Preschool Primer Recap

Last week, we held 2 editions of our Preschool Primer to help parents get on-track with the preschool search and application process.  Preschool admissions directors and other experts fielded a wide variety of questions from parents, including how to know your family is ready for preschool, when to start the application process, the ins-and-outs of language immersion programs, and what happens after preschool.

We recap here the Q&A from both evenings, organized by topic:

The panelists included:

Annabella Tong (Little Footprints Preschool)

Amanda Ricetti (Big City Montessori School)

Beth Roemer (Russian Hill School)

Aida Lane (Valle de Ninos Preschool)

Ron Yu (Presidio Knolls School / Independent Schools of the San Francisco Bay Area)

Lisa Tejada (Golden Gate Guppies)

Anjali Asrani (Miraloma Cooperative Nursery School)

Anu Menon (former Admissions Director & Current Board Member at Presidio Knolls School, NurtureList adviser)

Winnie Kwei (San Francisco Preschool For All)

Yin Li (NurtureList)

Since we covered a lot of ground on these two nights, we’ve also sorted the questions by topic and you can click on the links below to go directly to each topic.


Starting the Preschool Process

Different Preschool Programs and Philosophies

What Happens After Preschool

Language Immersion Programs

San Francisco Preschool For All

Other Questions

List of Resources

Starting The Preschool Process

Q: When is a child ready for preschool, and at what age does that typically occur?

Amanda (Big City): You’ll notice that as your child is around 15 to 18 months old, he or she will want to explore, focus on something a bit longer, and seek social connections with other children. At Big City Montessori, we begin touring when children are 8 to 18 months, with an entry age of 2.5 to 3.5-years-old. We don’t accept children any older than that because the Montessori method is designed for children to grow into the program.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): I think it’s about looking into the child’s social and emotional development, as well as whether the parents are ready. What’s just as important as your child being ready for preschool is whether the parent is ready to send their child to preschool. I recommend parents to stay with children as long as they can. The developmental years of age 2 to 5 are beautiful and unique, and you only get to experience it once in a lifetime. On the other hand, we don’t want to deprive a child of the opportunity to develop social skills. If your child begins to show interest in playing with other children, it’s time to start looking at programs. Try to find programs that match your child’s temperament. For example, if your child is high energy, he’ll need a big space to run around in.

Ron (Presidio Knolls): Another way to answer your question is not so much what age your child is ready for school, but when are you ready for your child to go to school. That’s the hardest part for the parents.  You know your child best. Is he or she ready, and are you ready? Is this the right time, the right  school, and the right program? These are the questions we’ll ask in the admission process.

There’s no one answer to when a family is ready.  For some families, it has to do with logistics and schedule. The reality of working parents is that you need care and you need the type of care that matches your situation. What’s important to you, and what are you comfortable with? There are many options out there.

Q: When is the best time to begin the preschool search?

Anu: I advise parents to begin searching when the child is around 1 year old to get a sense of the landscape. Attending events like this one can be immensely helpful.  There are so many different types of programs – immersion, half day, full day, Montessori.  Start getting to know them.

There are also different types of admissions processes.  Some schools are rolling – you apply and get yourself on a wait list or wait pool.  As your child nears the preschool age, the school will begin letting parents know when it has openings and admit children on a rolling basis.

Other schools like Presidio Knolls have a very formal admission process.  For example, a child has to be age 2 by April 1st of the year they enroll.  Parents apply the Fall before that, and you’ll find out by March if you are accepted and start in August. Children don’t start in the middle of year at schools like PKS.  So my advice to parents is to get your ducks in a row, and get to know the different types of schools and their admissions processes.

Additionally, for some schools whose main entry point is as young as age 2, parents need to start the application process a year before at age 1. For example, in schools like PKS, the main entry point is the 2-year-old class.  There might be 35 spots in the main entry point, some of which are filled by siblings and applicants fill the rest.  if you apply after the 2-year old entry point you’re mostly dealing with attrition-driven spots.

Anjali (Miraloma): At our co-op, we hold previews and in-person tours with parents and children one year in advance, which is the best time to schedule tours. We recommend that you figure out which schools you like, and schedule tours at least a year before you begin applying. We accept applications until January 1st, review them and notify families in March, and welcome the students the following school year.

Amanda (Big City): Schools are all different.  It depends on whether they only have a handful of spaces or 30 spaces.  Parents should contact schools you’re interested in right away to find out what you need to know about the program and application processes.  By the time application season rolls around, you don’t want to have any missed opportunities.

