Preschool Admissions: The Real March Madness

March 19, 2010

Many of my Bay Areas friends are just getting the news: the long-awaited notification of preschool acceptance -- or not. There appear to be two basic methods for surviving the big weekend of notices, all conveniently targeted to arrive at the same time. The first group flees town, hoping to arrive home on Sunday night with good news in the mailbox. The second group anxiously anticipates the mail delivery each day, preparing for bad news but hoping for good. You can see them at local eateries and cafes, anxiously not reading the daily paper, sipping now-cold lattes, startling easily.

At first, before kids, I thought this mass stress was overrated. After all, why did it really rock their boat? Aren't all preschools alike? And assuming they are relatively similar, doesn't a parent just look for a close, cozy place in their neighborhood and plan for the future there? These days, there are tools to sort this mess out. But just a few short years ago, I was woefully misinformed. For some, it can feel like nothing short of their first step to college. Getting denied at the school of choice doesn't bode well for future attempts at higher learning, the theory holds. Or, it can feel like a complete rejection of you and your child -- by utter strangers. For me, my experience was all of this, and yet none. Let me explain.

Expecting my third child's arrival in a mere six months, I gamely set out to apply to schools. Lesson number one: many of my peers had applied oh, say, about three years earlier. Ahem. But I persevered -- after all, with an eighteen-month-old, and a new baby coming, I knew the option of waiting a year for my three-year-old was not attractive for any of us. I'd heard about a few "top" schools: strong, popular reputations, predictably stable, graduating their little charges on their next big step to exclusive independent schools around San Francisco. I'd also heard about those schools to avoid: "dirty," higher-than-average teacher/child ratios, lots of teacher turnover, frequent parent complaints.

As I began to visit these various schools, though, I realized that the well-circulated descriptions didn't always match the reality. In fact, some highly touted schools dropped off my list, as I paid attention to what I thought my child needed vs. what they really offered on a daily basis. Others dropped of due to the schedule, and still others due to tuition rates. I chose to apply to a variety of programs, similar to how one approaches a college or job search: first choice, back up, etc. Then I waited, with nothing more substantive to do.

When the notification weekend drew nearer, I began to brood over our chances. I wasn't on top of any waiting list, I didn't know many parents with kids attending my chosen schools, and I was, frankly, too tired to really push the issue. I did, however, begin to keep in touch with a school or two that I thought would offer the best fit. I called every week or so, wrote a note expressing our interest, and basically "hovered" virtually, all in a fairly non-intrusive way. The weekend of notices finally arrived, and we chose to join the "wait anxiously" crowd around town.

Sure enough, we got a letter of acceptance, in fact, to one of our (and many others') top choices. What, we wondered, landed us this gift? Our wonderful application? Our child's incredible personality? No, in fact, none of these things. We found out later that it was simple luck: I had happened to see the director on the street one day, a few days before the letters were sent out. They had just had a family withdraw an application (moving away), and they needed a boy. Period. My child's uniqueness really didn't have anything to do with it. It was simply being in the right place, at the right time. But at least I was set -- or so I thought.

As we entered the school year and rounded the corner towards the holidays, it was increasingly apparent that the tension between the teachers and Executive Director was unsustainable. "But wait," my fatigued brain thought. "This is supposed to be THE answer -- all the way through pre-k! I have two more children in line..." The year continued, and by spring, the school population was in distress. We were, in essence, forced to choose between staying or leaving, with no option in sight for the following year. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next. I thought I'd had the grand solution, and it had dissolved, before my eyes. I knew we couldn't stay, driven by our own confidence in the teaching staff, so we cut loose -- adrift for the second time in the sea of preschools.

To our good fortune, my son's teachers found a sponsor to start up a new, small program in someone's house -- a lovely, intimate setting with master teachers and ample attention. We were asked to join just a month before the academic year began, and off we went, into year two. And then, in time, things changed.

During the next two years, it became apparent that the teacher's philosophy was evolving, growing closer to a Catholic-based program. Well, we're not in fact Catholic, and weren't convinced this was the direction we wanted to take our children in preschool. By the time my third child was finished with his second year, we were again hunting for a new program, one that felt more secular and accommodating to a diverse student body. And again, we were lucky enough to find a great place for that final year (another child, to our benefit, had moved on to another school, opening up a "pre-kinder" spot.)

Through out all the transition, tension, joy, and frustration, we came to develop some reasonably decent insight into preschool, our children, and the journey of education. The bottom line, to us, was that there is no perfect solution, at least for very long. Our children's changes, the programs' changes, the staff and teachers' changes -- all comprise a volatile and unpredictable system, wherein we're steering our little clan the best we can, given the choices and information we have at the time. And that is really, as parents, the very best thing we can do. Flexibility, adaptability, knowing one's children, and what your own preferences are can guide you to the right choice for your child, even if it's at first completely outside the realm of what seems possible.

Stay with it. You'll get there, and your child will still be a remarkable person, whichever preschool is lucky enough to get them.

From the Parents

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