The Great Preschool Hunt

Applying to preschool can feel almost as intimidating as applying to college. Our Editorial Director documents the process of choosing a preschool for her own daughter.

How do you pick a preschool?

That’s not a rhetorical question—I’d really like to know. My two-and-a-half-year-old will outgrow her beloved home daycare, where she’s been cared for since she was three months old, at the end of this year. Next September, she’ll have to start at a “big kid school.”

So before then, we have to enroll her in one. No problem, right? Not so fast. It turns out, applying to preschool is a lot like the other complicated, multi-step, stress-inducing application processes I’ve undertaken in my life to date—think college, grad school, mortgage—only the stakes are that much higher. Because, of course, this time it’s for my kid.

Where do we begin? It’s hard to believe the preschool application process starts almost a year before my daughter will actually start school, but as with so many other things related to raising a kid, preschool is barreling toward us before we’ve had a chance to wrap our heads around it. So here on the EdNavigator blog this winter and spring, I’ll be documenting the process of choosing a preschool in a city where there are lots of options, but no universal coverage.

Like other parents, our first step was understanding the local preschool scene. Wouldn’t it be great if there were one website that listed all your nearby options, complete with up to date information? If you find such a website, send it my way. In the meantime, I started digging: a Facebook group of neighborhood moms and our local government website were helpful starting places. Through word of mouth, I’d heard that two nearby YMCAs had good programs. I snapped pictures of flyers on the bulletin board in the park, and then there were a handful of schools we walked or drove by regularly. I made a spreadsheet and started filling in the blanks.

While this process will look different for every family, here are some of the things we’re taking into consideration as we make our preschool decision:

Cost. Every parent knows that the five years from birth to public kindergarten are crazy expensive. When we looked at daycare options, we were shocked to see monthly tuition rates that were almost twice what we pay for housing. So while things like instructional approach and teacher quality matter to us—more on that later—the very first factor we’re considering is cost.

For us, this means our first preference is programming run by our city. We have access to two citywide preschool programs, each offering a (very) limited number of seats. One program is run by our public school district; like all public schools, these schools are free and operate on the school-year calendar, but they only cover half days. Our department of human services also runs preschools, which are located in public school buildings and are subsidized by the city, but are not part of our public school district. These programs offer coverage that’s more like daycare: full business days, all year long. Also like daycare, they charge tuition—but with a sliding scale based on income, they’re much more affordable than private programs.

Schedule and location. We’re lucky that the schedule piece of the puzzle isn’t a huge issue for us: Since we have local grandparents who already provide afternoon childcare a few days a week and are eager to continue doing so, the half days offered by the public schools—should we even get a spot—are manageable. But for friends who don’t have help from family, it turns out that public preschool can be almost as expensive as private, by the time they tack on afterschool care. For us, location is a more significant consideration. There aren’t many schools close to our home, and traffic getting across the city in the morning can be brutal. Of course, there’s no such thing as a school bus for three-year-olds. So while it’s not as critical as cost, location will factor into our eventual decision too.

Safety. It’s really hard—maybe impossible—to leave your kid anywhere unless you can trust that they’re safe. We want to make sure our preschool choices have solid practices in place for things like keeping track of students at all times, taking them safely outside and off school grounds (since we’re in a city, walks to public parks or libraries are typical), who gets in and out of the school building, and releasing students to adults at the end of the school day. We also want a school that is responsive to any specific safety concerns (in our case, we have to think about food allergies, but of course those concerns will be unique to every family).

School culture and instructional approach. Montessori, Reggio, language immersion: I find it hard to keep track of the different approaches to teaching humans who can’t even dress themselves yet—and I work in education. I really believe most of preschool is about letting kids play, but I also want my daughter to develop the critical building blocks of literacy and numeracy that will prepare her for elementary school, and I don’t think those things need to be mutually exclusive. (Like all toddlers, she already loves learning; mostly, I want a school environment that is going to build on that innate curiosity.) It’s important to us that her teachers are not all white, or all female (or all white females), and that the school’s population reflects the diversity of families and learners in our city, too.

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