Q: For rolling schools, do the majority of spots fill in the fall and why?

Anjali (Miraloma): Yes, they do. Because you have an outgoing class every year from children moving on to Kindergarten, the majority of spots at our school do open up in the late summer/early fall.  We do occasionally have immediate openings, but they are not very good to count on in advance that they will be there.

Amanda (Big City):  If you have a nanny-share with a flexible end date, you can afford to be rolling. But if you’re planning to return to work, or the nanny is going to leave, then you need to plan ahead, and you want to start earlier.  In our school, we tour in November and we tell you in January.  We have two rounds. When you’re accepted, we automatically put you on our waiting list.  We then try to get you into the school sometime between 2.5 years and 3.5 years depending on our openings and your family’s needs.

About 10% of our children leave (moving out of town), so there are attrition spaces.

Yin (NurtureList): A lot of parents we have worked with have recently relocated to San Francisco from another city and faced a short timeline for finding a preschool. As long as parents are flexible, they can usually find spots. However, it does help to begin the search earlier, especially when applying to schools like Presidio Knolls which have a strict admissions timeline, for which you need to plan ahead at least one year in advance.

Amanda (Big City): We see a lot of movement in June and July, when families tend to change their minds and decide to move.  We add tours in April and July to help more families get in, and to help us fill up spots.

Q: What does the admissions process at your school consist of and what do you look for?

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): For Golden Gate Guppies, it’s a multi-step process.  I first invite parents to tour the school without your children, because we want to have your undivided attention as you learn about our vision and program. You’ll get to meet the teachers, see the children, and observe the environment. Afterwards, we’ll have a conversation to address any questions about the school.

If you come away from the tour feeling like the school is a good fit, we ask you to fill out an application.  Once we received it, we’ll invite you to have a playdate (15 to 20 minutes) when your child becomes 2.5 years old. This playdate will help you understand how well our program will fit your child and allow you and your child to get to know me and the other teachers better. This is important because while it’s one thing for you to be over the moon about our program, another question you should consider is: Is your child over the moon about it?

During the playdates, you get to know me and the teachers a little more, and you leave with a better sense of what GGG is.

We then send you our parent referral list so you can speak with our current parents to learn more, and then if we decide to go forward with it, we make you an offer.

Amanda (Big City):  We have two ways of admissions.  We have yearly admission for all the spots left by those who graduate to kindergarten plus attrition spaces that open periodically throughout the year.  What we always tell our parents is that if you come and apply, we’ll get you in. We live in a big city, we have a large school, and people move.

Our admissions process is very similar to what Lisa just described for Golden Gate Guppies. We give you a tour to walk through the environment, talk about the admissions process, and invite you for a second tour. However, we don’t require an application until we believe we can give you space.  We tour 3 times a year. November is coming up and we’re setting those up now. Once you tour, you can come back for a 2nd interview with your child, when we sit down and learn more about your needs and when you want to enter the school (at 2.5, 3, or 3.5).  In January, we will then tell you whether you can be enrolled. If we have a lot of applications, we use a lottery system.  When you accept a spot, your child enters our wait list to be admitted sometime between 2.5 and 3.5 years of age.

Anu: The admissions process at Presidio Knolls is similar to other schools that have a preschool through 8th grade program.  Because you form a community for so many years, we want to get to know the families really well.

The first thing is a Q & A session during the day, when staff and current parents speak about the program and you tour the facilities. Then, in fall to early January, you turn in your application. After that, we will invite your child to a playdate with other applicant children of about the same age.  We set up a classroom with fun stations for them to play at with the preschool director and some teachers observing. In addition, we require a 30 minute parent interview with the director of admissions. Acceptances come out in March.

Since we’re a Mandarin immersion school, we’re looking for a commitment to immersion, which is very different from an English-speaking school.  Because we are also preK-8, we want families who are committed to staying from Kindergarten through 8th grade.  Moreover, our school is also a startup school (founded in 2011), so you make sure to you have a stomach for a startup. Finally, we are also looking for parents that are a good fit in our community, which is very active and participatory.

Anjali (Miraloma): For Miraloma Cooperative Preschool, we host a parents-only preview, where parents can come to see the environment when preschool is not in session, talk about the school and being involved in a co-op, and ask questions. We then set up a tour with your child for the morning or afternoon programs (we encourage you to tour both because they are both a little bit different). You’ll be able to see the school in action as your child engages with the various stations, art projects, and activities being held. You also get to meet the director and staff teacher as well as speak with currently attending parents about their experiences. After the tour, you submit an application.  

