Preschool Hunting 101

Preschool Hunting. Oye. From the outside, it’s seems like it couldn’t be that complicated. But, once you’re in the thick of it, it can be really overwhelming. I’ve spent the last few weeks visiting or talking with over a dozen preschools, and with the Moms whose kids attend them and are looking to attend them. Here is the valuable information I’ve gleaned that may help you in your own hunt.

When To Start Looking

This simply depends where you live. My best suggestion is to ask well-informed fellow Moms in your area if any of the popular preschools require very early applications. In most towns, it’s not the norm. If you live in a major city, I suggest at least asking. For Teddy, there was one school we applied when he was 6 months and were told even then that he wouldn’t get into the 2’s program and would be waitlisted for the 3’s. For the rest, there has either been a waiting list that is about one year long (so we’d need to apply a full year and a half ahead) or there is no wait list and you apply in January of the year you’re looking to attend. Applying in January/February for the following year is standard timing across the board for preschool applications, so keep that in mind. Many programs start at age 3 , and some as early as age 2.

What To Think About Before Picking Where You Tour

Cost – Start to get a sense of what is normal in your area. Preschool tuition can range wildly. For a half day program, 3 days a week, you could be looking at $180/month at a suburban parochial school to $1700/month at a highly selective program in New York or LA. Take a look at ALL the schools in your area and learn what’s normal first, and then consider what makes sense for your family financially.

Schedule – Preschools tend to fall into one of two groups – those that focus to full time programs and those that focus on half day programs. Full time programs may be traditional preschools that start at age 2 or 3, or preschools within a larger day care setting – they offer extensive, 5 day a week, all day programs for children. They’re a great option for Moms who work full time. Others focus on half day programs – many are only available 2 or 3 days a week, usually three to three and a half hours in the morning.

Think not only about which schedule makes the most sense for you, but also the community you’ll be with. For instance, if you’re a stay at home Mom, your mindset may be hoping to connect with other Moms in a similar situation. By putting your child in a part time program where most of other kids will be in full time means you may not have as many Moms to chat with at pick up, or who have the time to mingle or schedule mid-week playdates, etc. There is also a third, smaller category of preschools you may encounter known as co-op – this essentially means that parents participate heavily in the school themselves – as teachers and mandatory volunteers of some kind. Co-op preschools often have a relatively low tuition cost, but are something to consider only if you have a very flexible schedule and the time and willingness to be very involved.

Location – Don’t discount the commute. You may fall in love with a school 30 minutes away – but that means you’re going to be in a car 2 hours a day every day of preschool – think about if it’s worth it (and even feasible with work and/or other kids schedules).

Questions To Ask On Your Tour

*before you go: make sure to check if kids can come with you – some allow it and some don’t, so you may need to plan for childcare ahead of time.

Learning Philosophy – There are a lot of philosophies and terms tossed around in regards to preschool… “play-based”, “Montessori”, “kindergarten readiness”, etc. I caution you not to get too caught up in these until you actually visit and see them in action. How each school defines the way they teach can sound similar on paper but look very different in practice. Listen to how the tour guide describes the student’s day to day, and look closely at the kids and the way their classrooms are set up. You may come away wanting something totally different that you thought you would.

Student/Teacher Ratio – The state mandates ratios for preschools – in California it’s 12:1, though none of the schools we’ve looked at have more than 9:1 even for the oldest groups (older 4’s and 5 year olds), and some were as low as 3:1. This matters!

Teacher Turnover – Another big one – this tells you a lot about how the school treats it’s staff – if they’re happy, they’ll stay for a long time – which is, obviously, a very good sign….and a red flag if turnover is high.

What “Extras” Are Included (and do the cost extra?) – Some schools offer things like foreign language, music class, or certain sports – some have it included in weekly classes at no cost, others as a supplemental fee, some don’t offer it at all. If these things are important to you, make sure you ask what’s included, and if there is an extra cost. That is important to factor into what you’ll actually be paying if it’s in addition to the standard tuition.

Before and After Hours Care – Whether it’s a full time or part time program – think about what your scheduling needs will be and find out if the school accommodates extra hours as needed – many schools have daily fees for early drop off, or after care programs. Some have year round/summer camp options, but not all – so think about what you’d use and factor it into the overall cost.

How Do They Handle Conflict Between Children – I love asking this one because it really shows both their school philosophies in action and if they have a set procedure in place for something that probably happens all the time. It also gives you something contextual to compare in each school. Ask what they do if one child hits another – and listen carefully to the response.

Parental Involvement – Some schools require or eh….HIGHLY ENCOURAGE a lot of parental involvement in the school (this is separate from the set up of a co-op). Think about the time you want and can invest. Maybe your schedule is already packed and you want a school that really serves as a childcare place, nothing else. Or maybe you’re looking to be a part of the school’s community…you want to sit in on your child’s class, volunteer for lots of events, etc. If these things matter to you, make sure you find out what is the norm and what’s expected.

Emphasis On Faith (For Faith-Based Schools) – If you’re looking at a parochial or other faith-based school, find out how much time is devoted to that part of the curriculum. This cuts both ways – if the faith is very important to you, you may want to ensure your child is learning a lot and the school is based around the faith. On the other hand, there are many great schools you’d be best not to discount just because you’re not a member of that faith – they may not place a big emphasis on it and have lots of students who are not from practicing families.

Application Process & Timeline – Get a direct answer on when do you need to apply and what the process looks like – Is it a lottery system? Is there a waitlist? Do certain groups get priority? Usually legacy, siblings, and church parishioners (if faith-based) do. Do they recommend or require prospective students interview? What is the age cutoff (i.e. – if it’s a 3 year old program, what date do they need to turn 3 to be eligible? I was at one group tour with several parents who were VERY confused about this and it was important to clarify).

Observe For Yourself – How does the tour guide compose themselves/treat you/explain the school? How are the teachers interacting with the kids? Do the kids seems happy and engaged? Do the teachers seem happy and engaged? Do the rooms seem organized and clean? Does the school feel safe and secure? Think about leaving your sweet baby there every day – how does it make you feel?

That’s about it kids – with this information you should be ready to take the preschool world by storm….good luck!

You could be sleeping through the night
next week.