Aidan loved the building blocks, and coloring was just swell. But the Danville 3-year-old didn't know what to make of the regimented Etch-a-Sketch lessons, and when he got antsy during "circle time," which typically lasted 30 to 40 minutes, he was placed on "academic probation."

Being a preschooler is tough these days, particularly in communities with high-achieving schools and Ivy League aspirations. These days, a premier academic nursery school is seen as the gateway to classroom glory, stellar test scores and Dartmouth. But it's also a place where a case of the wiggles can get you expelled.

Preschool expulsion rates are running triple that of grade schools, according to a 2005 Yale study of state-funded nursery schools. No one's tracking the transgressions to gauge the level of naughtiness that will get you thrown out of a 21st century preschool, but parent Leigh Ann Chronister of Danville is seeing the effects firsthand.

"(Aidan) started using phrases like, 'I'm broken,' or 'I'm a bad boy,'" Chronister said. "It broke my heart."

Her son's preschool teacher demanded that she get her 3-year-old tested for ADHD when he couldn't sit still for the half-hour stretches required by his preschool, one touted by her Blackhawk neighbors for its academic rigor and competitive edge.

Today's parents are grappling with an "atmosphere of competitiveness" that is "one of the most significant changes we've witnessed in the lives of families with young children," said Nancy Schulman, author of "Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years.


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It has been 25 years since Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum took over the directorship of New York's prestigious 92nd Street Y Nursery School, and she has seen the changes -- a marketplace flooded with educational products for preschoolers, babies and the prenatal crowd, increased academic pressures in preschools and kindergartens, and parents who feel "they must keep up if they are going to give their children the 'best possible start in life.'"

And parental angst has gone into overdrive.

Bay Area parents are treating the preschool process "like they are competing to get their child into the right college," one mom noted on the online Berkeley Parents Network.

Wanda Stewart, former admissions director for the Bentley School, a private K-12 school, remembers a phone call from a father whose child was 6 weeks old. "His question was, 'What preschool do you take most of the Bentley kids from?' I swear -- so they can go to Bentley, so they can go to Yale."

Her response? "Sir, can your daughter hold her head up yet?"

At one prestigious Berkeley preschool, prospective parents were shown a pie chart with the percentages of alumni accepted at Ivy League colleges.

And in Blackhawk, neighbors warn each other about the stringent admissions criteria for Danville's highly ranked public schools.

"There was a list to get into kindergarten," Chronister said she was told. "There is an intense pressure that your child be at a certain level early on."

But there is no list. By law, public schools must take everyone.

One can still enroll a tot at a play-based, developmental preschool, such as Orinda's TOPS or the Kensington Nursery School, where math, science and literacy are interwoven with play. But increasingly, academic preschools have ratcheted up the curricular rigor and imposed layers of accountability and assessments -- school jargon for "tests."

"Efforts to help children develop to their fullest cannot wait until they reach the age of 5 or 6," the Council of Chief State School Officers said in a 1999 statement that called for a complete reversal of a decadelong hands-off policy.

Instead, the council urged, state superintendents must create uniform preschool curricular standards and assessments. Failure to move forward on preschool reform, the policy statement continued, threatened K-12 reform.

"What was happening was a real push for universal preschool," said Richard Whitmore, an Acalanes district trustee who was state superintendent Delaine Eastin's chief of staff at the time. "The debate (started) to formulate around whether the purpose of preschool was for school readiness and developmental opportunities for disadvantaged kids or whether its drive was academic track, to really push language arts and math standards down into those 3-, 4-, 5-year-old years."

The battle lines, so to speak, were drawn between two perspectives. On the one side, the K-12 crowd, which Whitmore described as having "bought lock, stock and barrel into very scripted curriculum, particularly with respect to reading." On the other were educators who felt the purpose of preschool is developmental and that "there is plenty of time to move through the K-12 academic standards, starting when they get to kindergarten."

The increasingly stringent academic requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind in 2002 only heightened the pressure.

"Even though you're not testing till second grade," said Whitmore, "the second grade standards pushed everything back down to kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers began feeling all this pressure from their colleagues."

And that stress has pushed down to preschool, said New York's Schulman.

"No Child Left Behind has put a lot of pressure on schools to be pushing further and further," said Schulman, "neglecting what children are all about developmentally."

Today, about 45 states have rolled out curriculum standards for state-funded preschools. California is poised to follow suit with a set of preschool "foundations" that lay out goals for literacy, math and socio-emotional skills for 3- and 4-year-olds.

A draft version came under fire in May, largely because the benchmarks were age-specific, rather than laid out along a developmental continuum. Preschoolers vary too markedly in their development, critics said, for anyone to lay out age-specific goals.

The argument misses the bigger debate, said Peter Mangione, the co-director of WestEd's Center for Child and Family Studies in San Francisco. Mangione has been mediating the discussions as a consultant for the state.

Everyone is feeling the need to make sure children are ready for the next level of schooling, he said, but the question is whether that is done by structuring curriculum and enrichment to enhance readiness -- or by taking kindergarten curriculum and pushing it down to younger children.

"That, for me, is a problem," he said. "Knowing some letters is helpful to learn when you're a 4-year-old. We don't have to have them reading, but that preliminary exposure can be helpful. But should we spend all that time doing that? No. We have to keep it in balance, and play, we know, is central in children's lives. We need to look at who young children are, what their learning and developmental needs are and how adults can support that. And if we do that, we will help children be ready for the next stage of life."

But those themes of academic rigor, readiness and, ultimately, classroom competition are already out there, not only in Ivy League pie charts but also in the advertising for corporate preschool chains, such as La Petite Academy, whose 115 preschools include branches in San Ramon, Richmond, Concord and Antioch.

The East Bay's Petite Academy directors would not comment, referring all queries to the marketing department at corporate headquarters, which did not return calls. But the preschool's Web site boasts that "Total Readiness" for kindergarten is the "Academy Advantage." Academy students "outperform" others, the ad copy promises, and an entire page of statistics and colorful bar charts provides support. The Academy also touts a carefully constructed curriculum that includes daily journaling for 3- and 4-year-olds, daily assessments and an infant curriculum designed to help babies reach developmental milestones as quickly as possible.

Kindergarten anxiety is a powerful thing even among parents at developmental preschools, where math, science and early literacy are interwoven with play.

"People freak out," said Lynne Hollingsworth, director of Kensington Nursery School, a developmental preschool that mixes play with science fairs and other curriculum. There, even snack time becomes an undercover math lesson -- take two crackers and three apple slices, how many do you have?

Parents question activities when they don't see an immediate educational return, Hollingsworth said. Parents get particularly anxious when they're looking at competitive private kindergartens, which require student evaluations for admission and whose questionnaires allude to the high expectations.

"The question that frosts me the most," said Hollingsworth, "is 'What accomplishments has your pupil given to your program?' I want to say, 'Gag me.' They're learning socialization, sharing, compassion and life skills."

Meanwhile, back in Danville at his new developmental preschool, little Aidan and his classmates play with blocks. They color. And circle time lasts 10 minutes.

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanewsgroup.com.