Beth (Russian Hill): Our program starts at age 3 and our curriculum is mixed age.  We think of our curriculum as teaching for the oldest child while scaffolding the learning for the younger children.  We want the children to be potty trained.  Since our school is year round, our calendar year starts in September, but we have spaces that open up throughout the year.  We are holding open houses on October, November, January, and February (parent-only). We have play-dates in those months, and from there, the applications will come in.

Anna (Little Footprints):  Our school starts at age 2. The reason is that the earliest they are exposed to a second language, the easier it is for them to pick it up.  Our waitlist ranges in length from one years to three years.  We do tours year-round on a weekly basis (we usually do them with about 3 families in each group, so that we can get to get to know the families).  When we do enrollments, we don’t look just at the child; rather, we look at the parents to make sure that they share the same philosophy and values as our school. We send first round acceptances in November, and send a second batch in March.

Aida (Valle de Ninos): My program starts at age 2.5, starts in August, and runs through June (we offer a 10 month program). Families apply in the spring for fall enrollment.

Winnie (Preschool For All): A lot of parents that contact me looking for infant/toddler care or preschool are because of childcare needs as they return to work.  The are many options, including licensed home-based programs and centers. 

[To learn about the differences between centers and home-based programs, see our blog post.]

Q: How do admissions directors weigh different factors when selecting applicants?

Anu: When I was the admissions director at Presidio Knolls, I used to try to get a good mix of kids without driving the teachers crazy. For instance, if 70% of the class is boys and 30% is girls, then I would look for more girls. I also looked for a range of birthdays and personalities – for example, if a lot of spots will be filled with quiet siblings (of children who are already attending), we may want more children who can rile things up. In a Reggio Emilia program, the environment is considered a teacher, so it’s important to create a diverse and robust environment.

Q: Is there anything you can do to prepare a child for his or her playdate?

Anu: No, there isn’t much you can do besides making sure they’re fed. We look for normal, age appropriate child behavior.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): Also make sure they get a nap.

Q: How many schools would you advise parents to apply to?

Anu: For my son, we applied to 8 schools. I would advise parents to apply to at least 3 to 4 so that you have options when decisions come out.

Anjali (Miraloma): We applied to 5 schools, and got into 4. Finding a preschool requires lots of flexibility as long as you keep an eye out for what you’re looking for. Make sure you apply to enough schools to give yourself options.

Amanda (Big City): Keep in mind that just because you tour a school does not mean you’ll apply to it. A parent might tour 10 to 20 schools just to find those 3 to 4 schools to apply to. It’s also good to talk to director to get a good gauge on your chances of getting in before you apply.  They should be honest in telling you what the odds are.  Also many schools charge fees to apply, so parents shouldn’t be putting their money everywhere like at a craps table.

Q: What are your odds of getting in?

Amanda (Big City): If you apply a whole year in advance and everything is going well, it’s about 80%. People who want to get in generally do get in.

Anjali (Miraloma): If someone meets the criteria, demonstrates a commitment to the co-op model, and shows a desire to be involved in their child’s education and community, she has a pretty good chance of getting in. We look at a family as a whole rather than just the child.

Q: Are the horror stories of needing to begin applying at birth actually true?

Amanda (Big City): It depends on size of the school and the timing. If it’s a small school with  only 4 openings, then you might have to apply very early.  A good admissions director will tell you what the odds are and be realistic with parents.   

I would say start a year in advance.  We really can’t help you or get to know your child’s temperament until he or she is around 18 months old, and even then we revisit at about 2 years of age to make sure our school’s really the right fit.

So the horror stories are both true and not true. Some parents really get lucky and find spots at the last minute.  Other parents plan ahead.  It’s about getting out there and finding the schools that are a good fit, and once you do that, the director will usually try to help you as much as possible.

There are lots and lots of great schools in San Francisco, and chances are that your child will get into one.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): I agree. However, take your time with the selection process. If you try to enroll too early, you won’t know your child’s temperament well enough yet and therefore won’t be able to determine whether he or she will be a good fit for the program. Also make sure that you know the difference between a wait list, which orders applicants chronologically, and a waitpool, which puts all applicants in a pool with equal standing regardless of when the school receives the application.

Q: Is NurtureList comprehensive?

Yin (NurtureList): NurtureList lists all licensed preschools. We also keep a very updated list of preschool openings on our website.  One of the ways for parents to begin their search process is to go on NurtureList, read about schools nearby, learn about their application processes, and observe how many of those schools have openings and how many are currently full.

