Children flock to eensy weensy preschools

Tiny schools provide no small amount of nurturing, growth for tots, parents say

Just before 10 on most weekday mornings, a handful of young children swing or slide at Johnson Park on Hawthorne Avenue in Palo Alto.

Then out of nowhere, a dozen small tots -- like ducklings behind their mother -- trot into the park. It's clear they are from some sort of preschool, but it's not obvious where, since there are no advertised ones nearby.

In fact, the school, known as Periwinkle, is in a deep brown Craftsman house on Byron Street four blocks away. There is no official sign out front saying that it's a school, only telltale signs, like an easel, bright colors and a whiteboard on the porch with a schedule.

Founder PJ Lents said the main advantage of her 12-child school is the ability to spend more time on activities. Formerly a kindergarten teacher who taught classes of 20, Lents is now able to split her class of 12 and have one half work with one teacher and one with another.

"We make faster progress, which allows us to have really rich learning opportunities," she said.

Started by a group of Bing Nursery School parents in 2005, Periwinkle focuses on "young 5s" -- children whose birthdays place them at the younger end of their peer group. Lents and her family live in the upstairs part of the house.

More expensive than traditional preschools, several other "pocket" preschools, with enrollments under 15 children, have popped up in the Menlo Park-Palo Alto area. Most do not advertise, only one has a website, and tracking down a phone number or email address may involve a chance post on the ratings site Yet these schools have no trouble filling up, as word of mouth among parents creates long waiting lists.

They seem to appeal to people looking for something tailor-made for their kids -- and to those uncomfortable with sending their children to kindergarten before they are ready, a growing trend.

Stephanie Agnew, parent education coordinator at Parents Place in Palo Alto and San Mateo, expects the demand for alternative programs for younger 5-year-olds will increase as the required birth date for kindergarten entry gets later. Therefore, she said, the need for these smaller preschool programs will likely increase.

Many parents see larger schools as attractive because they have more resources. While those benefits help some children, Agnew said, a shy, slower-to-warm child can increase in confidence at a smaller school.

"The biggest advantage is that the children get individual attention, and it's less over-stimulating," she said.

Debbie Baker, a former kindergarten teacher, started her small preschool -- Circle of Friends on Alameda de las Pulgas in Menlo Park -- to meet children's developmental needs and to keep her in the classroom.

"Could it grow beyond this? Yes, but then I'd be sitting in an office," Baker said, while showing a visitor her cheerful classroom with a painted sky and skylights on the ceiling. "It would be hard to keep (my) philosophy going in more than one classroom. This way, I can live the dream."

Baker tore down her old detached garage, received a license to run a home day care program from the state of California, and built a light, airy and compact preschool classroom where the garage used to be.

Behind tall, double wooden gates, the school is invisible from the street and there is no sign.

In less than 1,000 square feet, there is a rug area for miniature building projects, and a dress-up area tucked under a set of stairs leads to a cozy loft book nook. Art project and puzzle areas await little hands, and the flexible space allows children to move from activity to activity. Two adults oversee 12 children. Some children come daily while others only attend two days a week.

Circle of Friends enrolls 3- and 4-year-olds in a class together for very specific reasons.

The mixed age group "allows the children to mentor each other," Baker said. "When younger children learn skills, they usually do it imitating older children or adults. The older child scaffolds the younger child's skills."

The smaller class size allows for a slightly quieter room and provides an opportunity for children to learn problem solving. Baker is able to hear nearly everything going on in the room and can intervene immediately.

Baker's school is far from a simple home day care program, she said. She has stringent standards for herself and the other teachers. She also conducts twice-yearly developmental assessments of each child to track their progress.

Baker said another advantage of the diminutive size of her school is she gets to know families intimately and often enrolls a succession of siblings from the same family.

Avery Olesen, who teaches part time at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto, sent all four of her daughters to Circle of Friends.

"The smaller size, at this age, enables each child to have a voice," Olesen said. "The teachers really seem to know each child well and work to develop their strengths and support their learning needs."

Olesen's youngest daughter just started kindergarten this fall.

