Let’s face it preschool is a big step for most parents and children. This is the first “official” school setting that your young child will be experiencing. Despite the fact that this is one of the first “Big” developmental milestones for your little one, it will be you that is obsessing and stressing over the decision and process surrounding preschool selection.
I went into the process with the faint memory of my years in preschool. Your parent signs you up and off you go. Now have fun and listen to the teacher…right? Wrong! First you need to select from an insane number of preschool options in our area. There is curriculum, class size, hours, religion, price, teacher tenure, security and more to consider when choosing where Junior will spend his days coloring. Of course today’s preschools offer much more than finger painting and snacks. Some higher end schools have these kids learning Russian and dissecting frogs (I kid you not!).
I implore you, have a glass of wine, sit down and chill out. Your munchkin is not destined for a life of crime if she doesn’t get into “The Best” preschool in town. Hey…a few of us who didn’t attend Harvard actually got jobs after graduating. My point being, don’t get lost in the death spiral of stress surrounding this process. In my humble opinion, I would recommend the following:
1. While we have a number of terrific preschools listed on our site, I would still recommend that you ask friends, neighbors, church members, even your sitter about the 411 on local preschools. I found that my best source of information came from my local mother’s group and friends in the education field. Even if you work fulltime and can’t give your all to a local parents group, join!! Most have wonderful forums that give you relevant, hands on information related to your town and all things in it, including preschools. I belong to the Vienna Mom’s Group. I was able to listen to other mothers’ opinions and hear their first hand experiences of local preschools. In addition, the group had amassed a spreadsheet that showed a number of local preschools with all the vitals listed. So, even if you can’t make the weekly play date, JOIN YOUR LOCAL PARENT'S GROUP!! They are a wealth of information! Our website has a robust listing of local mom’s groups listing under our SUPPORT NETWORK category tab.
2. Narrow your search to what you feel is a reasonable number of schools to review and visit. If a school is charging $1,000/mth and that doesn’t work for your budget, well…you can take that one off the list. If the school has an excellent reputation but incorporates a religious view that you aren’t comfortable with…take it off the list. You will be able to get a feel for the type of preschool education you want for your child the more you go through the process and review your options.
3. Arrange an appointment and ask questions, questions, and more questions! You can either wait for the “Open House” that most schools offer or you can make an appointment. I enjoyed the individual appointment a bit more than the “Open House”. Fifty parents, multiple screaming children and a maze of Q&As were a little overwhelming at the “Open House” I attended. Having said that, when you get into an “Open House” you can chat with other parents and get a feel for what schools they have toured and what they have found.
4. Here is a list of questions that a friend provided me with for my search. I found it very helpful. Many thanks to Heather!
• School security
• Religious education
• What learning skills are expected?
• Discipline plan
• Music program
• Biggest internal problem for school?
• Clean bathrooms, bathroom locations
• Parental involvement
• Field trips – Are they on or offsite?
• Are there parent coffees and meetings?
• Fire drills
• Amount of playground time
• Philosophy/mission of school
• Art activities
• What are drop off and pick-up procedures?
• What is the tenure & educational of the school’s teachers?
5. Ok, so you have selected your top school. Now comes the hard part, getting in! I was amazed at the lengths some parents will go to to get into a preferred preschool. I am talking tents and sleeping bags. I did less for concert tickets when I was a teenager. Honestly, you walk away feeling like it is more difficult to get into a preschool than an Ivy League university. In the DC area it is all about supply and demand. There are LOTS of kids for an average number of spots. You need to learn to play the system a bit. First, if you belong to a church, chances are they are offer a preschool. Most will let church members register in advance of the general population. Also, if you happen to be the 1% of the local population that has lived here your whole life, you can contact the preschool you attended. Most local preschools will consider you alumni and you won’t have to wait to sign up during general registration. You other option is to cast a wide net. Most schools start general registration on or around Feb 1. You can always take the approach of a “safety school”. Divide and conquer with your hubby, go to two schools and see who gets a spot.
6. Note, there is a bright side! This painstaking process gives bonus points for parents who have lived to tell the tale. If you successfully navigate your way into the school of your choice, rest assure that you WON’T have to go through this mess again. If your child is in an existing program they will be able to register in advance of the rest of the community for the next school year. Also, siblings will be treated like alumni at most schools and you won’t have to go through the long lines and wait lists for baby #2.
7. Final thoughts, what is all the fuss? The vast majority of you will get into the school of your choice without a waitlist or a frost bitten spouse. Some schools have decent space and a lottery that will allow you to wait in a warm room. Just make sure you do your due diligence and get to know the schools and the process for admission. Also be proactive. Call your short list of schools and find out how many spots are available after the “In- House” registration has taken place. If your top school has 1 spot and you other options have 15 to 20 spots available, well you do the math on your best shot and where your time is best spent on registration day.
8. Don’t forget the small administrative details. Most schools have a packet that needs to be filled out in advance and ready for registration day. Bring your check book for miscellaneous fees and most schools need an ORIGINAL birth certificate.
Now while all of this sounds insane, IT IS!! Unfortunately, it is one of the realities of living in this area. And you thought I-495 was tough! Here are some words of encouragement. Even if your Type A self can’t stand to be put on a waiting list (I feel your pain), there is hope! With the political, business and military churn of the area, spots inevitably open up. A wait list isn’t the curse that you might think. Chances are a spot will open at a local preschool that you like and can afford. Once this is all done, you will be glad you went through the process. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? I am beginning to see where the soccer mom evolved from, yikes!! Good luck!
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