Q: What is the admissions process like for public preschools?

Winnie (Preschool For All): San Francisco Unified School District preschools have their own unique enrollment process – for subsidized families, there is one database that you would get on.  For tuition-based families, obtain and submit an application. They do prioritize subsidize families, but some schools have tuition-based spots.

Yin (NurtureList): There are several public schools in San Francisco, but only a handful of them take tuition-based families. Most primarily fill their classes with families eligible for Head Start and State Preschool Subsidies, and have a different enrollment process than private preschools. Most families get on waitlist through resource and referral service agencies. Recently, there have been fewer and fewer tuition-based spots as subsidized children take up more spots due to cuts in funding. Most tuition spots are taken by students whose siblings previously went to that public preschool.  To apply, fill out an application when your child is two years old, and they will call you if and when a spot opens up.

Q: What is your advice for parents starting the preschool search process?

Anu: Cast a wide net.  There is a lot of hype around some schools, but don’t let that guide your options. Look for places you’re comfortable with and that can actually work with your routine. If you don’t want to do a full-time program, do part-time. Go with your gut and what’s comfortable for you. We’re very lucky that there’s such a rich and robust environment with the different schools in the city.

Sometimes, parents are concerned about whether they will be accepted into any of the schools they apply to. It’s true that sometimes you will get waitlisted at many places. Don’t be discouraged though. Cast your net wide, have patience, and don’t freak out in March when you receive the decisions. In the weeks and months that follow, there will be a lot of movement – parents will move, change their minds, etc. – so spots may open up.

For example, I applied to 8 schools for my own son, and we were waitlisted at a few of them.  But by the time fall rolled around and he was about to start school, he had gotten into all of the schools he was waitlisted at.

Amanda (Big City): Choose a preschool that is close to home or close to work. You want to be near your child, because if your child gets sick, you’ll want to be there to pick them up.

Explore different kinds of programs and pick the one that best fits your child’s personality.  Pick at least 3 different programs so you can observe the differences.  Go on a tour and then visit a second time to ensure it’s consistent.

If the school is renting the space, ask them how long the lease is, to make sure that it’ll be where you’ll expect it to be when your child attends.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): Give yourself the gift of time.  Applying to preschools is a long process from beginning to end. Once you visit all the schools you’re interested in, take out those info packets from tours and discuss them with your partner over dinner when you are relaxed; don’t wait until the very last minute.  Take your time in the selection process.

Ron (Presidio Knolls): As much as the teaching philosophies between schools will be different, keep in mind that you are also coming into very specific communities of parents which are going to have a major impact on you.  These communities last at least a year to three years, and — in our case — over a decade.  They will have a great influence upon how your child will learn and grow.  

Different Preschool Programs and Philosophies

Q: Tell us a little bit about your preschool and what’s unique about it.

Anna (Little Footprints): We are a 100% Mandarin immersion preschool in the Sunset district.  The reason we choose total immersion is because school is usually the only place for children to learn Mandarin.  We don’t do 50/50 because it’s hard to enforce it. Kids are very smart and will go to the language that is most comfortable for them, and that would be English. The vision of the school is to have a solid foundation in mandarin.

We also emphasize social and emotional development.  We value how kids express themselves, and we want children to be able to talk about their feelings and know that it’s OK to be happy, sad, or angry.

Aida (Valle de Ninos): I run a large family child care [home-based] preschool. It’s a bilingual English and Spanish program in Noe Valley.  This is my third year running my own school, though I have taught at a co-operative preschool for 9 years. I have a small class of 12 students a day, who attend either half days or full days.  The lower flat of my home is dedicated to the school, which offers a play-based program.

Amanda (Big City): Our school is a Montessori program — mixed aged classrooms for children 2.5 years old to 6 years old.  What makes Montessori unique is that that it covers all aspects of other programs in one philosophy and curriculum.  We have four areas in our classroom: practical (cleaning, sweeping, tucking in chairs, manners, pouring), sensorial, cultural (art, music, geography, botany, zoology), and language (reading, math, and writing). Every child has their own 3-year journey through these four areas.

Beth (Russian Hill): We’re a year-round, mixed-aged preschool and transitional kindergarten (TK).  We use an arts-based curriculum, which serves as a springboard for kids to learn their social, emotional, pre-reading, and pre-math skills.  It’s an open child-directed classroom, meaning that they choose where they want to go play.  We are not Montessori, but we have some elements of the method, namely the element of being child-led.  We have music, dance, dramatic arts, reading, and outdoor play.

