Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Quest for the Perfect Preschool

I wrote this post for Durham Magazine's blog after I had gone through the process of searching for the right preschool for my sons.  With the school application season just beginning I thought I would post it here.  Enjoy!

"January and February. How could it be possible that all of this needed to be done in January and February?!" 
That's exactly how I felt when I moved back to Durham from the cold Pacific Northwest with my husband and young son. I wanted to send him to preschool the next year - just a few days a week - as a 2-year-old, to begin socializing with other kids, learning school routines and spending some time without mom. I didn't think it would be a hard process - just find a preschool nearby and sign him up, right? Nope, not nearly so simple. At the point when I started thinking about all of this, my son was not even 18-months-old, and I discovered that I had to find a school within the next couple of months, figure out the application process and hopefully get in somewhere, all before the beginning of February!  
I had no idea that it was such a process, and I had no idea where to start. I had no idea where the preschools were in Durham, and when I started to talk to people about it I found out that they all had wildly different admissions procedures. Where was I to start?  
Fortunately, I had two great resources that helped me make a little bit of sense out of the whole process - theDurham Mothers Club and Carolina Parent magazine. I joined the Durham Mothers Club and discovered they not only had a preschool directory, but a preschool information session. Carolina Parent also had a great list of preschools in the area. So, I took their lists and tried to find the ones that were right for us.
There seemed to be a couple of different categories- Montessori (hands-on, child-based learning), academic (those that fed into the big private schools in the area), cooperative (with parent volunteers and involvement), and traditional/church-based (play-based).  
Once I had picked out the couple that we liked/could afford/were close to where we lived, I called the preschools to schedule tours. The vast majority were scheduling tours and hosting open houses during the month of January. So, we did a little shopping. We made sure to ask all the questions we wanted answered, and found out about their admissions policies. Again, I was amazed at the lengths we had to go to during the application process. Many of the schools had waiting lists, lotteries, etc. For most of the schools, we submitted an application and a small application fee to get the process started. Then they would call us to let us know if we had a spot.
To make a long story short, we found a great spot for my little boy. The process might have been a little more stressful and confusing than I was  expecting, and there was definitely more than one school that I didn't get into, but I had to keep in mind that it would all be okay - all of those schools had caring teachers, new toys to play with and lots to learn. He probably would have been fine at all of them.  
Fast forward several years - his little brother came along, and he'd spent several great years at the preschool we found, and his younger brother joined him. Then, the dreaded month of January rolled around, and it was time for my little boy to start kindergarten. Again, I had erroneously thought that I would just send him to the school we were zoned for and be done with it. Oh no. This time we not only had to consider where to send him (public, charter, magnet or private) but when. He has a summer birthday, so we had to make the decision whether or not to send him to kindergarten or wait a year. Oh, decisions, decisions.  
We went through the same process. We found lists from Carolina Parent, the Durham Mothers Club andDurham Public Schools. We had many friends go to information fairs to find out more. Then, we made our lists and again, scheduled our tours. This time, the deadlines were a bit later, with applications due in February, and we found out the results in February or March. This decision brought me into my son's current classroom and unexpectedly bursting into tears in stress and worry over the whole thing. But in the end, the results were the same - we turned in our application, found a place that fit my son's and our families' needs, made the decision and didn't look back.  
As our final year of preschool winds to a close and elementary school awaits, I've learned several things. Most importantly, you have to do what is best for your child and your family at that moment. Don't base your decision on where everyone else is going or what everyone else is doing, on what people say is the most prestigious school in the area, not even on what their siblings might do. Make your decision based on what is best for that specific child at that specific time and don't look back. If you feel confident about your decision, so will your child, and everything else will fall in line.
If your somewhere in the middle of this confusing, mixed-up process here are a few bits of information that I hope will help and get you started:
Our Steps in the Whole Preschool Process (Keep in mind that most preschools have deadlines at the beginning of February, and kindergartens not too much later than that. Expect to have applications in and tours done by the end of January.):
1. Get a list of preschools and/or kindergartens together.
2. Narrow down your list based on what factors you feel are important.
3. Contact the schools to schedule individual/group tours or attend an open house. 
4. Find out about their application procedure and apply to your top 3-5 schools.
5. Await your results and make your decision.
6. Be confident in your decision, don't look back and be glad to be done with it!

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