SMU’s smallest students: Meet the children of SMU preschool

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Photo credit: Emily Heft

Eleven toddlers lined up in pig hats from their class play, shrieking with joy on their way to a playground on the SMU campus. Inside, a four-year-old presented a leaf, lollipop and lion for the “letter of the week” show and tell. One child looked at a bone under a magnifying glass while another created a crown out of paper.

It was a typical day at SMU Preschool and childcare center.

The state-licensed childcare center, which is housed in Hawk Hall by Perkins Chapel, has a current enrollment of 33 children of SMU faculty, staff and students.

It also has a two-year wait list.

Julie Schilling, the center’s director, notes that the affordable cost, convenience of location, and top-notch kindergarten readiness are the center’s drawing factors. The center currently accepts new applications for a $25 fee. At this time, only children of SMU faculty, staff and students are considered, with the children of students receiving highest priority.

“The preschool has more than lived up to its reputation. Although the waitlist is long, it was worth the wait,” said parent Lisa Hasday, whose husband, Josh Tate, is a professor in Dedman School of Law. Her two children, Charlie and Ellie Tate, are enrolled; Charlie says his favorite thing about school is “being able to see Ellie” during the day.

Parents pay $260 weekly for infants, $235 for toddlers, and $215 for multi-age students (ages 3 and over).

Compared to the $368 weekly for infants the next-door Highland Park Methodist Church preschool lists on its web site, and $1,462 for 2-year-olds weekly at the prestigious Preston Royal Preschool nearby, the SMU preschool’s tuition is competitively low.

Teachers said that some parents choose to pay monthly tuition to hold their child’s spot even before they are of age to start. Many parents join the wait list when they learn they are expecting.

Despite widespread satisfaction, the center has a few drawbacks, including the facility’s tiny size. The clasrooms are large enough for the amount of students enrolled, but just barely.

While rumors of a new facility have been swirling, Schilling said that no plans are currently in the works.

Schilling names a teacher lounge and an indoor play area as two great needs for the center.

The SMU Preschool was once headed by SMU’s Resident Life and Student Housing office, but now is run by the Department of Recreational Sports.

The teachers remain hopeful that under the new leadership, a remodel or facility change may be possible soon.

Despite the small size of the center, the days run smoothly. Students in the toddler and multi-age rooms spend a typical day learning about a weekly theme, such as seasons, practicing reading and writing, playing outside in a private playground, doing crafts or exploring various classroom centers with themes like natural science or literature.

They break for lunch and two snacks daily. The center’s lunches are provided by Aramark Dining Services, and Schilling describes them as well-balanced and healthy.

“When our students leave, they’re ready for kindergarten. Elementary schools around here know the level a child will be at coming from the SMU Preschool,” said Schilling.

The center opened in the late 1970’s after students with children noticed a need for affordable childcare, Schilling said. Today, the center boasts an infant, toddler, and multi-age classroom, each with two full-time teachers. The center remains open through the summer, though it does close for University sanctioned holidays and two weeks during winter break.

Schilling makes clear the distinction between the SMU preschool and local day care centers.

“We are not a daycare. We have a full curriculum,” said Schilling.

“I know that my daughter has been prepared academically and socially by the great teachers,” said Hilary McIlvain, director of Cox School of Business admissions, whose daughter Alice, 5, will attend kindergarten next year.

Even the youngest students are learning at high levels.

“The most rewarding moments for me are those when I can help the kids learn baby sign language,” said teacher Angie Whitcomb, the infant teacher. “To work with them every day on it, and to see them finally be able to do it back, is very rewarding.”

The infants are thus able to communicate with their teachers long before they are even verbal.

Though much of the day is spent learning, students also enjoy time for fun.

“My favorite part of the day is playing with my friends,” said student Simon Auvalasit, age 4.

Other students named naptime, reading and Pizza Fridays as their favorites.

Teachers also enjoy their days at the center.

Staff turnaround is practically nonexistent, Schilling noted. The infant room teachers Dyonne Watson and Angie Whitcomb have been teaching for over 20 years.

“We are so fortunate to have SMU offer us benefits for having been here so long,” said Whitcomb.

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