Q: For an arts-based program, does the child have to be oriented towards arts to apply?

Beth (Russian Hill): Not at all. Kids naturally love drawing, whether it’s robots or rainbows. We’re just reinforcing things that all kids do.

Q: What makes a Montessori school a true Montessori school?

Amanda (Big City): Credentialed teachers, if they follow the Montessori method correctly, makes a school Montessori. If a school calls itself a “progressive” Montessori school or a “Montessori-based” school, they’re not Montessori. The Montessori approach is a whole philosophy and curriculum with a very elaborate environment for the children. The best way to confirm whether a school is Montessori is to walk through the environment and observe it – is it a mixed age group of about 35 children busy playing? – and to ask about the teachers’ credentials.

Ron (Presidio Knolls): Presidio Knolls school is a Reggio Emilia-inspired Mandarin immersion school.  Our immersion is 80% Mandarin and 20% English.  We offer a preschool through middle school program.

Q: What makes a co-op different from a traditional preschool?

Anjali (Miraloma): We require a lot of parent participation. Besides a director and staff teacher for each program, parent teachers are also present every day, though of course not everyone is a parent teacher. Contributing to the co-op consists of a family job such as coordinating tuition statements and collection, putting together the newsletter, organizing enrollment, etc. These jobs help keep costs low and are flexible depending on your availability, skills, and interests.  We have jobs that you can do in certain hours each day or on your own time.

Yin (NurtureList): Across NurtureList, we do see that there are parent co-op schools that offer a buy-out option (where parents can pay additional tuition for a teacher to cover their parent-teacher hours). Sometimes families have grandparents or other family members fill in certain responsibilities at the school.

Q: Is there a full-time program available in the co-op for working, full-time parents?

Anjali (Miraloma): We have no full-time option for enrollment. Ideally, at least one of the parents should have some flexibility in their schedule; otherwise it will be harder to participate.

Q: Part-time program or full-time program?

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): I do not advise parents to do part-time programs unless they have to. A full-time program provides consistency and routine, and we know that children thrive on consistency and routine – make one change for the child, and they flip their switch. It’s like you going to work Monday, staying home on Tuesday, and returning Wednesday. Don’t you feel out of the loop when you skip a day? Now think about that from a child’s perspective. The social dynamic has completely changed, and his friends are playing with other children and not him. Why? Because he missed a day! And to a child, a day is momentous.

Amanda (Big City): Montessori believes in 5 days to week, so that the child has ample time to build friendships, socialize, and make connections.  A part-time program means a child will miss a lot of school.  When preschools are less than 5 days a week, one day they’re in, one day they’re out.  It’s hard for them to build relationships with adults and classmates.  They’re already going to be out of school enough already with being ill, grandparents visiting, and vacations.

Half day programs are also not optimal – what happens to half-day children, in my experience, is that when children arrive, they’re a little sad for their parents to leave, and then they begin to feel anxious for pick-up. On the other hand, in a full day program, after they wake up from a nap during the day, they enjoy the success of being away from the parent.  They adapt faster and hence enjoy the program faster.  We used to have a half day program, and the children took twice as long as the full day children to acclimate.

Anjali (Miraloma): I can offer another perspective on this issue, as our school does offer part-time programs. Each child begins with three days a week, and they’re with the same children on those same days. Those other children are their connections, and they know that the teachers and students are there on that certain day. To help children adjust, we begin with three days the first year, four days the next year, and so on to ramp them up to five days. Parent usually work part-time or have a nanny to care for children on the off-days.

Beth (Russian Hill): Our program is five days a week to provide consistency and routine for working parents and their children. There’s a full class in the morning and a full class in the afternoon.  As the children get older, they tend to do the full day.

For a child that’s attending a part-time program, when they’re not in school, they’re often with a nanny, in share-care with another family, or doing other activities in the afternoon.

What Happens After Preschool

Q: What are the most common paths after preschool in San Francisco?

Amanda (Big City): It has changed a little bit over time, particularly this year.  I had more people leaving to cities like Portland, Seattle, and ones in Texas, which accounted for about 10% of my program.

Some parents are also trying the new transitional kindergarten program offered by the San Francisco Unified School District.

I offer a transitional kindergarten program for parents who don’t want their child to enter kindergarten yet. About 20% of my last class decided to attend this program, 60% attended public school, and the rest went to private school.

Yin (NurtureList): Parents should know that there is now a transitional kindergarten program offered through the San Francisco Unified School District. It follows a similar application process as the elementary schools.

Anu: If you’re looking at public schools, you’ll be glad to hear that the lottery process for public schools has been working better and better.  I’ve seen many families get into their first and second choice schools.

The other factor is the number of children your family has.  It’s harder for larger families to afford private schools for multiple children.

Anjali (Miraloma): Plenty of spots open mid-year because parents want to move to the peninsula or to Marin County, or out of the area. A lot of parents do that right before Kindergarten, because they’re nervous about the public school route in San Francisco. 70% of our families went to public school and 30% went to private. I think everyone has been pretty happy with where they’ve landed, perhaps not in the first round with San Francisco public schools, but at least in the second and third rounds.

Q: How do you know if your child is ready for kindergarten?

Anu: One of the most important factors to being ready for kindergarten is socialization: learning how to interact with other people, being interested and curious about them, and knowing how to get information.

Amanda (Big City): The Montessori method seeks to prepare the whole child socially, emotionally, and cognitively. We help the child read, focus, manage time, and maneuver themselves through the world. By the time they graduate, they are ready for an academic setting. They love and are excited about learning, and they are prepared to take next challenge that awaits them.

Anjali (Miraloma): As the others have said, we look for social and emotional development. To encourage this, we offer a kindergarten club where kids can discuss what they are excited or afraid about in transitioning to kindergarten.

Yin (NurtureList): What’s interesting is that a survey of 3,000 kindergarten teachers revealed that the skills they believe are essential to success in kindergarten are totally different than what the majority of parents believe. While parents thought academic skills — such as knowing the ABCs or how to count to 20 — were the most important, the teachers overwhelmingly said social and emotional skills were crucial to kindergarten readiness.

[For more on how to assess your child’s kindergarten readiness, take a look at our recent blog post.]

Q: Do preschools “feed” into certain elementary schools?

Amanda (Big City):  We certainly have relationships with particular schools, some more than others because of their proximity.  My school is very connected with Live Oak, Synergy, and Friends School because we send kids there and they do well.  They also talk to me because they want to know that you’re going to stay in San Francisco and not going to leave anytime soon.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): As preschool directors, we complete evaluations on your child before he or she enters grade school, so we do hold a lot of weight upon whether your child gets accepted or not.  That shouldn’t be intimidating.  The school will typically ask, “In the 3 years you’ve had this student, what can you tell us about this student that we didn’t get from the parent interview?” It’ll give the school insight into the student and the family.

Anu:  Preschool staff can sometimes play a role if your child is waitlisted at a K-8 school. They can call and convey the message that this is your first choice school.

Amanda (Big City): Part of the reason K-8 schools talk to preschool directors is to get a sense of who the family is and how much they really want to be admitted. It’s embarrassing for the school if the parent rejects its offer.

Q: Do referrals / recommendations from other parents play a role in admission to private K-8 schools?

Anu: Members of the Bay Area Directors of Admissions group do not take references as part of the formal admissions process.

Language Immersion Programs

Q: Are you at a disadvantage in the application process if you don’t speak the language of your child’s language immersion program at home?

Anu: I don’t think it matters much. In our school, 70% of our families don’t speak Mandarin at home and cannot support the language at home. Ideally, 30% of children enter with some language ability, so that teachers aren’t the only ones speaking the immersion language since children also learn from their peers.

In my experience, when a child learns a foreign language, it makes him feel proud and independent – proud because he knows something his parents don’t know, and independent because he can’t rely on his parents for help with his homework that isn’t in English – that becomes his thing.

Also, at our school, we have classes for parents in Mandarin.

Q: I don’t speak Mandarin, so what language do I read to my kid in at home?

Anna (Little Footprints): It’s totally fine if the parents don’t speak Mandarin.  Your child can have Mandarin at school, and English (or whatever language you speak) at home.  It’s very natural for kids to switch between languages.  There’s a lot of research that younger children can do this really well – they can hear language much better.

Ron (Presidio Knolls):  Children are learning how to communicate and navigate the world, and the more that you read to them in English, the more they’re going to understand how the world works at home and at school.  So vocabulary builds on both sides.

Q: If a child attends a language immersion preschool, how can parents support the language after preschool, especially if they don’t speak that language at home?

Anna (Little Footprints): Ideally your child would attend an elementary school with a Mandarin program such as Presidio Knolls or Starr King.  There are other options however, including after school programs, or Chinese school on Saturdays.

