How to find the right preschool – Part 1 – Screening

This post is about my observations, thoughts and decision process while I was searching for a preschool for my son four months ago.

Preschool screening criteria

I’ll start with what I wanted and expected in a preschool for my son. Because I am a stay-at-home mom at this time, I am not looking for a daycare/preschool to send my son while I work. What matters to me is that he learns English, gets rid of his excess energy, socializes and satisfies his playing needs. Because he is always curious to learn things from us at home anyway, I don’t have any obsessions like wanting him to learn the colors, numbers, the alphabet or become Einstein. I was also thinking that they might get his potty training on track, or that he would at least see the other kids and get motivated. Thankfully, we took care of it at home by ourselves, a week before he was to start preschool. Lastly, because my son still sleeps for 2-3 hours every day around midday, I was planning to send him to school part-time.

Here, most preschools don’t have bussing services. Parents have to drop them off. Since I would have to take my baby daughter with me as well, I focused on schools that were closest to our home. I found 7 preschools in total.

The public school closest to us is a block away. They also have a preschool class. But it’s only 2 hours a day. I would need to get my son and daughter dressed, get them out of the house, go to school, and, after dropping him off, come back home and before we could sit down for an exhale, we need to get dressed all over again and go back out to pick him up. What’s worse is that the hours coincided with my daughter’s morning nap. So we didn’t even look there. Well, actually, I did stop by to check it out see it last year. I didn’t really look at it in-depth but I didn’t really connect with the teacher. Their classes were really big. In each class, there were 2 teachers for every 10 students.

The first preschool I went to was five minutes from us by car. A little neighborhood preschool made up of only one class. In the 2-6 year age group, 2 teachers look after max. of 20 children. It was clean. There were small (mini) toilets, and low sinks in the bathroom. Like all the other play-based / traditional preschools I had seen, it had daily and weekly schedules and curriculum. They study one theme every week, in order to teach the information and abilities they want the children to acquire within the year. This teacher also informed me that each week had a theme. Vegetables, traffic, seasons, etc. And, that the daily schedule was also set. The classroom has been separated into sections such as circle time, domestic appliances (washing machine, dishwasher, etc.), art and handcrafts, free play, library/reading area. The toys are the colorful trucks, dolls, legos, puzzles, which we all know so well. She told me that they teach the children to clean up after themselves, get dressed and undressed on their own, eat by themselves, take another toy only after replacing the first one, etc. They start the day with circle time, then, after some free play, if the weather permits, they continue in the garden, then there is drawing/handcrafts, then lunch and sleep, and then again, they continue with a similar schedule. They provide hot lunch daily by a professional caterer. The environment was quite calm. Circle time is in both English and Spanish. Despite it being called ages 2-6, the average age was 3. There wasn’t anyone older than 4 and, for the most part, it didn’t seem like there were ever more than 15 students in the class. Since it was also quite close, I left with positive impressions.

The second preschool was once again traditional play-based but it was a rather large school and each age (2-3-4) had a separate classroom. When I visited the school, there was a crazy chaos. It made my head spin. The children seemed to be having fun and getting rid of all that energy but some of the teachers seemed to have let go of control and just given up. Class by class, the children were playing in the garden with water. The teachers they were going to go out with had lined them up and were putting sunscreen on them. That earned them some points. But the sinks were outside of the bathroom and the kids needed to pass through a heap of toys to get there. I immediately wrote this school off and left without looking back.

The third preschool was the preschool class of a rather expensive Montessori school. A school that started at age 2, and went on until middle school. On the internet, parents had written that, besides the tuition, it was a good school. A year of full-time preschool was 15,000 USD, then for elementary school, it would cost an arm and a leg or whatever appendage the parent was willing to part with. With two kids, this much tuition all the way from preschool to university would have been quite rough, but I decided to see it anyway, just so I knew how they were supposedly ‘going above and beyond’ and wouldn’t be left wondering. When I went to the school, I saw a Montessori classroom, just as I had read and knew about. All the materials had been lined up, the classroom had been separated into zones. I looked at my son to see what he was doing, and he was sort of going around fiddling with this and that. He never focused on one thing. There was only one drawing board. The classrooms were mixed in terms of age, not age-specific like some others. I really liked the teachers, the principal and their attentiveness. There was a big yard but break times had to be different for it to serve a whole school.

The fourth one I visited was another Montessori. Both of the Montessori’s were relatively farther away from us. The second one consisted of a preschool and an elementary school. This school was half the price of the first Montessori, in other words, it costed about the same as the other non-Montessori preschools. Despite this, the materials in the classroom were much more comprehensive. The owner is Korean, so the teachers and most students were of either Korean or Asian origin. Since we are also immigrants, I had no issues about that. The two preschool classrooms were in a small building, separate from the school. The elementary school was in a church next door. I asked them what association they had with the church. The teacher said that they just used the adjacent building.

Regarding the classes, she told me that they cover categories such as practical life, senses, language, science, math and geography. “If the child shows interest, as a teacher, I introduce the material, and the children continue from there. I am more of an intermediary,” she said. I asked about music, drawing and handcrafts. She said there was a drawing area, and if it’s unoccupied, anyone who wants to can go there and draw. So there isn’t an instruction of the, ‘okay, let’s draw now, let’s cut papers, let’s paste,’ variety. As for music and foreign language, apparently they give piano, viola and Spanish lessons for an extra fee. They also have a sing-song area they call ‘circle time’ anyway. But the classroom was incredibly spacious. Almost seemed like it was empty. The floors were all hardwood. My son really likes lying on the ground as he plays during the day. In both classrooms, there seemed to be very few chairs. There especially aren’t any chairs where the materials are, they have to either chill standing or on the work rugs.  What I liked was that everyone took off their shoes off when they entered the school and wore their indoor slippers/shoes there, so they earned an extra point there.

One of the other schools I saw after that wasn’t half-bad. That was the one where the principle was Indian/Pakistani and so most of the students and teachers were also of Indian origin. The principle spoke very nicely but the teacher seemed to have lost her will to live a little. Some of the schools prepared their mid-morning snacks and lunches in a kitchen within the school. Others catered from outside. The menus for all of them were preset and given out to the parents on a monthly or weekly basis. Most of them weren’t bad, other than breakfast. To me, it seemed like all their breakfasts were a little on the light side. They also give orange juice or other fruit juices with meals, and I don’t really let them have too much juice, and, even if I do, I usually water it down. Especially orange juice is full of sugar. So, since the first preschool gave only milk and water with meals, it got another extra point.

The last preschool I saw was 10-15 minutes away by car, a little larger and was a private preschool and kindergarten. Overall, it was pretty good. I thought, if something goes wrong in the one closest to us, this’ll do. The classrooms were spacious, and again, there were separate classrooms for each age. Just like in all the others there was a backyard and swings, slides and all that in their garden. And more or less all of them implemented the same daily schedule along the lines of circle time, theme and learning based education, outside playtime, food, sleep, repeat.

With what I thought I wanted before looking and preschools and seeing various options, I can sum up my list of my preschool screening criteria:

  1. Caring teachers: High
  2. Kid-friendly setting: High
  3. Cleanliness/Hygiene: High
  4. General approach to preschool {play vs learn}: High
  5. Outdoor play: High
  6. My son’s reaction to teachers and setting: High
  7. Mom’s gut feeling: High
  8. Lunch: Medium
  9. Proximity: Medium
  10. Cost: Medium

After this stage I decided on the last two finalists and made appointments to do a trial / observation class with my son.

Continuation of this series:
How to find the right preschool – Part 2 – Trial and Decision


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