Across the city mamas and papas are wringing their hands with worry over a great San Francisco parental rite of passage: finding a preschool. Information nights are in full swing, open houses are scheduled and preview days are fast approaching (and probably already full).
I've been there and I have just one piece of advice: you got this.
In the last two weeks I've talked to four mamas with kids ranging from four months to two years old who are feeling the preschool pressure. Mamas of younger babies felt bad that they haven't done anything yet, and the ones with toddlers seemed almost resigned to the fact that they were too late to find any good schools.
I can empathize. The first time someone asked me about my preschool plans Mia was a month old. I was in Golden Gate Park practicing my nursing-in-public-with-a-cover routine when a fellow mama of older kids joined me. Within a few minutes she asked me what preschool waiting lists Mia was on and when I replied none, her chin almost hit the ground. "You better hurry up," she said. "You don't want her to end up in some bad school. Aren't you worried?"
She was right about one thing—like all parents, I definitely didn't want my child to end up in a bad school. But at one month old I didn't think it was necessary to "worry" about preschools just yet. I'd heard rumors that it was hard to find or get into them in San Francisco but this was the first time someone said it to me directly. So just to be sure I wasn't putting my newborn at a disadvantage, I started researching.
It turns out the preschool crunch is a real thing at certain schools around town. Folks will sometimes put their names on waiting lists as soon as they get pregnant. This isn't just true for pricey or "exclusive" schools—the programs run by the city can also have years-long waiting lists. So the concern isn't completely without merit, but it is somewhat exaggerated. My preliminary research also taught me there are great schools all over the city have have room for new students every year. A few places I contacted at that early stage told me to come back when she was around two, and one exasperated administrator told me she wished she knew who was telling pregnant and even hoping-to-get-pregnant mamas to get on waiting lists so she could tell them to stop.
When we did start looking for schools at age two I felt a bit of the stress creep back in, perhaps because it was real this time. We visited lots of great preschools (more on that in a minute) and felt like we had some real choices available to us. The school we ultimately selected has been a great fit for our entire family so far, and I have a few tips to guide your preschool hunt.
Follow Your Instincts
By now you've already made it through your birth experience, brought your baby home and started making the millions of choices that come along with being a parent, from how to feed them to what pediatrician to use. Those decisions are honing your parental instincts, which will come in handy when you're looking for a school. Trust them.
By now you know that not everyone's advice fits your parenting style, and this is especially true when it comes to finding the right school. You've got to figure out what makes sense for your family and above all, be realistic. The program you select needs to be a good fit for your entire family. If its too expensive, or too far away or something else, those factors will cause more stress down the line. Don't make a decision based on what your best friend/birth group/neighbors are doing. Unless it works for you.
This doesn't mean that it will be a breeze. Finding and choosing a preschool is a time consuming process. After all the tours there are often multiple visits required (and you should see visit your selected school multiple times with and without your kids to get the vibe). Most tours don't allow children, which means babysitters or other extended child care must be arranged. Take a deep breath and get your calendar in order so everything is ready to go. Jole and I turned a few of our tour visits into date nights—since we had to get a sitter anyway we went out for a nice dinner after the open house.
I can't stress this point enough: the preschool you select needs to be a fit for you and your child. We had specific goal to find a program that had a good amount of racial and ethnic diversity among the children and parents of any program we considered. We ended up touring eight schools because we weren't finding it and we weren't willing to settle until we did. At open houses I was the mom that raised my hand and asked about it because it was important. If you have similar core values that your program needs to meet, make sure you ask about them.
You may have never considered a co-op but it might be perfect for you! Or perhaps you've always dreamed of Montessori education but find it doesn't resonate with your child. Use these tours as a way to educate yourself on different educational philosophies. Figuring out what you do and don't like will help you focus your search. I visited a lot of schools based on friend referrals and recommendations, and I've referred folks to a few that we didn't select for various reasons but I still liked.
Yes, some of the open houses fill up early. If Eventbrite shows no more spaces at a school you really want to visit, give them a call and see if you can join a waiting list or arrange a one-on-one walk through. And remember, a full open house doesn't mean the school will have no room when it's time to enroll. One popular school we opted not to pursue recently took to a neighborhood list serve to let parents know they have plenty of space. So you never know.
You'll get through this! You have lots of things to worry about. Don't let preschool be one of them.
SF K Files: This is mostly for schools from kindergarten up, but there is some info about preschools that might be useful.
My Preschool Pinterest Board
I've been compiling info on schools and resources on Pinterest. Check out the board (at right) to see the details.
What's your experience been with finding a preschool in San Francisco? Are you loving it or over it? Share your tips for surviving the process in the comments!