Ron (Presidio Knolls): Continuing is a matter of choice for parents.  In some cases you have opportunities, in others you may not.  If you do have the opportunity and you believe that language is important for you and your child, then you can decide to continue and Anna mentioned some of the ways.  Additionally, you should think about what level of fluency you are looking for in your child. Children don’t start to learn how to read and write until elementary school, so the decisions is based on whether you feel comfortable to stop at preschool, or to  continue into elementary and middle school as well.

Q: When is a child too old to start an immersion program?

Ron (Presidio Knolls): According to the research, at age 7, the biology of your child changes, which makes it more difficult for her to begin learning a language than if she had started earlier.  However, we know that many of us have picked up languages after that; it’s just a lot harder and more work.

The immersion schools in the Independent Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area allow children to come in at Kindergarten with no language exposure, but once you get above Kindergarten, it becomes a lot more difficult. The day itself is structured in that new language, so not only is it a new environment, but a totally new way of communicating as well.  Can a child do it? Yes, but as  parents you’re going to have to spend lots of energy finding ways to work with your child to catch him up, using your own time and money for resources like tutoring.

Q: If your child did not attend a language immersion preschool, does it affect their chances of getting into an immersion elementary school such as PKS?

Ron (Presidio Knolls): We accept non-speakers of the languages in Kindergarten.  First grade and above, the child must pass a language proficiency test.

Q: if a child is fluent in the immersion language already, how would she pick up English?

Amanda (Big City): I honestly feel that children learn from other people.  If a child is already speaking a non-English language at home, they are already mastering that, and they need to speak English at school.  If your child is speaking the same language at home and at school, they’re not going to pick up another language.  It’s essential for your child to be exposed to another language.

To master English you need to be around English.  85% of our vocabulary  is learned before the age of 5, so they’re not going to be able to pick up enough if they’re not speaking English at either home or school.

San Francisco Preschool For All

Winnie (Preschool For All): San Francisco First 5 administers a program called Preschool For All (PFA) funded by all San Francisco taxpayers. PFA is designed to allow all San Francisco residents, regardless of income, to attend preschool. When your child turns 4-years-old before December 2 of that year, typically the year before Kindergarten, if they are enrolled at a Preschool For All site, they receive a tuition credit.  For example, if you are enrolled in a program that costs $1,500 per month, you will receive a tuition credit of approximately 25%.

There are currently 125 participating sites, with a mixture of subsidized and tuition-based preschools.  If you think that you qualify for subsidized preschool because you have only one working parent or are seeking work, come seem me and I can give you some resources to help.

If both parents are working and you’re interested in tuition-based spots, I advise you to look early, identify the participating preschool sites, submit the application, and enroll your child.  When your child turns 4 at that preschool, they’ll receive that tuition credit.

Q: Why do you designate schools as PFA schools / why can’t parents get the credit at any schools?

Winnie (Preschool For All): Schools must meet our baseline criteria to be a PFA school.

Q: Which of our panelists’ schools are PFA schools?

Winnie (Preschool For All): Presidio Knolls School and Little Footprints Preschool are PFA sites.  Valle de Ninos is in process of becoming one.

Q: How is the amount of tuition credit determined?

Winnie (Preschool For All): It depends on the tuition of the school. Our funding covers approximately 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day; for schools over 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day that want to have richer curriculum, PFA credit would only cover part of the tuition.

Other Questions

Q: How do you help families acclimate to the new routines and environment once preschool starts?

Anna (Little Footprints): We only enroll one new child each week.  This is their first school experience ever, and we assign a teacher to that child the whole week. We often give children more time to adjust and invest in the relationship building between the teacher and the child.

Amanda (Big City): Once accepted to our school (before children actually enroll), parents can come in with the child to visit every day from  3:30 PM to 5:30 PM, so you and your child can feel very comfortable.  When you let your child go on that first day, you and your child are ready to do it.

Q: What you look for when you hire teachers and how great is your turnover?

Amanda (Big City): As a Montessori school, we hire certified Montessori teachers. In fact, several of our teachers have indirect connections to notable Montessori figures such as Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori method, and Ursula Thrush, who opened up a big Montessori training center in San Francisco.

Anu: The majority of our teachers have Bachelors of Arts degrees and about 50% have Masters Degrees. All teachers teaching Mandarin are fluent in the language. Everyone is fluent in Chinese. Our turnover rates are very small. About 1 out of 30 teachers have left, and most of those that did took maternity leave and have returned. Our staff is very stable.

