young and old attend together.
Because the Baldwin facility also serves as a senior center, it could be a testing ground for such concepts. Any new offerings that might be developed with contractors who are approaching Recreation Services will simply augment the needs of the clientele who have been occupying Concord Preschool’s small tables and chairs and playing with its toys for more than 30 years.
Combatting COVID isolation
At the heart and soul of the program is developing important life skills. The isolation brought on by the pandemic has meant certain behaviors – like developing emotionally and learning how to interact and socialize with others – were at best delayed. Gary said making up that deficit will be incredibly important.
“It is a difficult process to get acclimated after being in COVID,” said Gardner, who noted seeing some of her new charges just sit and watch the others.
Labeled “COVID babies,” these children face challenges when leaving their parents because they were never apart during the pandemic.
Gardner puts pressure on the shoulders of parents now more than ever.
“Parents have got to get (their children) out there and enrich them socially, so they have a good experience when they get into school,” she said.
City of Concord preschool pricing
(For 2023-’24 school year)
- Two- or three-day/week class: $181-$259 for Concord residents; $217-$290/month non-residents.
- Five-day/week class for 4-year-olds: $453/month for Concord residents; $484 non-residents.
For more information about Concord’s preschool program, visit www.cityofconcord.org/preschool.
David Scholz divides his time between education, primarily teaching at the junior high level, and working as a freelance writer and photographer. Prior to moving into teaching in 2000, he worked as a full-time journalist since 1988 for rural community and small daily newspapers in Central Ohio and Northern Nevada, and later in California with The Business Journal in Fresno and dailies in the Bay Area, including The Oakland Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle.