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    Preschool in San Francisco: Navigating the application process by Liz Farrell

    Liz Farrell, who writes the "Caring for Our Kids" column for the Marina Times, shares this piece with us.

    IF YOU THOUGHT THE TERMS “dream school,” “safety school” and “feeder school” were only reserved for conversations about high school or college, then you have not been privy to the preschool admissions process in San Francisco. Deciding on a preschool should be exciting and thrilling as your child prepares to embark on a new milestone. However, it can also be overwhelming and exhausting as you worry about making the right choice and getting into the “right” school. Having recently gone through this process, I understand how difficult navigating the waters may be. There is so much pressure to apply early – often before your child is even born – that it stimulates a type of intensity many would not associate with preschool admissions. Having survived this intense time period, I wanted to share some steps our family took (on the advice of others) that made the process a little easier.

    Research. The more you do, the more you will know. There are plenty of books, Web sites and, if you can believe it, even coaches to help you navigate the process. One of the best things that I did was to attend a talk given by Lee Ann Slaton of Parent’s Place (1710 Scott Street, 415-359-2454, www.parentsplaceonline.org). She gave an overview of the process and helped calm the nerves of everyone in the room. Given the fact there were over 200 people in the room, I knew I was not alone in trying to figure out this whole process. One of the best resources I found was the Web site Savvy Source (www.savvysource.com) – this site is constantly updated and provides a summary of each school with parent feedback. From there, I found it helpful to go to the individual Web sites of the schools I was interested in – most of them have detailed information about how to apply, arranging tours, and their acceptance criteria. The one thing to remember when deciding where to actually apply is that each application fee is between $50 and $75, so it can become a costly process very quickly.

    Stay organized. Remember trying to keep all your college application information straight? The preschool admissions process can be very similar, except now you are also juggling play dates, dinner and bath time. I found it helpful to channel my Type A personality and make a spreadsheet that included key information (when to apply, cost, location, and program hours). I also had a binder where I kept copies of our applications and all the literature I received on the tours or in the mail. This was an easy way to access information and remember who had sent us what and when.

    Participate in preschool tours. Most schools do tours throughout the year, but prospective parents should call early to arrange a date. When touring the schools, parents should look for teachers that are engaged, children having fun, and the cleanliness and safety of the facility. Ask about how the teachers deal with discipline, separation issues and illness. It is also very helpful to ask if you can talk to parents with children currently enrolled about their experiences at the school. After taking it all in, ask yourself, would this school be a good fit for my child?

    Understand the differences. In San Francisco, preschools 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 tend to be more structured, where children are encouraged to work alone. Co-ops are owned and operated by the parents, and require a significant amount of parent involvement. When looking for a good fit, it is also important to consider the tuition at the school and its location. The school has to be the right fit for your child, but it also has to fit within the family budget. Location is also important, since you will be spending a lot of time going back and forth.

    Narrow your choices and go for it. It is normal to get a little competitive, especially when it comes to wanting the best for your children; however, there are definitely appropriate and inappropriate ways to “go for it.” Including a letter or personal statement and picture of your family with your application that indicates why that school is your top choice is acceptable. Creating a resume for your 2-year-old or sending flowers or candy to the director is excessive and not appropriate.

    Deciding where to enroll. February and March are when families who applied (many before their child was even born) will hear about preschool acceptance. I remember thinking: I applied to 10 schools, so I have to at least get into three. Maybe, maybe not, but if you don’t get into any of your top choices, call the directors and let them know you would still like to be on the waiting list. With the economy still recovering and at the rate young families are moving out of the City, chances are good something will open up. There are over 200 preschools in San Francisco, and Slaton will tell you that eventually everyone finds a great preschool where the family is happy.

    We put so much pressure on ourselves as parents, buying into the belief that our child has to get into the best preschool so they get can get into the best grade school, high school and then college. We have to remember to keep it all in perspective. Children this age should have fun, interact with classmates, and develop skills that will prepare them for kindergarten.

    Speaking of kindergarten, just think once your child is accepted into preschool, you only have a year or two before you have to start worrying about those applications and interviews. Our family will tackle that in the fall, so stay tuned!

    Liz Farrell lives in San Francisco and is the mother of two young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

  2. #2

    SF Preschool article

    Great article! Good advice for LA area preschools too.

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