Insight

Dear Preschools: This Doesn't Have to Be So Hard.

Late last year, I documented the beginning of our search for the right preschool for our daughter. Since then, my husband and I have familiarized ourselves with every early learning option within striking distance of our home, been waitlisted at both programs operated by our city, and visited another eight schools and counting—a Spanish immersion program, four “parent cooperatives,” a university-affiliated school, a home-based Montessori, a regular old preschool, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Between the emails and phone calls, the applications, the waitlist notifications, and more, it’s become very clear that the preschool selection process is anything but clear. Certainly, school leaders have a lot on their plates, and it’s impossible to cater to every family’s needs. But here are some ideas for how to make it easier for families to find the right preschool for their child:

Show us the bill. Cost is a major factor for most parents, and when public programs aren’t available, tuition information is the first thing many of us are looking for. Some schools in our search listed fees right on their websites (thank you!), but many others did not. We got burned by this early on. The Spanish immersion program was within walking distance of our home (jackpot!) and got rave reviews in the neighborhood, but in order to find out how much it cost, we had to attend an in-person information session, which was only available on a weeknight evening. We secured dinner-hour childcare and tacked the visit onto our work days, only to find out at the end of the session that the school was out of our price range. Lesson learned: If they won’t tell you how much it costs, it probably costs too much—but it would’ve been easier to swallow if we’d had the information up front.

Be transparent about the admissions process, too. Tuition isn’t the only information parents need as they’re figuring out their school options. Being clear about the timeline for admissions also makes it easier for parents to plan ahead. One school we applied to offered a crystal clear “Admissions Timeline” on their website, but others were more opaque. And if there are other important dates in the process, parents should know those from the get-go, too. We had a “children’s visiting day” sprung on us at the last minute: a notification that our daughter was “invited” to spend an hour at the school, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, the following week. The implication—although it wasn’t entirely clear—was that this visit was part of the admissions process. In our case, we were able to enlist grandparents to bring our daughter to the event (much as we would’ve liked to attend ourselves), but many families won’t have that option.

Waitlists need clarity, too: One of the city-run programs that waitlisted our daughter didn’t share their waitlist numbers with parents at all, leaving us in the dark. Without knowing if we’re number two or number 200, we have to write that program off our list. Waitlists may not always move in the exact order of the numbers if there are other factors influencing admissions, but there’s no reason not to be clear with parents about how the process works.

Make school visits easy and flexible. We’ve attended open houses and school visits during the day, in the evenings, and on weekends—but no school has offered all three options. Of course, I’m sure it’s challenging to schedule visits at times that are convenient both for working parents and for educators. But offering a range of options (instead of, say, only on Thursdays at 10 A.M.) would make it feasible for more parents to visit.

Use your website to give parents a real sense of your school. Inevitably, not all parents will be able to visit. By including some up-to-date photos of your space and clearly describing what students’ days are like in your school—how is the day structured? What does the classroom look like? How much time do they spend outside?—parents who can’t come in person will still be able to get a good sense of the school. To help with this, schools might enlist their current parents. Is there a photographer or a web designer in the group? It doesn’t take much to make a school website more vivid and offer greater clarity to prospective families.

Respond promptly to parents’ questions. Some of the schools in our search have been very responsive over email or phone, which is great (especially if their websites are short on information). But others have been incredibly hard to reach, relying on ill-tempered web forms that seem to go into internet black holes, or requiring parents to schedule a visit before getting any questions answered. I don’t expect to get an instant response, but to the extent possible, someone should get back to prospective parents within 24 hours on weekdays. Current parents might be helpful here, too: Schools could consider compiling a list of parents who are willing to answer questions on different topics, or even monitor the school’s general info inbox at different times of the week.

Prioritize diversity in hiring. Almost every school we’ve visited has touted their “diverse school community,” but upon visiting, we’ve seen white (mostly female) educators and mostly white families—neither of which is representative of the city we live in. For us, this raises a red flag because of what it tells us about a school’s priorities and how well the school is reaching local families. If schools truly want to serve their communities, they need to prioritize hiring educators who also reflect those communities. While this doesn’t make the process of finding a preschool any easier for families per se (and it doesn’t address challenges like cost and location), it does make schools more inclusive communities that serve more families well. And that, in turn, makes it easier for all parents to find the right fit for their child.