? One: Identify your priorities
? Two: Do your research
? Three: Visit and interview
? Four: Check references
? Five: Kid-test it
? Six: Get on the waiting list
Good daycare centers and good preschools aren't all that different. They're licensed, accredited, and regulated by the same agencies, and both feature a structured environment and a regular curriculum.
But preschools usually offer shorter programs than centers, which means you may have to pay more for extended hours if you want a full-time program. Preschools do tend to offer more age-appropriate activities because they don't take children from as many age groups as daycare centers. And some preschools have a more academic focus, so if that's important to you, add it to your list.
Start your quest for a preschool early — applying at birth (we kid you not) isn't too early for the best schools in the biggest cities — and apply to more than one in case you don't get your first choice. Once you find two or three promising ones, take a few steps to make sure they're schools you want to stick with. We've outlined the process for you below.
One: Identify your priorities
First, decide what you want. Are you looking for a preschool near work? Or would one closer to home be more convenient? Do you want the curriculum to include activities such as dancing and storytelling? Are you looking for a specific approach to learning, such as one you'd find at a Waldorf or Montessori program? Write everything down so you can refer to the list as you size up potential programs.
Two: Do your research
? Ask around to find the most reputable preschools. Friends and family can help clue you in on what they've liked, and we all know that personal references are the best kind.
? Ask some experts. The Childcare Aware hotline (800/424-2246) can give you the number of your local childcare resource and referral agency, which, in turn, can refer you to licensed preschools in your area. Better yet, ask for a list of accredited schools near you. While accreditation isn't a guarantee that a preschool is right for your child, in general, if you find one with the National Association for the Education of Young Children's (NAEYC) stamp of approval, it's a reliable sign of quality.
? Go online. Both NAEYC and the National Association of Family Child Care have Web sites; visit them for guidelines and contact information. NAEYC also has its searchable database of accredited centers and preschools online.
? Turn to the phone book — but only as a last resort. Your Yellow Pages should have a list of preschools in your area, but this is a fairly inefficient way of proceeding since the listings are unscreened.
Three: Visit and interview
You can ask a few preliminary questions over the phone (to find out fees, for example), but you won't get a sense of what a preschool is really like until you go there and meet the staff and director. Ask the director about everything from hours, fees, and vacation schedules to philosophies on childrearing issues such as discipline and nutrition. Get a schedule of the day's activities and the preschool's policies. Pay attention to your gut feelings about the place and how the director handles the questions. for a helpful printable interview sheet you can take along on your visits.
Note the teacher-child ratios (1:7 is ideal for three- and four-year-olds, 1:15 is acceptable for five-year-olds), and how many children are in a classroom. "It's easier to give one-on-one attention and be responsive when there are fewer kids in a room," says Stephanie Glowacki, director of accreditation programs at NAEYC. Keep a close eye on how the teachers interact with the kids as well; make sure they're friendly, caring, and encouraging.
You'll want a regular, challenging curriculum, a warm, clean, safe environment, and experienced teachers
who are paid well and happy with their jobs. Children crave consistency and need to form strong relationships with their caregivers, so you don't want teachers who come and go.
Ultimately, though, choosing a preschool is a very personal decision. If, after you've left, you love the idea of leaving your child there, it's probably the right place for you. "The preschool we chose was strong in arts and music and the location was convenient," says Winn Ellis, a counselor in San Francisco and mother of two girls. "But what really sold us was the cheerful atmosphere. The kids seem genuinely happy to be there."
Four: Check references
Positive word-of-mouth is a powerful endorsement. If a certain preschool has a buzz, quiz other parents to see why they're raving about it. Ask each school you're considering for a list of past and present references, and call them. When you call, ask specific questions; don't just ask whether they like the preschool; ask what exactly they like about it and what they don't. If their child is no longer there, ask why. You may also want to call your state's Better Business Bureau to see whether any complaints have been filed against the school or its teachers.
Five: Kid-test it
Come back and visit for a while with your child. You'll want to see how he and the teachers interact and whether he seems comfortable in the preschool's environment. "I knew we'd made the right decision based on my daughter's reaction," says Svetlana Robledo, a San Francisco journalist. "Nina was brimming with joy after one day there and couldn't stop talking about all the things she was learning and doing."
Six: Get on the waiting list
If the preschool of your dreams isn't available, don't despair. Put yourself on the waiting list, and, while you're at it, write a letter spelling out why you like the school so much. It won't guarantee you a place it, but it can't hurt to let the school know how enthusiastic you are about it. In the meantime, your precaution of applying to more than one school has hopefully paid off and you have other options to consider as well.