"My girls all did fine socially and academically. They seemed to adjust well to kindergarten. They have a healthy appreciation for learning and seem very inquisitive," she said.

That innate curiosity is also fostered at another small preschool, aptly named Our School.

Located in the Willows neighborhood in Menlo Park, it is well known among both Willows and Suburban Park parents, but nearly unheard of in west Menlo Park. The school has no website, is unlisted in the telephone book, and one nearly has to stumble across a telephone number or email address to find it.

Willows parent Jodi Robbins, on the other hand, had no trouble finding Our School and put her child on the waiting list at 18 months.

Robbins also enthuses about the school's way of teaching through experience. Most afternoons, the children are taken on an outing to get popsicles, hear a symphony, or go to a local bagel shop where each child is encouraged to order his or her own.

"Regular preschools don't focus on the things that her preschool does," Robbins said. And, kindergarten teachers can tell, she said. Her daughter's teacher said she can recognize those who've gone to Our School because they can hold their attention better and they form tight social bonds with fellow preschoolers that carry over to elementary school.

A Suburban Park mother said she chose Our School for her second daughter knowing that, with a fall birthday, she'd be starting kindergarten at almost 6.

The school, said this mother, who is a former third-grade teacher, is "experience rich."

The children learn about spiders, look for spider webs, or talk about chameleons and blow toy whistles to practice making chameleon calls.

Her daughter, she said, "skips" to school every day.

"It gets her out of bed and she's thrilled."

Freelance writer Elizabeth Lorenz can be emailed at

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1 person likes this
Posted by Malkah
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 12, 2013 at 8:55 pm

We took a chance and sent our daughter to a new preschool this year. It is very small: 8 children and two teachers, one of whom has an Ed.M from Harvard (plus a CA teaching credential) and the other who has taught preschool for over 10 years. We love it! It's called Grove Academy in Woodside. The school is beautiful and much of the learning takes place in the fenced in yard full of redwoods. I cannot say enough good things about it so far! It will fill up in no time for next year I am sure!

1 person likes this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 14, 2013 at 10:54 am

These small schools are wonderful! In addition to a lot of flexibility, and personal attention, they also provide another benefit - staff continuity, something that larger preschools and daycares don't always have.

1 person likes this
Posted by We, too
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:11 pm

We did this with our granddaughter. The preschool starts kids at 18 months, and requires parent or grandparent participation for kids under three years. After age three, parent participation is voluntary, but most parents participate. cease it keeps the cost down.

The results have been fabulous: our 2- and-a-half yr old granddaughter is way ahead of others her age, and begs to attend more often ( we just increased her to three mornings per week). She now recites the alphabet and numbers to her infant brother, and tries to read to him.

We sure wish higher education were so pleasant and effective!

3 people like this
Posted by Another POV
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm

In case anyone reads this article feels bad about not being able to send their kids to places like this, I'm pretty sure most parents with older kids will tell you that your child will do fine going any preschool where they can play happily with other kids and be around caring teachers.

In my own experience with my kids in Palo Alto, I have not noticed any difference later in life between kids who had pre-school teachers with graduate degrees from Harvard and those who did not.

1 person likes this
Posted by Joy Weintz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 10, 2016 at 3:57 pm

Debbie Baker of Circle of Friends runs an amazing boutique preschool! She is engaged with each family and knows the gifts and challenges of each student. The small environment allows everyone to be seen and heard and unable to hide. The social skills are cultivated by two seated meals -- a snack and lunch which is home made. Students help facilitate the serving and cleaning of the meal time, table and chair set up, and balanced and engaged dialog. Debbie's school partner Stephanie is equally engaging, and aware of childrens' development stages and individual paces. The structure of the school day is deliberate without being forced. If a child is a later riser, they won't feel they've missed out by coming in after 8:30. The longer day until 1:30 is a benefit to both child and parent. My youngest (of 3) son had 3 years with Circle of Friends, stayed through 5-6 years old, since he was a reluctant kinder student. Now he is a confident and thriving accomplished 1st grader. Thank you Debbie and Stephanie for our sage wisdom and candid caring guidance. Leif is in the photo in the blue shirt.
Don't miss having a look at Circle of Friends!

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