How to Find a Great Preschool

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Most cities and towns advertise their schools in the local listings and pamphlets. You can find these publications at realtors’ offices and grocery stores. Online searches will also provide lots of information, especially if a school has its own website. Also check the online phone listings yellowpages.com.

DIFFERENT PROGRAMS

Day Care — Day Care is generally for children ages six weeks to five years. Programs can run all day to accommodate a standard workday, but parents might have the option to opt for full or partial days, depending on their needs.

Preschool — Preschool can start at age 2 or 2 ½ and usually lasts until age 4. The school day can run anywhere from two to four hours, but some programs offer early care or aftercare for an additional fee.

Pre-K — This is mostly for children a year away from enrolling in kindergarten. Hours vary program to program, and  some are similar to preschool. Some offer a full day, which, for children who are mature enough, helps prepare the students for a full day of kindergarten.

CALENDAR

Whereas day care programs run year-round, preschools and pre-K generally adhere to a local public school’s calendar. If you have older children already in school, check their calendars before making a decision.

Preschools and pre-K classes are usually closed during summer, but some offer summer camp, a good option for kids who have trouble making transitions.

ENROLLMENT

Most schools offer open houses early in the year for fall registration, though schools give preference to returning students and siblings.

That said, the most popular schools tend to fill up fast, so if you plan to send your child to school in the fall of the coming year, try visiting the schools before the rush by arranging a private tour.

LOGISTICS

Consider a school’s location and how drop-off and pick-up will impact your schedule. If you’re commuting, can you feasibly drop off your child then get on the highway or hop on a train? Is walking distance important? Will a babysitter is care for your child during the day?  These are the factors to think of.

PHILOSOPHY

Some schools adhere to specific ideologies and teaching methods, including Montessori, Waldorf, Co-op, etc. It’s important you be aware and find the right fit for your child.

For detailed information on the most common in the U.S., read this article.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN YOU VISIT

If your schedule and school policy allow it, bring your child along on your visit, and schedule the visit during the day. While you’ll be involved with your host, make sure to take time to look around.  Also, pay attention to how the host interacts with your child. Often the host is the director of the program, and he or she sets the tone for the school.

Check to see if the environment looks clean, feels safe and is staffed with experienced teachers who also seem happy to be there and clearly love kids. Observe what are the children doing and ask yourself if they seem engaged.

WHAT TO DISCUSS ON YOUR VISIT

Toilet Training – This is crucial, as some schools require children to be trained by the time they enroll.  Most Pre-K and camps require toilet training, but day care and preschools tend to be more flexible.  If your child is not yet trained, make sure your child’s teacher is willing to work with both you and your child.

Food - If your child has food allergies, ask how the school handles them. Otherwise, find out if the school maintains preparation requirements for certain foods, i.e. grapes cut vertically to avoid choking, or restricted foods (some schools bar peanut butter since it presents a choking hazard).

Germs - Because the flu is so rampant, consider germs and how they might be transmitted.  Look into the school’s hand washing/sanitizing policy, and also inquire about sharing snacks. Is it allowed?

Sick child policy – What symptoms must children exhibit to stay home or be sent home?

New student policy – Are parents encouraged to observe for the first few days?  Or is there a rapid drop-off approach?  Consider what works best for your child, and prepare accordingly.

What gets a child expelled? – Some schools are stricter than others when it comes to behavioral issues.  Ask how they handle children who hit, throw things or bite.  What is their general disciplinary policy?  Is it in line with your own?

Early withdrawal policy – Be aware of this, just in case you enroll your child then have a change of heart or an unexpected move.

Teacher to student ratio – Teacher to student ratio is important, because it reflects how much adult supervision and attention your child will receive.  The National Association for the Education of Young Children goves the following guidelines for teacher to student ratio:  For 3-year-olds, the ratio must be 1 to 7. For 4- and 5-year-olds class, the ratio must be 1 to 8.  There aren’t guidelines for kids under 3, but as a parent, my feeling is that the ratio should be 1 to 7 or better.

Licensing - Teaching requirements vary state to state, but most are certified through a certificate program or rigorous degree program.

Usually teachers are required to complete additional yearly classes to maintain their certification.  First aid and CPR training is often required.

Most states don’t require the school to have a license, although licenses are available.  If a school has a license, it guarantees that the facility has adequate space and staff and meets state safety requirements.  Visit the Right Choice for Kids site to search for state licensed schools in your area.

Daily itinerary - The school should provide physical activity, time outdoors, quiet time, group and individual activities, socializing, crafts, imaginative play, snacks and free time, among other necessitites. The curriculum should also evolve over time, enriching your child's abilities. Look for a program that encourages individuality and creativity.

THE DECISION

The choice may be clear, but if you’re still torn, ask the people who know best: other parents.

If there’s a local listserv online (usually offered through Yahoogroups), join it and peruse the files for an archive of school recommendations. If not, post an inquiry and you’ll receive great referrals in days.

If you can’t find a listserv, bring your child to the playground when school lets out.  If it’s a nice day, parents of current students may bring their kids to play after school. Seize the opportunity to ask what they like and dislike about the school, and most of all, if they would recommend it.

Now’s the time to research schools for fall 2011. Narrow down your list and find open houses to attend. Or better yet, schedule a private tour.

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