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Miami's ultimate preschool

One of Miami-Dade County's most sought-after preschools has the potential to reshape the county's early education programs.

At the United Way's Center for Excellence in Early Education, kids learn how to cook. They create art projects mimicking famous sculptures with recyclable materials. Children use the center's stage to learn about music and movement.

"We've taken a look at how we can have the most impact in the life of a

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child,'' said Gladys Montes, the center's vice president. "What is the best use of our dollars? We want to provide the best care from the time they are babies to right before kindergarten without having to take a special class.''

The center, located at 3250 SW Third Ave. in Miami, is teaching teachers, too, and trying out new approaches. Advocates hope it becomes a model for other preschools.

A resource library with educational materials allows community members to research grant proposals, check out kids' DVDs or learn about managing an early education center.

The school was even constructed with innovation in mind, designed to show builders two ways to build preschools to maximize the kids' learning experience.

In one model, the classrooms change as the children grow and learn. The other design allows teachers and students to move from one classroom to another as they "graduate.''

One model also includes an observation deck on the second floor where parents can watch their children in the classroom without interrupting the lesson through large two-way windows. There, parents also can put on a headset to listen to the conversations in the class.

The other model doesn't have the observation deck on the second floor, but has two-way windows, which advocates say is important.

"Staff takes time getting used to being looked at, but it's a big component of the school,'' Montes said.

Parental involvement is key, too.

Parents are required to work 30 hours a year at the center, agree to home visits twice a year from the teacher and fill out questionnaires almost every quarter or at each "stage'' of their child's learning.

Teachers at the center must have at least a bachelor's degree in early education or a related specialization. Some have master's degrees. They must all agree to be watched at all times.

Assistant teachers have at least an associate's degree. Interns assist the teachers.

This fall, the center, which opened in January 2007, will be receiving its first "grades'' of sorts. It will have some information as to how its first graduating class settled into the more traditional kindergarten classrooms at other schools.

About 130 children, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years, attend. Another 300 are on a waiting list. In the early Head Start programs for infants and toddlers, the ratio of teachers to students is 1 to 4. In the Voluntary Prekindergarten, it is 1 to 9 and in the Head Start program, it is 1 to 10.

Enrollment is usually in August, but you can always apply. Some programs have more availability, and as some smaller kids meet certain milestones and move up, seats open up.

Montes said that tuition for about half the students is paid by the federal and state government. Another 25 percent of parents pay on a sliding scale, depending on their income. The last 25 percent pay full tuition, which ranges -- depending on the age of the child -- from $130 to $175 a week.

The year-round program offers a full day, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Lyz Rondon pays $173 biweekly and gets involved so her 3-year-old son, Nathan Eidam, can attend the school.

"It is teamwork-oriented,'' Rondon said. "There's a great communication between the teachers and parents, as well as staff administrators. I'm very happy with the school and its results. ... It's a great entity and example for other schools to follow.''

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