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May 01, 2019

Picking (and getting into) the right preschool

Here's how to navigate the daunting selection and application process for pre-K

Parenting Pre-K
Preschool Students 05012019 Source/Image licensed by Ingram Image


In many parts of the country, including the Greater Philadelphia area, the race to get your little one into the “right” preschool can feel like applying to college.

Parents whose kids are already in or past preschool are probably thinking, “Duh!” But for new or expecting parents, this may come as a surprise. Wait lists for private preschools in the Philadelphia region can be two-and-a-half years long. No one tells you that after your newborn’s first visit with the pediatrician, you should proceed directly to your pre-school’s enrollment office.

Since Killian is starting preschool this autumn, I recently learned firsthand about the preschool feeding frenzy. There is one preschool in my town where parents line up before dawn on enrollment day. And you can pretty much forget about getting into the coveted morning programs unless you are already connected to the school. I have a friend on the Main Line who applied more than a year in advance for her toddler, only to be promptly put on the waiting list. There are parents who camp out to get their kids into kindergarten; I guess I should not be surprised that preschool has become just as competitive.

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If your child is starting preschool in the fall of 2020, start looking around now. Open houses for many preschools occur in the fall so you should spend the next few months determining which schools you are interested in checking out, so you are prepared for the autumn visitations. Enrollment – with its lengthy applications – usually happens in January or February. If your child is going to preschool this September, I hope you have already enrolled them. In many parts of the city and suburbs, it may be too late to get into the better programs.

Many families go the private preschool route because pre-K programs are not offered by their local public school district. But preschool roulette is not just confined to private schools. The School District of Philadelphia offers school for children 3 to 5 years old at more than 200 school-based and community-partner locations around the city. Before getting into the several-page application, there is a disclaimer which states, “Completing and submitting a Preschool Application does not guarantee that your child will be accepted to a preschool program.” The website encourages parents to submit applications by the end of February for the best chance of acceptance.

Just because your friend’s kids go to one preschool does not mean it will be the right fit for yours.

This all may seem absurd. This is nursery school we are talking about, not Harvard Law! But early childhood education is really important. The pre-reading, vocabulary, math, behavior-management and social skills that children develop in preschool prepare them for kindergarten and beyond while also bolstering their self-esteem which can help them learn more. While activities like music classes and story times are great, they do not teach toddlers important classroom behaviors like how to raise their hands and share a teacher’s attention the way preschool does. All of these things set your little one up for future success.

The preschool rat race can be downright infuriating. But before you get in the game, you need to know where to apply. Here’s some guidance to help inform your decision on which school is the right one for your toddler.


I have asked a ton of parents about their preschool preferences. Whether they are my close friends, or a random Mama I’m chatting with, since last year I have been picking the brains of those whose kids are currently in preschool. I found informal polling and random anecdotes from other parents was really helpful for me in starting my search. Talking to other parents in your area may help inform your decision, too. But don’t go on opinion alone. Just because your friend’s kids go to one preschool does not mean it will be the right fit for yours.


Ideally, your children’s preschool will be convenient to where you live and/or work. Start your search by looking at what preschools are in your neighborhood or town. There is an awesome preschool that a few parents I know rave about, but it is a couple of towns over from me and taking Killian there would require more than an hour round-trip for every dropoff and pickup. Since there are great preschools closer to us, enduring a long drive time is not necessary. Hopefully you also live in an area where there are several good options close to home.


Check to see if your preschools of interest are state-licensed, which ensures that they meet safety requirements and have enough faculty to accommodate the school population. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) evaluates preschools using 10 standards, which serve as a helpful guideline in determining the right school for your child. You can search online to see what preschools in your area have an NAEYC accreditation. In addition to understanding the accreditations of the schools, ask for information about the faculty. Teachers should have a minimum of an associate’s degree with formal training in early childhood education.


Every preschool has its own culture and values. Think about what is most important to you and your family and seek a school that adheres to those ideas. Also consider exposing your children to something different than they receive at home or worship, which could offer them a broader view of the world. For example, many children who attend Quaker schools are not from practicing Quaker families, but their parents choose to send them to these programs because of their perspective and principles.


Most preschools offer open houses. If not, call and schedule a tour. Or just show up unannounced! I have a friend who prefers to drop in so she can see how the front office responds and what the school is like on an unplanned visit. It is so important to go in-person before enrollment to really get a sense of what the environment, teachers and culture are like. Plus, at some of the most competitive preschools, it’s the best way to begin a personal relationship that could yield acceptance for your toddler. Bring your little one along on visitations, if possible. I took Killian to one of our preschool tours and while I was observing and asking questions, it was great to see him jump in and interact with the students and faculty.


The preschool that Killian will attend in the fall offers a Mommy & Me program every semester, which is an awesome way to introduce a young toddler to a classroom setting while allowing parents to experience the school’s offerings. One day a week, Killian and I attend an hour-long “class.” There is playtime and reading, music and dancing, arts and crafts. Toward the end of the class the teacher asks the parents to wait outside in the hallway while the kids have snack time, giving the little ones a chance to feel what class will be like without a parent at their side. Because of this great program, months before his first official day of preschool Killian has already become familiar with his new school, his teacher for next year and is making friends with the kids in his class. Plus, it has reaffirmed the decision that this is the right preschool for my son. If this is an option at your child’s preschool, I highly recommend it!


Private preschools can be expensive. If the preschools you are researching do not include pricing on the websites, call and ask. You need to know the cost before you visit or enroll. Also, talk to your employer about a Dependent Care Flexible Savings Account, which allows you to put tax-free money aside directly from your paycheck to pay for preschool and other out-of-pocket child expenses.

Early childhood education will benefit your little one tremendously so take the preschool selection and application process seriously but try not to let it stress you out too much. Good luck!

Was applying to and getting your little one into preschool a good experience or a nightmare? Share with me and other parents in the comments section, below, or tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and  @KathleenEGagnon.

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