Caring For Our Kids

Picking a preschool: Navigating the application process

Photo: camknows / flickr

It’s that time of year again when you can spot the worried looks on parents’ faces as they wait to hear about preschool acceptances. Deciding on a preschool should be exciting and thrilling, but it can also be a bit daunting. There is so much pressure to apply early that some apply even before their child is born. There is a level of intensity here in the City not often associated with preschool admissions. I often get asked, “What are the best preschools?” “How do you know what is best for your child?” and “What do I have to do to get in?” I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I can share some steps our family took that made the process a little easier.

Do your homework

There are plenty of books, websites and, if you can believe it, even coaches to help you navigate the process. One of the best resources I used was the website Savvy Source ( This site is constantly updated and provides a summary of each school, including parent feedback. Another website I highly recommend is The School Boards ( This is an online network where parents can ask questions, provide answers or offer advice on schools in their community. If you have that burning question you didn’t want to ask the preschool director on the tour, post it on The School Boards. Also, don’t be afraid to ask parents at the park where their children go and what their experience has been. Most likely your child will be spending a minimum of two to three years at the school, so you want to make sure it is a good fit for your child and your family. I also found it helpful to create a spreadsheet (I know, so Type A of me), which included key information (when to apply, cost, location, and program hours). Most of this information can be found on each individual school’s website.

Understand the differences

Preschools in San Francisco typically fall into one of three camps: play-based, Montessori, or co-ops. Play-based schools include a mix of self-directed play and teacher-led activities. Montessori schools are more structured, and children are encouraged to work alone. Co-ops are owned and operated by the parents, and most require a significant amount of parent involvement. Besides school philosophy, remember to also consider the cost to ensure it fits within the family budget. Location is also important — if you have other children, finding something close to home may be a priority because you will spend a lot of time going back and forth.

Tour and apply

Once you narrow down the schools to apply to, call to arrange a tour. When touring the schools, look for teachers who are engaged, happy children, and the cleanliness and safety of the facility. Ask how teachers deal with issues of discipline, separation, and illness. Try to envision your child there — is it a good fit? In most cases, when completing the application, it is perfectly acceptable to include a picture of your family and a personal note indicating why you have chosen to apply. Keep in mind when deciding where to actually apply that each application fee is between $50 and $75, so it can quickly become a costly process.

Getting accepted

This time of year is typically when families hear about preschool acceptance. I applied to 10 schools, hoping my child would get into one or two. If this happens, consider yourself lucky, put down a deposit, and take a deep breath. If this isn’t the case, and you don’t get into any of your top choices, call the directors and let them know you are still interested and would like to be on a waiting list. With the economy still recovering and the unfortunate pace at which young families are moving out of the City, chances are something will open up.

We put so much pressure on ourselves as parents, buying into the belief that our children have to get into the best preschool so they can go to the best grade school, high school, and then college. But we must relax and keep it all in perspective. The best we can hope for is our children will want to return to the school for another day, learn to interact with peers, and develop skills that will prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. We have had a wonderful preschool experience, and some of the friends my children have made along with their parents will be friends for life. What more can we ask?

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Liz Farrell is the mother of three young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. E-mail: [email protected]