Preschool gives lesson in adapting to ensure survival

Saturday school ... Preschools open their doors for working parents.
Saturday school ... Preschools open their doors for working parents. 

WHILE most kindergartens are locked up on a Saturday, the grounds at Baxter Preschool are filled with excited children, laughing and playing.

The centre is one of two preschools in Victoria running Saturday kindergarten classes to meet the needs of working parents.

The weekend session was an adjustment made in the name of survival.

Just three years ago, the preschool was on the brink of collapse, with only 15 children enrolled for its four-year-old kindergarten program.

The centre, on the edge of Frankston, straddled two council boundaries and was struggling to attract enrolments.

Its committee of management knew the children were out there somewhere - local prep classes were full and teachers were reporting that the children simply hadn't attended preschool - but didn't know why they weren't coming to Baxter.

''Our budget was failing and we had to get ministerial approval to stay open for 2009,'' says president Sharon Howell.

It has since doubled its numbers, with 73 families attending. It is one of the preschools running the 15-hour-a-week pilot program for four-year-old children to be implemented across the system in 2013.

It also has three sessions of three-year-old kindergarten each week.

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How did Baxter turn its fortunes around?

The preschool surveyed families and the wider community to discover why they were spurning the centre and exactly what they wanted from it.

''Through our surveying and looking at community needs, we found out that parents would have to work, so dropping off and picking up was a problem,'' Ms Howell says. ''We had to change our program to meet those needs. We had just run the same program for 15 years and no one had done any analysis of what the community wanted.''

Ms Howell said extensive feedback meant the preschool had to change its ways to stay relevant to its community.

''Historically, four-year-old kindergarten has always been on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday but it's not always going to be that way.''

Baxter set about making big changes. It expanded its program - changing session times and lengths, introducing team teaching, starting Saturday classes and offering optional after-kinder care.

Rather than starting kinder after 9am, it moved the time to 8.30am to better accommodate parents doing the school drop-off.

''It meant that working families could drop their children at 8.30am and pick them up at 4pm,'' Ms Howell says.

Traditional kindergarten models no longer suit everyone, she says.

Her message to kindergartens looking to axe their three-year-old programs is to think outside the box.

''It's about changing some of the perceptions out there and thinking differently in terms of how you program for it because it can work and we are making it work,'' she says.

''There is a lot of scare-mongering and there is a little bit of anxiety out there because of the change in the profession … we haven't lost anything; we've actually added value to our program so I am really anxious that that message is out there.

''You can do it and that it is possible, but it does take change and people to understand why the changes are happening.''