Advice from mom (and former admissions director) Anu Menon on what to prioritize in the preschool search
Applying to preschools can be a high stress process for parents – creating a list of schools, filling out applications, attending interviews and play-dates, and staying on top of multiple wait lists. Besides the grunt-work, there is also intense pressure to make the best decision for your child. What’s the best educational philosophy? Which preschool feeds into the best elementary schools? Is my child potty-trained (enough)? How early can I wake up for drop-off? Can my family afford it? What’s my first, second and third choice?
We interviewed Anu Menon on how to find focus amidst the stress. Anu has contemplated all of the above questions as a mom herself, but her wisdom also comes from having interviewed hundreds of families as the former Director of Admissions for Presidio Knolls School, a Mandarin-immersion school in San Francisco. Despite her tenure at PKS, one of the most sought after schools in San Francisco, Anu does not encourage parents to pursue high-profile preschools at all costs – her top priorities are sustainability (that means convenience) for the entire family as well as staying true to your values. Read our interview with Anu below to get her take.
NL: What do you think should be parents’ biggest consideration when choosing a preschool?
Anu: First and foremost, parents should think about convenience: you’re going to have to take your child to the preschool everyday and make it work with your schedule. There’s a tendency for parents to go after the most popular schools, but the schools’ locations, schedules, and tuitions don’t always work with the reality of their lives. Parents think that they can make it work, because they want the best for their children. As an example, parents may think they can get up really, really early to drop their child off at school across town – but that gets old very quickly. Or they think that a part-time program might work even though they really need full-time care. Or they might have one child in elementary school and one child in preschool, and think they can have the two attend schools in totally different parts of town.
My perspective is that the “ideal” preschool isn’t worth your family’s stress. At the end of the day, if the parents are stressed out, the kids can feel it, and they will be stressed out as well. The mornings are going to be really hectic, and if your routine is not realistic, your child will arrive at school irritable and that impacts the family in such a way that it diminishes the experience for everyone. Sustainability is key and parents need to do a reality check on each school they apply to – is it really going to work?
By the way, convenience doesn’t include just the daily schedule, but also the yearly school calendar as well. A lot of preschools are closed for winter holidays a well as the summer, and some even have spring break and ski weeks as well. Lining up extra childcare, which will cost the parents both time and money, should be considered.
NL: Ok, so we’ve got convenience. What else is important?
Anu: Choose schools whose philosophies and values really resonate with you, rather than what’s popular or prestigious. For example, do you feel more comfortable with a traditional academic experience? In San Francisco (where I live), child-centered programs are currently popular. But if you are a parent who cares a lot about your child being in a more traditional setting, if you’re going to be stressed out about how many times your kids learned the alphabet each day, then programs that lean towards being more child-led may not be a good fit. Parents need to learn about the different educational philosophies and make sure they are comfortable with how these translate into a typical day’s activities.
NL: What’s something that you think parents tend to miss when looking at schools?
Anu: A lot of parents solely focus on what’s best for the child, and I always advise them to also get a feeling for the staff and teachers of the schools. Do their communication styles match with yours? For example, do you want the staff to communicate frequently or do you only want to be alerted to emergencies? You don’t want to be in a situation where there is a disconnect. Again, if you’re not comfortable, you’ll be doubting your choice of school from day to day, and you won’t be happy, and that influences whether your child is happy.
The parent community is quite important as well – you will likely be spending a lot of time with these people so you should feel comfortable interacting with them.
NL: So we’ve talked a lot about high level priorities. How about some more tactical things as parents visit schools?
Anu: Here’s a checklist that I think would be a good starting point for parents:
- The school should have a warm environment. Of course that is subjective, but parents need to think about whether the environment is inviting for their children. It’s not about brand new facilities—many preschools (at least in SF) are in older spaces—but rather from a child’s point of view, will they walk in there and get excited about the toys, art, and color?
- The school should be sanitary and clean, noting that of course it will be messy—it’s filled with children!
- Take a look at where children nap and eat. Are you comfortable with these spaces?
- Where do the children play outside? Many schools that don’t have their own playgrounds go to the park. What are the logistics of these excursions, and will you be comfortable with them? It’s important for parents to get their mind wrapped around that.
- What’s the student to teacher ratio and does that change as the children grow older? Is the ratio maintained when children travel outside of the school? It is common for ratios to change with age, for example going from 5 to 1 to 8 to 1, and I found that that was sometimes a surprise to parents.
- Do the children need to be potty trained – and how potty trained is potty trained? For some schools, being potty trained means “no accidents” and children have to be able to go to the bathroom on their own. At other schools, the teachers give more help, and it’s important to really get clear the expectations around that.
- How will the children transition into school? Is the first week half days? Are there playdates in the summer? If a child gets in mid-year in a school where other kids have started together in the fall, what kind of support is provided for the parents and the child?
Got a question for NurtureList or Anu about preschool admissions? Email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.