Q: This past July, California passed a law that struck down the personal and religious exemption for receiving vaccinations. How is your school handling this change?

Amanda (Big City): We’re still discussing it and are in the process of figuring it out.  Fortunately for us, every person in my school has decided to vaccinate.

Anjali (Miraloma): To be exempt from vaccination, you must have a personal exemption belief filed by January 1, 2016, which exempts you for that particular term. That means when your child reaches the next checkpoint, you must vaccinate her or opt for educational alternatives. We are a licensed preschool, so we have to follow the laws of the state of California. If the parent files the exemption before January, we can accept it, but not after that.

Q: Do you inform other parents if other children have received exemptions?

Amanda (Big City): We haven’t had to address it yet. But in the past we’ve always told parents what they want to know – we’ll parents that there is a child who is exempt.

Yin (NurtureList): I wanted to mention that over 90% of schools report their vaccination rates to the California Department of Public Health, and we make those reported figures searchable on NurtureList. However, keep in mind that not all schools were accurate when filling out paperwork, and it’s best to contact the school to confirm their vaccination rates.

Amanda (Big City): It is a very complicated and difficult process for schools to gather information about vaccination rates. We’ve had to spend a lot of office time to do so, waiting on parents to get doctors’ appointments, calling the doctor’s office, etc.

Q: If a child gets into school, but then discovers that it isn’t a good fit, do you help the family find another option?

Amanda (Big City): Yes, we do.  It is the most awkward and difficult moment for a director, but it happens.  We recently had a child who completely lacked social skills and he would just run across the room and knock another child down, which was unacceptable and unsafe. I had to sit down with the mother to talk to her about it. It’s a hard conversation, but I did my best to support the parents and I helped them find a smaller program where the child could develop the social skills he needed.

Lisa (Golden Gate Guppies): The school wants to support you through transitions. We do our play dates when the child is 2 years old, and we know a lot can change between that and the beginning of preschool. A child grows fairly rapidly and can achieve huge milestones over 6 months, but sometimes even then she might not be ready for preschool. To determine whether your child is ready, the primary teacher for your child’s group will come for a home visit two weeks before school starts to check how she has matured socially and emotionally. Sometimes the teacher might say she’s not ready and that we should wait two to three months. We’ll give you the tools and techniques to help your child over the hump.

Q: What kind of outdoor space do your schools have and how do you take advantage of being outside in San Francisco?

Anna (Little Footprints): We have approximately 2,000 square feet of outdoor space, where the child can play an hour in the morning and half an hour hour in the afternoon. We are in a very safe neighborhood.  We often walk about 5 short blocks to a park, and they go on field trips once a month.

Aida (Valle de Ninos): We have about 500 square feet of outdoor space.  We also go on outings, starting with just a couple of blocks, but we have taken the J-Church to 30th street to a playground.  We do this once the children are comfortable with leaving the school.  We spend at least an hour outside each day, even if it’s raining (we just put on rain coats and boots and go!).

Beth (Russian Hill): We have an outdoor space about the size of this room.  We have a sandbox, balance beam, and different mats that kids that can jump and run on.  Kids can go out anytime because it’s an open classroom.  We go on fields trips to the Cal Academy and Julius playground. It’s not just going out; they’re connecting what they’re doing in the classroom – for example, they might do a scavenger hunt of animals that they’ve learned about.

Amanda (Big City): We have a fairly large playground at our school, and there is a soccer field next door that we can easily access. A big portion of our playground is covered with bouncy, rubber material for children to jump and run on.  We have an artificial grass area and an outdoor playroom deck that has a curtain to keep it dry when it rains.  Our children never leave the building, though we do go outside a lot — we have morning, mid-day, and afternoon recess, and when weather is good, they can stay out until 6 PM.  We have 7 on-site field trips a year, featuring attractions like the ZooMobile and a ventriloquist, which come to us.

Ron (Presidio Knolls): We are on a 1.4 acre campus — we have 3 preschool play areas, and there are 2 additional elementary school play areas.  Every school in the Independent Schools of the San Francisco Bay Area has outdoor space.


List of Resources


List of Current and Upcoming Preschool Openings

San Francisco Public Preschool Application Form

San Francisco Public Transitional Kindergarten Information

San Francisco Chronicle Coverage of Public School Process

San Francisco Preschool For All Sites (also tagged on NurtureList)

Independent Schools of the San Francisco Bay Area


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