Michon Smith is a parenting expert, at least to her friends. The mother of a 3-year-old, she is a source of wisdom for friends whose children have not hit the terrible twos. Recently, Smith told her neighbors Elizabeth Menachery and Christina Caro that it was time to start thinking about preschool, and she knew the best place to shop for programs.
The three women spent Saturday morning at Howard County's "Children on Board" Child Care and Preschool Information Fair. The event has been running for over 20 years and attracts more than 800 people -- parents, grandparents and child-care providers. Groups such as the Howard County Child Care Resource Center, the Maryland Childcare Resource Network and Maryland Family magazine sponsor the fair.
"It's a great opportunity to get a lot of information in one place, compare different programs and find out what's going on in the county" for children 5 and younger, said Debbie Yare.
She is program manager of the Howard County Office of Children's Services, one of the fair's sponsors. The event is held in January, Yare said, because "that's the time enrollment opens up for the fall." While some programs have rolling admissions and immediate openings midyear, others are filling their 2008-2009 classes.
Smith and her friends stood among the exhibitor tables, chatting about preschool options. Menachery, who has a 19-month-old, said that prices seemed high. Some schools were "charging the equivalent of what I paid for my first year of college," she said. Menachery was surprised that "there are so many differences between schools. ... It's very confusing as a parent."
Kristina Hampton of Ellicott City came to research preschools. Once she got her son, Jack, 21 months, settled down with a balloon from an exhibitor, Hampton took in the crowded ballroom. "I don't know where to go first, there's so much stuff," she said.
She was surprised that people sign their children up for preschool so early in the year. "I'd heard from friends, so I was kind of warned" that programs fill quickly, she said. The fair "gives you enough information to take home and look into it more." Hampton plans to call several schools and schedule observations of their classes.
Preschool teacher Wendy Allen spent the morning meeting parents and explaining the philosophy of her school, Children and Company. The Columbia preschool is a cooperative program, with parents working in the classroom several days a month.
The mother of a 2-year-old, Allen commiserated with parents who must plan for school months ahead. "They're having to look ahead and having to imagine where their child is going to be [developmentally] 10 months from now," she said. That makes choosing an appropriate preschool challenging, and meeting with teachers appealing to parents.
"It's an opportunity to interact with a whole lot of people in a short period of time," said Susan Morris. The early-childhood specialist for the Howard County Library remembers bringing her own son, now 26, to the fair as a child. Morris spent Saturday giving out library card applications and promoting programs for children younger than 5.
"A lot of people who are new to the area are blown away that June or July is too late to shop for preschool in the fall. Now's the time," said Morris.
Among parents shopping for preschools were Holly and Doug Rosenquist of Ellicott City and daughter Kylie, 2. Holly Rosenquist said that including the library and other local services "was a nice touch. I thought it would just be preschools. It was ... [also] other things that directly relate to people like us with toddlers."
The YMCA and Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks were giving out information about toddler classes and summer camps, some of which accept children as young as 3.
Because popular camps fill quickly, "parents have to start thinking about summer camps when there's snow on the ground and when it's cold outside," Yare said.
Michon Smith spent time visiting with Judy Milke, director of Wee Friends. Smith learned about Milke's parent-child classes at the Children On Board fair two years ago. The program features preschool activities with a parent, grandparent or caregiver there to support young children.
Talking to a teacher or program director "can make the difference" in what school a parent chooses, Milke added.
Now Smith is looking into preschools for her 3-year-old daughter. "If I go back to work, I want to have all the [school] information in one place," she said.
Smith's friend Menachery said, "I think it's crazy to think about schools when they're 2 years old." But she said that early preschool is a way to make sure her child is at the same level as peers when they reach kindergarten.
Said Yare: "With a push on early-childhood education nationwide, it's important for parents to know that there are opportunities to expose their children to different programs that promote school readiness."